Flat White Cafe and the Rickshaw Roasters: a Wellington-Beijing Coffee Crew

To live in Beijing is to give oneself to the incredible push and pull of constant human traffic. For a Wellingtonian, sometimes you just need a form of escapism from the urban madness of a city home to 20 million people… and the Flat White Cafes and Rickshaw Roasters coffee havens provide just that.

I visited the Flat White Cafés in Beijing’s 798 Art District [七九八qī jǐu bā, pron. ‘chee jyuw bar’], an area characterised by a short-lived but legendary period of local artists, who squatted and exhibited in the abandoned grid of industrial factories in the late 1990s, laying the grungy foundations for the current underground art scene in China. Nowadays, the area has been vastly commercialised by tourism and private galleries, with the original artists migrating east to Songzhuang in Tongzhou, a district now known in some circles for art, baijiu and punk rock. They are in the 798 though, Line 10 down to Sanyuanqiao then the bus to Dashanzi Qiao, lets be honest, for those who live in Wudaokou, ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat!

798 consumers are thirsty for coffee
798 consumers are thirsty for coffee

But what a glorious thing it is to walk into the Flat White and have one’s senses overwhelmed by familiarities – a cabbage tree, the hum of the coffee grinder, colour prints of Whangamata beaches, pohutakawa trees and white sands, Moog keys, brass and Joe Dukie vocals, Havana, Supreme and Fidel’s posters hung proudly on the walls. The cafés feel cozy and warm – though tapered to a slightly more cashed up type of consumer, it lacks the rugged appeal of Fidel’s. The coffee however, is out of this world.

Michael Hongfu 洪夫

Founder/Boss, Flat White, Rickshaw Roasters

Last month I caught up with original Beijing rén [北京人, Beijinger], Flat White founder and lǎobǎn [老板, boss] and coffee addict Michael Hongfu 洪夫 over a flat white on Cuba Street, during one of his annual trips to New Zealand.

Michael on the buzz
Michael on the coffee buzz. Photo courtesy of Michael.

Ni Hao Michael! So when did you first come to New Zealand?

I first came to New Zealand in December, 1989, to study English. At the time, getting a student visa was the only way we could leave China, and they were limited in number too. In fact, I originally studied to become a fencing instructor at Beijing Physical Education University [北京体育大学, Běijīng Tǐyù Dàxué]. I studied at the Capital Language School on the corner of Taranaki Street and Courtenay Place, lived in Wellington for 12 years, then moved to Auckland in 2002. Wellington is so windy!

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The Flat White 798 Art District Store. Killer Eggs Benedict, though it ain't cheap.
The Flat White 798 Art District Store. Killer Eggs Benedict, though it ain’t cheap.

Where did the idea come from to start a kiwi-style cafe in Beijing?

The reason I started the Flat White was so my friends and I could have good coffee in Beijing [laughs], so we opened the café on Silk Road in 2006. Roger Young from Fidel’s and Geoff Marsland from Havana Coffee have given us really strong support from the very beginning. At the time, we would use Havana beans from Wellington and it had to be sent to China every week. We did it that way for three years. Then we started Rickshaw Roasters in 2009. We have two or three people from Fidel’s come to Beijing each year to help us with technical support. Every time the staff come they really enjoy it, Beijing has a totally different lifestyle to Wellington.

I went into an indescribable nostalgia overload upon seeing this hanging in the cafe
I went into an indescribable nostalgia overload upon seeing this hanging in the cafe

How’s business in Beijing? Are more local people becoming accustomed to drinking coffee?

Some other cafes have started making flat whites, but we are the pioneers of this New Zealand / Australia coffee style in Beijing. All our cafes have WiFi, its important to customers here. The coffee business in Beijing started 20 years ago with the arrival of Starbucks [星巴克, xīng bā kè]. Over the years people’s standards of coffee has been changing, maybe to the point where they never want to drink Starbucks again…

Happy customers in the 798
One happy  customer in the 798! Photo courtesy of Michael.

Are there any further plans to expand the Flat White chain? Students in Wudaokou would lap it up.

We have plans to expand to Shanghai and Guangzhou, as well as other parts of Beijing like Wudaokou. Around five years ago we tried to start one at Beijing Language and Culture University [北京语言大学, Běijīng Yǔyán Dàxué], but it didn’t work out. We actually have a small café at Beijing Foreign Studies University [北京外国语大学, Běijīng Wàiguóyǔ Dàxué], in addition to the one’s in Sanlitun, the Diplomatic Compound, 798 and Chaoyang.

Where do you like to go for coffee in Beijing, apart from the Rickshaw Roasters cafes!

That cafe in Wudaokou, Sculpting in Time 雕刻时光 was really good when it first opened, I would drive there from Chaoyang.

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A divine Flat White. 'Super' beans from Rickshaw Roasters and fresh Wondermilk.
A divine flat white. ‘Super’ beans from Rickshaw Roasters and fresh Wondermilk.

Leo Cush

Espresso Technician, General Manager, Flat White

Back before chūnjié [Chinese New Year] in January, I met Leo at the 751 branch, past the old railroad tracks near the end of D-Park in the 798. The short black he poured me had more kick to it that the past eleven months of ‘měishì kāfēi’ [美式咖啡, American style coffees] at Bridge combined.

Mr Leo Cush
Introducing Mr Leo Cush – traded the Wellington coffee scene for the challenges of Beijing business

Kia Ora Leo! What originally brought you to Beijing?

Travel and coffee brings me here – I was keen to go somewhere a little different and see more of the world. I never intended to come to Beijing, but I heard through the grapevine that Roger was involved with setting up a roastery. I knocked on his door and said “I’m your guy.” So a couple of meetings with Roger and a Skype with Michael on the Chinese side, here we are.

Can you speak any Mandarin?

“我会说一点点!” [wǒ huì shuō yi diǎndiǎn, “I can speak a little bit!”]

Mural in the 798. The buildings were built by the Germans in the 1950s.
Mural in the 798. The buildings were built by the Germans in the 1950s.

What kind of involvement did you have with the coffee scene back in Wellington?

I worked for Coffee Supreme for eight years. So I knew a lot of people, heard about it and had the skill set to do a bit of everything. Matt Trow from Havana Coffee came over and was in charge of roasting, then I was in charge of everything else. I gave Matt Lamason from People’s Coffee his Coffee Supreme certification test years ago, back when he used to work at the Chocolate Fish. He’s done really well – gone pure organic coffee, I don’t know if there’s anyone else doing that today. I gave Nick Clark from Memphis Bell and Flight some training too – I think that was back in Palmerston North!

I thought the coffee labels were quite competitive?

It’s healthy competition. One time a few years back with L’afarre, Havana and Supreme, we went out and had a bowling competition –which Havana won. The next day there was an ad in the paper saying, “Havana is the winning coffee company!” with no mention of bowling [laughs]. Everyone there is really good and talks to each other, help each other out, it’s a really good culture.

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Cuba Street - the coffee and cafe hub of Wellington
Cuba Street – the coffee and cafe hub of Wellington

What ‘s it like over here?

Over at our roastery you can see the coffee and roasting process, it is quite an open door policy, which is both good and bad. One day the President of the China Coffee Association bought some guys from out of town around, he is a really good friend and helps us out a lot  –but these guys had a lot of money, were photographing everything and writing it all down, clearly to go and open a roastery back home. In China people will build an exact copy. In New Zealand we are from a culture where you might take a bit here and there and build your own thing, out of pride.

The Rickshaw Roasters Hall of Fame
The Rickshaw Roasters Hall of Fame

What makes Rickshaw Roasters so special?

It’s basically a slice of home. It’s a New Zealand style roastery dumped in the middle of Beijing. So the coffee is delivered fresh each week, you can get coffee training with us and the coffee is really good. It’s trustworthy  – an honest brand. People that understand that we are serious about the product, we are not filling the coffee out with cheap beans. We have a different ethos compared to other companies here. We’re small – we’re hands on.  Matt left to set up his own café in Qingdao. Beijing is a crazy place to live so he’s gone for the beach, any New Zealander can understand that!

Freshly roasted beans getting a cool off at the roastery
Freshly roasted beans getting a cool down at the Rickshaw Roastery

How has Rickshaw Roasters managed to spread to other cafes over in Gulou and Yonghegong?

Once we really started going a lot of people were giving us good support, like Jade Gray from Gung Ho, who put us in touch with Will from Vineyard Café. There’s no Yellow Pages, you rely on your friends to tell you whose found the good stuff. There are a lot of cheap coffees, and if you’re not passionate about coffee then the whole package falls down. If you spend a bit more, people will buy that second cup and make sure they go to that café for their coffee in future – but that mentality is not so common with a Chinese café owners, more with the foreigners and people who have come home after being overseas for a few years.

The famously fattening full English Breakfast at Vineyard Cafe, with a Rickshaw Roasters flat white
The famously fattening full English Breakfast at Vineyard Cafe, with a Rickshaw Roasters flat white

For the coffee nerds, what kind of gear do Flat White and Rickshaw Roasters use?

WEGA and La Marzocco machines with Mazzer grinders. And for the roaster, Probat have an office here in Shanghai so you have to buy locally through them.

Nice pour
Coffee U Feel: pouring shots at the 751 branch

Flat White Cafe 在那儿?? Many branches all round Beijing, with more to come this year!

See where you can get your fix of Rickshaw Roasters in Beijing. Beiluo Bread Bar is my fave.

NB : The Beijing cafes are not associated with the ‘Famous in New Zealand’ Flat White cafes in London.

NZ-China crema. Image from Rickshaw Roasters.
NZ-China crema. Image from Rickshaw Roasters.

xx Peace and caffeine.

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