Nothing worthwhile ever happens quickly and easily. You achieve only as you are determined to achieve … and you keep at it until you have achieved ☼ Robert H. Lauer

Instant Coffee: Why China and Colombia Reject the Good Stuff

photo courtesy of

photo courtesy of

Instant coffee consumption is on the rise in China and Colombia – but not for the same reasons.

A sound marketing strategy mandates that companies adapt to local tastes, à la McDonald’s bringing vegetarian choices to India. In terms of coffee, it appears Chinese patrons have been able to capitalize on this, while Colombians haven’t been so lucky.

I was always kind of amazed at how hard it was to get a decent cup of coffee in China. Since Chinese people drink an average of only two cups per year (In comparison to Americans’ over 1.5 cups per day), it just isn’t a popular drink of choice. Milk tea (also known as boba) was available on nearly every street corner, but in my rural town I could only get coffee at the super market – and no, I don’t mean actual coffee beans, I mean instant coffee. It came in single serving “quick sticks”, was almost exclusively of the pre-sweetened variety, and nearly always procured by Nescafé.

This was in large part due to the tastes of the Chinese people. I remember two fellow expats recounting the time they got a bag of coffee beans sent over by a family member and provided coffee for their students at their next English corner. Almost every student appeared to try some, but in the end they had only used a small amount of the coffee while having finished two entire bottles of sweetened creamer. It would appear that the students were thrilled with the idea of trying a fancy foreign product, but the bitter taste of strong black coffee wasn’t highly regarded. Enter weakened and pre-sweetened “quick sticks,” to Chinese markets.

Colombia has a different story which doesn’t have so much to do with the luxury of taste and preference. What started as a niche for wealthy westerners, around the time the fair trade movement became popularized in South America to empower small farmers, has boomed and well, kept booming. Colombia is now the world’s third largest coffee exporter, highly revered for the quality of their coffee beans (especially the select arabica type). Foreign demand for Colombia’s coffee has increased by over a third in the past year. However, the increased prices are leaving more and more Colombians without the financial ability to buy their own coffee.

While instant coffee is still a minority of the overall mosaic that is Colombia’s coffee market, it is rapidly increasing. Case in point: according to Euromonitor, instant coffee sales since 2008 have increased in Colombia by over 150%. Evidence suggests that unlike the Chinese, Colombians don’t dislike the stronger brews of real coffee beans.. many of them just can’t afford it.

These two distinct incentives for getting behind instant coffee can be observed in the behavior of coffee companies in the two respective countries. Starbucks intends to expand in both countries by using markedly different strategies.In Colombia, already home to the powerful Jaun Valdez chain, there is speculation that such increases will also see a rise in consumption. In China however, Starbucks sees itself more as a “coffee monument,” knowing that more profits come from red bean Frappuccino’s and other non-coffee flavored beverages.

Quartz author Gwynn Guilford has even noticed the perception of Starbucks in China as the “public living room,” where the combination of open indoor space entices patrons to walk in the door rather than a love of coffee. Come to think of it, coffee shops from Malaysia to Singapore certainly did seem awfully nice. Maybe that’s why I spent so much time in them.

I take it back. I did get my hands on a small bag of the good coffee once, thanks to Rise Up Coffee’s generous donation of a free bag of coffee to any Peace Corps Volunteer in need. Thanks guys.☼


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Categorised in: Culture☼, Travel☼


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