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[Lookback]: The Year in Coffee Shops & Cafes

Beans, beans and caffeine dreams. So much coffee again this year.
Last updated: 2019-12-23
Photos: Brandon McGhee
Shanghai is drowning in Coffee shops, with a capital C. The Fourth Wave has washed all over the city, and the city’s cafes are no longer content with just making brown sugar lattes and calling it an innovative day. 2019 was about “coffee drinks”. Cold brew and juice appeared, (Little Elephant serves a cold brew and lemonade: the “Yellow Taxi”) as did coffee with alcohol; you only have to look as far as Lumier’s Yongkang Lu project 光景一会 for coffee with gin, tequila and added baijiu. It’s Shanghai, isn’t it? Forcing us all to drink, at all hours of the day.

But this is an article about coffee shops doing coffee, and which ones stood out in 2019, the most coffee-ist coffee year that Shanghai ever did coffee. Here’s ten, in the order they opened. Special for 2019, we’ve included the type of machine they use and their beans.

Lights (December 2018)


The Machine: Rocket
The Beans: From Thai to Taiwanese.
The Order: Turkish coffee and latte with Burundi beans.

Lights isn’t new but it moved around the corner into a way more secluded and well-designed location. They famously make Turkish-style coffee in a cezve, cooked in hot sand. Worth watching closely; the process is kind of magical. The coffee they give you still has to settle, so they give you a little hourglass. When the sand runs out, the coffee has settled and is ready to drink.

Choose your beans from their large variety. They recommend Taiwanese. I recommend Burundi.

You can either choose between a large cezve (2 cups) or you get a cup of cezve coffee and one cup of coffee prepared with the same beans but as drip or an espresso-based drink. Plenty of table space and secluded corners for working or small groups.

They also do Thai style coffee, using Chiang Mai beans, which are strong and bitter. And they make delicious apple jam with brown sugar in the sand. Try it.

1/10 Coffee Roaster (May 2019)


The Machine: Rocket
The Beans: For espresso: home roast, house blend, Yunnan, PNG, Costa Rica, Honduras
The Order: Piccolo w/ double shot

Overlooking a park, 1/10 Coffee is a relaxed and friendly place opened by coffee enthusiasts who roast their beans on the spot and have a wider than usual selection of beans for espresso-based drinks. I recommend Papua New Guinea, in a single or double shot for piccolo, if you can withstand an intense caffeine high paired with an unusual sour, potent taste. Fun! Get the latte for a tamer experience. Part of their profits go to the Shanghai United Foundation to Fund Children's Public Projects.

The interior is vintage, beige, brown and minimalist. There is a bench outdoors if you feel like nature. Beer selection available as well.

There is a souvenir shelf that has a random selection of bijoux, coffee equipment key chains, Shanghai shikumen themed pins, and actual coffee equipment and cups (assortment changes).

Snug Coffee (May 2019)


The Machine: La Marzocco
The Beans: Self-roasted Colombia, Mandehling, Brazil
The Order: Flat White

This is actually a very cool spot. It's tiny. It's for laid back people. The owner is also a photographer and uses old film cameras in the store’s design. High chance of photography nerds hanging around here. They have a nice outdoor bench on Danshui Lu for observing that particularly odd stretch of Shanghai street life. Their barista really makes exceptionally nice latte art, too. Both the space and the tables are too small to work from, though.

They have their own little roastery outside of Shanghai, and the owner makes his own cookies and homemade crumble. Also mixes up a good mulled wine and sangria. Dreamboat!

Umah (May 2019)


The Machine: La Marzocco
The Beans: Single-origin Ethiopian, roasted in Jiading
The Order: Pour over, Honduras

Grab the windowsill seat at this small street-level place on Nanchang Lu, in an old residential building typical of the street.

Run by a handful of barista bros, their signature drink is dirty coffee, which is served in an unusually dainty glass. Also, one of their most expensive, for some reason. I'd just go for the Flat White, which has excellent balance and reasonably priced. You can choose between two types of blends or a single-origin espresso at no additional cost.

Miar’s Café Brand (June 2019)


The Machine: La Marzocco
The Beans: Costa Rica, Colombia, Ethiopia, roasted in Jingdezhen
The Order: Flat White

A little corner shop near Yan'an Lu, Miar's Cafe Brand is run by an ex-Seesaw barista and her designer husband, who is a freak for vintage stuff, like the old Coca-Cola glasses they use for cold and iced drinks.

It's very small. Definitely not laptop friendly. In fact, it's bereft of tables. The bar for making coffee is larger than the seating area, which tells you something about their priorities. Coffee lovers have responded because the quality of their coffee is undeniably high. The barista does an excellent job with beans sourced from a friend's roastery in Jingdezhen.

The blend for espresso-based coffees is seasonal; the summer blend produced one of the best flat whites in town, with two types of Ethiopian beans — one washed, one natural — and one Guatemalan bean. The winter blend is beans from Costa Rica, Colombia and Ethiopia.

Soeng Lok (June 2019)


The Machine: La Marzocco
The Beans: Single origin, roasted in Shanghai
The Order: Gibraltar

This classy coffee joint by the long-running Shanghai coffee company T12 Group is in a century-old lanehouse with preserved details and… jazz! They offer two or three types of beans for espresso-based drinks, they sell beans they’ve roasted themselves and the space itself is not usually too busy. They never fail to ask how the coffee was. You'd want to sit here for hours, but the atmosphere signals it's for enjoying coffee and conversation, not working remotely.

Order the Gibraltar, with two shots of espresso and two ounces of frothed milk, served in a Gibraltar rock glass. It’s intense and delicious.

Café Onair (August 2019)


The Machine: La Marzocco
The Beans: Ethiopia, Beijing partner roast
The Order: Latte

A long-time favorite, Café Onair started a proper eatery in 2019! I'm no foodie but I'm sure I’m not wrong about this place. Style-wise, it’s very similar to the iconic Huaihai Lu and Lixi Lu locations: a long room lit with soft lighting and modest designer furniture.

The current brew for espresso is a match for the rich flavors of the food, which is what you’re probably here for. I still prefer the Lixi Lu location, and its reverence to the bean, but of all the coffee shops that added food in 2019 (it was a trend), this one is balancing the two the best.

There is a strategic spot outside, great for enjoying sunny days and people-watching on Sinan Lu. But you have to be quick to get it.

By Coffee / Bu You (不右) (September 2019)


The Machine: Synesso
The Beans: Various local types
The Order: Piccolo

By Coffee opened in September, by a five-year veteran of Uncle No Name Espresso. The key difference here is that they have a large variety of beans for espresso-based drinks, not just one or two, and they come from different roasters around China. It’s “curated”.

Most beans are roasted domestically, though some beans for filter coffee are from abroad. Plus, Fourth Wave! Try the espresso tonic with a twist: Bundaberg ginger beer.

Like Miar, the coffee making area is only separated from customers by a small counter. Tight seating and limited space make it intimate. Not great for a date or for work — you will get bumped — but good for coffee!

100FFEE CAFE / 百啡待兴 (October 2019)


The Machine: La Marzocco
The Beans: International roasters, and Urban Coffee Roasters for espresso
The Order: Flat White or Pour over with pumpkin spice blend from Paradise Coffee Roasters (Hawaii).

100FFEE Cafe (no idea how to pronounce it) are a recent wanghong favorite spot, which I don't understand because the interior is nothing special, painted a weird beige and green, and not very cozy. The outdoor patio is quite popular.

Nevermind the looks, though, there is a good and interesting selection from different countries for pour over. Urban Coffee Roasters (the good and expensive brand from Hong Kong) provides their espresso blend.

Maybe, for once, the wanghong crowd are actually going for the quality of the coffee?

Picnic Gallery (October 2019)


The Machine: Slayer
The Beans: Mobydick Coffee
The Order: Fake Oreo

Another trend in 2019: coffee shop as art gallery. Picnic Gallery is part of that trend and has the tastiest coffee in the genre. It’s a mini art gallery with cool furniture and rotating monthly art exhibitions.

The two-story space has an iconic view of Shanghai’s plane trees through its glass walls. Grab a bench outside or get comfy upstairs — as much as designer furniture and a wanghong environment allow.

Picnic Gallery doesn’t compromise on coffee. The barista used to work at Yongkang Lu's Beautiful Concept. She will pour you a beautiful latte or recommend something more inventive. They also plan to partly change signature drinks menu depending on exhibition colors and mood and offer seasonal fruit drinks: I had persimmon juice. (Sometimes I need something that’s not coffee.)

For people who like sweet drinks, the order here is the Fake Oreo, a cousin to the dirty coffee in which a shot of espresso is layered with sweetened milk, served in something like a brandy glass. Expect drinks here to be pricey, the trade-off for the beautiful space.