It’s been ten long years since Lewis Harding came from England to China for work, thanks to his career in finance, and he doesn’t plan to go anywhere. An entrepreneur by heart, he has tried out many business models in different industries. But it was in his morning cup of dark brew where he found his true calling.
“I’ve always been a coffee geek,” says smiling, so when he had the time to dive into the coffee market, he did. He started a roasting company that did well selling coffee to the hospitality industry. That’s where he found a gap in the market; sourcing quality green beans was hard in China.
“When you’re a small coffee roaster, you don’t have the ability to be an importer” Mr. Harding recalls, so he sold his company and traveled to Africa and South America. He imagined buying proper beans directly from producers and bringing them back to China. Coffee Exchange was soon to be born.
Coffee Exchange is a marketplace that connects, often isolated producers, with eager buyers and roasters in China.
Growers from Ecuador, Panama, Rwanda, and other countries within the coffee belt loved the idea. It was an opportunity for them to break out of the traditional distribution channels, run by middlemen, with repeatedly unfair conditions.
“Let’s bring some new and exciting coffees to China, that we really couldn’t find,” Mr. Harding remembers thinking. Producers in countries like Congo, Rwanda or even in South America couldn’t export their product themselves, and the growing coffee scene in China was thriving; There was excitement in both ends.
Mr. Harding had to hit the books, “I’ve got deeply involved with coffee, from biochemistry to agricultural methods...” says the expert, “I can probably name every coffee variety, which is quite a challenge.” And he’s not alone; coffee education is spreading in China.
Coffee is relatively new in the country; thankfully, it runs parallel with tea, a beverage Chinese people hold dearly; a natural advantage. “We do a lot of cupping sessions, a lot of competitions,” says Mr. Harding. “The more we get the consumers to be engaged with coffee, and be more caring for what they’re actually drinking, the better is for the market in general.”
Today, China’s coffee scene is intense, notably the milk-based category of lattes and cappuccinos. Brewing companies recognize the need for high-quality beans and the appeal of having better and newer options to suggest.
Of course, importing goods to the country is not an easy feat. You need to know the process, there’s lots of paperwork involved, but China has an efficient system in place, once you know what you’re doing.
Chinese coffee market is not to be ignored; major cities like Beijing and Shanghai compete with London in quality and diversity. China is growing coffee too, Yunnan has potential, but there’s still a lack of infrastructure. “It takes time, but I think within the next 5 or 10 years we’re going to see it as an interesting place for coffee,” says Mr. Harding with trust.
Do you want to know where does Mr. Harding takes his coffee? Listen to this episode of Bottled in China to find out.