It’s the first anniversary of our favorite coffee boutique Café del Volcán! We caught up with the brains behind the beans, Nils Weisensee, to talk coffee in China and glean insight into how he achieved his vision of creating a hub for artists, writers, and caffeineophiles alike in a predominantly tea-drinking culture.
Congrats on the 1-year anniversary. How was Café del Volcán’s first year? Describe the journey and some of its ups and downs.
The most amazing experience since Café del Volcán opened has been the incredible community that has grown around our little boutique! This coffee shop has become a meeting point for designers, architects, photographers, writers, entrepreneurs and many others. Despite the small size of our first shop, we have fans coming from all ends of Shanghai who appreciate the coffee and atmosphere. Witnessing this has been very rewarding for the whole Volcán team! We also love how many artists create sketches, photos and even music to share their appreciation — you can check them out on our website, Facebook, Twitter, Weibo and Instagram. Our current T-shirt contest is an example of this enthusiasm: we launched it because customers asked for a Volcán t-shirt and said they would contribute a design. It’s just great to see how the passion among our team resonates with the people who come to Café del Volcán!
You originally started out as a journalist and software developer? What prompted you to start up a coffee shop? That seems like quite a transition.
I love working as a writer and manager, and many of the things I do now are very similar to what I have done in software and journalism. However, I have always been fascinated by the idea of dealing with a real physical product rather than just bits, bites and information — a real product for real people who feel real appreciation for a very good cup of fresh coffee. What I love about coffee in particular is that quality can be tasted by everyone: It’s a very transparent product in that way. At the same time, achieving quality in coffee is extremely complex and therefore a wonderful challenge. As I learned early on when I started roasting coffee several years ago, perfectionism is rewarded by flavor, and there are no cheap shortcuts.
Tell us about the Café del Volcán concept? What separates Café del Volcán from other gourmet coffee boutiques? Why is the coffee higher quality?
The green coffee beans we buy are of excellent quality, we roast them several times per week to keep them incredibly fresh, and we have a very competent and passionate team that can help every guest at Café del Volcán to find the coffee he or she likes best. Quality, freshness, service — that pretty much sums it up! Oh, and our extended family has their own plantation in Guatemala, where they have been growing coffee for more than 120 years. This gives us exclusive access to their amazing beans and their wealth of experience.
Did you have trouble turning a primarily tea-drinking culture onto coffee? What was your marketing strategy? Are you thinking of developing any “Chinese” flavors (ie, Starbucks Green Tea latte) to appeal to the local palate?
Our “marketing strategy” is to offer very good coffee that’s so fresh that everyone tastes the difference. Our goal is not to turn a tea-drinking culture into a coffee-drinking culture — I love tea almost as much as I love coffee! I actually think that because of China’s long history with tea, most people here understand very well that quality and freshness have a direct impact on the flavor of any natural product. The so-called “Green Tea Latte” is not an example of that, though. We prefer sticking to the simplicity and purity of natural ingredients, and you won’t find any flavoring syrups at Café del Volcán. Ever.
Many beer and wine companies try to find drink pairings with Chinese food to woo local customers. Are there any Chinese breakfast foods your coffee pairs well with? Congee with century eggs, jian bing….?
I think fresh coffee and Dousha Baozi go together really well, but that’s a matter of personal taste. Since western breakfast items like Croissants and afternoon treats like cake are quickly becoming more popular in China, there’s no lack of opportunities for pairing. Of course, good coffee doesn’t really need to be paired with anything!
How do you see China’s coffee culture evolving in the future? Describe how it changed from when you first arrived until now.
The most striking aspect for me is the incredible curiosity for specialty coffee among Chinese. The interest in learning more about flavors, origins and preparation methods like French Press or manual drip is massive — and that’s where I see the biggest opportunity for small coffee boutiques like Café del Volcán. Nobody at Starbucks will explain to you why one of their burnt blends tastes a bit different than the others. At Café del Volcán, we have regular events like the Volcán Coffee Club where we talk about topics like this and many others. Anyone who is interested can sign up on our website — it’s just another example of the open community we enjoy so much.
What do you think of civet coffee (coffee beans that have passed through the intestinal tract of a civet cat from Southeast Asia)?
The flavor is interesting but doesn’t justify the cost, in my opinion. I’ve tried feeding coffee beans to my cat Mimi to save some cash, but she prefers eating German whole grain bread off my kitchen counter…
Plans for the future? Are you thinking of expanding?
Yes! We’ve been looking for a second location for quite some time. If you see a cool empty space in your neighborhood, feel free to email us at [email protected] and we’ll check it out!
Do you have any advice to would-be entrepreneurs planning on starting up a small boutique in Shanghai?
Phew, that’s a complex question. The most important is to talk to people who have done it, and listen closely. There are many different ways to start a business in Shanghai, and the conditions are always in flux, so the best one can do is to get as much insight as possible, and then expect that everything will turn out to be different. Nonetheless, if you believe that people will like what you will offer — keep going!
Café del Volcán – 80 Yongkang Lu, near Xiangyang Lu (永康路80号, 近襄阳路). Tel: 156-1866-9291. Hours: Mon-Fri 8am-8pm, Sat-Sun 10am-6pm.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].