During the past few years on this blog, dozens of Beijing residents have agreed to list their five favorite places to grab a drink in the city. For a change of pace, this edition is switching from cocktails to coffee as Sarah Peel, known to many for her work with Kindermusik, tells us her top five spots to get a cup of Joe in Beijing. As the cream on top, she provides some links for those who want to get locally grown or ground coffee.
“I love everything about coffee. The smell, the taste, the feel of a hot mug in my hands, the ritual of making it, the endless varieties of pots and cups, and most importantly the kick in the pants it gives me to get through the day. At home I have no less than five different pots I use, and I keep three to four kinds of coffee in the house at all times.
“I’m not a snob about coffee. I’ll drink almost anything that purports to be coffee as long as it is not sweet. That said, the instant packet stuff is swill, and should be done away with for the good of humanity. If you’ve got a source of boiling water, you can have fresh French-pressed coffee in two minutes. But I digress…
“The one delicious form of coffee brewing I have never attempted is espresso. As far as I can tell, it’s a bit of an art to do it well. It also requires expensive equipment I’d rather rent the use of by the cup than buy outright. Since I’ve been lucky enough in my life to avoid the Barrista Rotation so far, here are some of my favourite places to grab a cup of joe around Beijing.
“Café Zarah (Gulou Dong Da Jie)
“This is the gold standard for espresso in Beijing, and my favourite cafe. The café is à la française, offering the smoothest cup, perfect milk foams and, even better, the option right there on the menu to add ice cream or Bailey’s to your coffee. Great location near the Jiaodaokou, the café is comfortable, relaxed, and populated by one of the most interesting mixes of people in Beijing. Indoor and outdoor seating are both quite limited. Be prepared to wait for a table any time of day.
“Sculpting In Time (locations include Lido and Xueyuan Lu, opposite Beijing Normal University)
“The food at S.I.T. is rather hit or miss, and varies greatly by location, but their Illy coffee is strong and reasonably priced. Every branch is a little different, but they all feature movie posters, wooden tables, cheerful if wildly inconsistent service, and iffy wifi connections. The location opposite Beijing Normal University is beautiful, light and airy, built into the second floor of the University of Aeronautics & Astronautics Gymnasium.
“Storygarden Café (Xizhimen)
“From the outside, this seems like an odd collection of café meets library meets trinket sale. Somehow it all comes together to be a quirky little place that serves some great lattes. Known for its Saturday coffee schools, Peka Kucha-like salon offerings, and Beta Camps, this is the not-so-secret hangout of a lot of Beijing’s young social media / web 2.0 crowds. Think social justice meets the Internet for a cup of coffee. Fun staff and great cast of local characters. Bring your laptop if you want to fit in. Indoor and outdoor seating.
“Element Fresh (Lido and Saniltun locations)
“I think the coffee at Element Fresh often gets overlooked in favour of its (quite rightly) popular fresh juice, smoothies, and even cocktails. Worth checking out the caffeinated part of the menu, especially as their organic house blend is a really decent cup of plain old North American style brewed coffee. Plus, the mug is bottomless if you get it with one of their breakfast specials, which are excellent value for money.
“As for the espresso options, they’re tasty and huge! Regular espresso-based drinks like lattes or cappuccinos have two shots, large ones have three, giving you more kick for your money. I find the milk a little sweet here (UTH perhaps?) and usually stick to the brewed coffee. Nice design even if the restaurants do get loud when they are full, and the patios at both locations are gems. Indoor and outdoor seating.
“Costa Coffee (various mall locations)
“If coffee has to be takeout, this is the place. Their tag line is “Italian About Coffee” which I translate to mean “We serve really really good coffee and just happen to put it in a paper cup 80 percent of the time.” Sure, when it comes right down to it, Costa offers the same features of the infamous green chain from Seattle, but it’s the little things that make a huge difference. They use organic Wonder Milk rather than UTH packs, the staff appears to actually know quite a bit about coffee, and best of all, they hand deliver. Not cheap, but the quality is there.
“Best value for money on coffee is the weekday FREE bottomless cups of coffee at Ikea in Wangjing. Show your Ikea Family Card (also free), and then go to town. If this place had wifi I would never leave. Even without the card, it’s just RMB6. The coffee is passable, just like the atmosphere, and hey, the place is non-smoking!
“When all else fails, I hit Starbucks just like everybody else. I don’t really like their coffee, but it’s easy to find and very consistent. They also sell the best steel mugs anywhere. Get yourself one, then feed your addiction on the go with home brewed or decent takeout coffee.
“Local Chinese coffees are fine and sometimes even fantastic. Mostly grown in Yunnan, or roasted here using imported beans, they offer lots of tasty ways to feed your habit without shelling out for imports. Here are some to try: