Anna Solovyeva has a strong opinion about coffee in Shanghai. In the past year, the Russian transplant has gone a little crazy, visiting more than 300 coffee shops and cataloging each one in a spreadsheet as well as documenting them on her Instagram. Along the way, she has linked up with a Russian (in Russia) (via Instagram) who she sends pictures of the foam residue in her cups, and he tells her exactly how the coffee was: milk too hot or just the right temperature, beans too old or fresh, expertly brewed, whatever. He has a Ph.D in chemistry and physics and lives in Moscow, where he refuses to pay more than a nominal amount for a cup of joe.
They are both very particular people.
I turned to Anna because one day while I was having coffee with her, I came across a Chinese-language guide to coffee shops in Shanghai that ran to 166 shops. Anna immediately pointed out what was missing. I don’t even drink the stuff (I was having tea, actually) but I was impressed, and when Anna told me that Shanghai has become, in the past couple of years, one of the world’s coffee capitals, with quality exceeding some major European capitals without the attitude of others — like Berlin, evidently — I realized I’ve missed a revolution.
But far be it from me to judge. I know something about obsessively cataloging food, but not coffee, and the weight of Anna’s spreadsheet and reading of coffee foam is just unspeakable. She had to be my guide.
So with that in mind, I asked her to walk me through the state of Shanghai’s coffee scene, in two 10-shop articles. Her choices reflect her taste but also her desire to get beyond what are apparently the “big boys”, the places everyone knows, like Sumerian and Seesaw. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Ani Cafe
The Order: Ice Coffee.
“Ani Cafe was my first hidden cafe, and in a year of going there, it has not lost its human touch.
"Deep in the lanes behind Changle and Xiangyang Lu, Ani (not the name of the owner – go figure) only does drip coffee, no espresso, no espresso drinks. After all those big Cadillac machines, where you don’t know what’s going on, drip coffee is a soothing experience. Her special is an iced coffee outside of the purist vein, made with rakia, the Eastern European brandy.
"The beans are from Taiwan (10 new flavors a month) and the equipment is simple: a grinder, a scale, a coffee dripper.
"What’s nice about Ani is that it doesn’t have the pretension of a lot of these purist coffee spots, and they treat you well even if you’re not a regular customer. The place is half living room, half working space, half part-time kitchen (if you’re lucky, you’ll get a taste of the homemade desserts), and half internet sensation on Friday evenings when there is a guest bartender.”
The Order: The "New Drink of the Month".
“Simply Better is a Korean coffee shop, minus the cutesy overload. Instead, it has a bad-ass chrome counter with tiny cacti and a neon sign. It was born to be cool.
"The beans come from a Korean roaster, and depending on import and also who's brewing, you get either a decent or very good cup of coffee. It’s best for the 'New Month Drink'. Every month, Simply Better changes the signature coffee, from "Green Snow" (matcha cream on top of cold brew), to 'Picasso' (iced latte with red bean paste), to "Daoxiang" (with cereal on top), to October's 'Beret' — a fantasy take on an iced latte, with cold milk and a shot of hot espresso on top, that you had to drink pretty quickly, no mixing, getting both hot and cold liquids in one sip. It was like a chocolate chip cookie.
"Their very first drink of the month, 'Dirty Coffee', is still available because there was a public outcry when they tried to take it off the menu.” November's special is the "White Dirty Coffee."
3. Alt Coffee
The Order: Japanese drip coffee.
“Alt Coffee is a Japanese roastery for serious nerds. You go here because: 1) You are a fan of Japanese-style drip coffee; 2) You want to obsess over blends like 'Bund Blend' or the 'Alt Black'; 3) You are trapped in Hongkou; 4)The interiors. God, the interiors.
"The furniture is solid, old wooden chairs and tables you see either in a museum or in the lilongs. A million pieces of coffee equipment are set up on the main table. It’s a special experience to get a seat and see the magic happening: Grinding, moistening, pouring, stirring, and serving. Because it’s Japanese, everything is done super precisely, reverently, and with silent, ancient confidence.
"Alt is more roastery than coffee shop, and you can purchase their beans by Taobao or by phone, but you should really stop into the shop for the full experience.”
4. Gaman Cafe
The Order: Just an espresso.
“A good coffee shop doesn't have to be an elaborate laboratory with all sorts of machines that make you feel small and stupid in the face of great coffee science. It can be just your local coffee shop with good beans, barista and a nice interior. Gaman Cafe is that kind of place. It's a warmly lit little cottage split over two stories with light wood floors and furniture, a soft jazz soundtrack and simple coffee menu with your usual espresso-based drinks.
"They use a tiny LaMarzocco machine and they use it well. It's not mindblowing but it's done by skillful hands. The coffee itself is mild, without bitterness or acidity.”
The Order: Disco coffee.
“XSpace, a project by Xincafe, is a chain store done right. This huge coffee shop with more neon lights than MYST is on the third floor of a dodgy office building. The beans are fresh, the equipment is in good shape, the space has a cool industrial look and the staff are never arrogant. Music is on the loud side and all that neon might be divisive, but I love it.“
6. One More Cup
The Order: Coffee at night... and then maybe beer.
“Coffee + beer (not in the same cup), open late and downtown? That’s One More Cup. The beans could be a little fresher but the proximity to The Bund makes up for that, as does being open until 10pm. The lighting makes it look like perpetual twilight, the kind of place it’s easy to hang out in for hours, and the simplicity of the operation is endearing.”
7. Cafe Lumiere
The Order: Siphon coffee.
“Cafe Lumiere used to have a delightful garden, hidden in the alleyways of Taiyuan Lu. It was a gem of the hidden coffee shop genre, but it wasn’t very customer-oriented. Eventually, they moved into a building on Caoxi Lu, trading the lane charm for some modernity and more welcoming service. They still make very good coffee, surrounded by green plants and dry flowers. You come for either the siphon coffee, a show-off brewing method based on vacuum pressure and steam-punk equipment, or the single-origin bean Sunshine Latte, which is indeed very fragrant, fruity and strong.”
8. T Cafe
The Order: Wayne's Landlord-proof Blend.
“Wayne has been played by the Shanghai landlord game a couple times, but he is resilient and his current coffee shop, named T Café, is a small, mostly takeaway place on Xinle Lu. The drinks list is extensive and includes coffee, coffee with syrups, teas, sodas and smoothies.
"The coffee is pretty good, and the shop itself is great for a casual break. There are exactly four seats (outside only, with a small cover — efficient, as tested in medium rain). It's worth mentioning that if you are drinking your coffee on the spot, it will come in a proper cup, not a paper cup. Not every coffee shop does that.
"Every once in a while Wayne treats you to an espresso, or a discount, or what have you. He remembers his customers.”
9. T 12 Lab
The Order: Serious (premium) coffee for serious coffee people.
“T12Lab is the premium coffee shop of the Table 12 chain (the other three locations are relatively normal). It is for coffee connoisseurs who want a premium coffee experience in a quiet place where only coffee matters; where sugar isn’t allowed; pets, children under 10 and groups more than five are denied entry; no lowly cappuccino or latte or, god forbid, mocha, soils the menu; there is no cake; there is no Wi-Fi. Serious coffee for serious coffee people.
"Still, the baristas and visitors all seem nice and friendly. The place is almost always packed and they make very good coffee out of fresh beans - you are asked to choose the beans. There’s a small backyard garden with wooden benches in case you really want to meditate on the world in your cup.
"In case you arrived here but then realized you're either a pet, a child under 10, or five people or more, there's always Ca Sent Bon on Huaihai Lu, just a few steps away — a much simpler place with unexpectedly good beans.”
10. Cafe Del Volcan
The Order: "The Gibraltar"
“The grandfather of serious Shanghai coffeeshops. There are four staple origins in the house, going from lightest to darkest roast: Ethiopia, Yunnan, Guatemala (from the owner’s family farm in Guatemala) and Sumatra. They only use Arabica beans, no Robusta (the highly caffeinated ones) but specialty-grade beans, which is in the upper tier of Arabica.
What should you drink at such a high-end place? Single origin drip coffee if you are an advanced coffee drinker, or the Gibraltar: one part espresso, one part frothed milk, similar to a cortado. The drink was developed by baristas in the US — legend has it, at Blue Bottle — and is a perfect way to quickly test how the espresso blends with milk. Very strong and chocolatey.”
Check back with us in a few for ten more deep cuts on the Shanghai coffee revolution.