Story and images: Na'im Samimi-Moore
Coffee was a big question mark when I first arrived in Beijing some five years ago from the American Pacific Northwest. Pickings were so slim that I often resorted in desperation to Ikea’s grocery section for beans. The best-rated cafes brewed Lavazza or some dusty-bagged alternative roasted during the days of Chinese economic reforms. Times have changed, thankfully, and the collective palate has become more discerning. Some early coffee pioneers hit the scene a few months too early or misplaced their bets. A small outfit called Fisheye brewed Ritual Roasters beans flown in bi-weekly from San Francisco, and Ocean Grounds roasted and served award-winning organic micro-lots. Both served up a cappuccino for just around $6 USD. Fisheye shut down operations after about a year, and Ocean Grounds recently pared down their operations and moved to a non-descript back corner of a low-traffic mall.
But not all hope is lost. A major boon to Beijing’s coffee scene has been Rickshaw Roasters (co-located with Cafe Flatwhite the 798 art district), an outfit started by two kiwis and a Chinese local a few years ago intent on spreading awareness through quality sourcing, roasting, and activities like open cuppings. With their accumulated experience and knowledge, the trio has become the de facto source for most of Beijing’s respectable coffee purveyors, from small cafes to large restaurants. Beijingers can now be grateful for a consistent, solid option. On the flipside, their popularity means that their signature espresso blend is a little too ubiquitous. When a café works with Rickshaw, however, they can come up with some pretty pleasing results.
Tribe (有机餐厅), opened mid-2014, is one such café. They worked with Rickshaw to develop their own blend and now serve solid espresso-based drinks alongside organic, kale-wrapped, whole grain, gluten-free, lentil-decorated food your mother would approve of, as well as home-brewed kombucha and smoothies to heal what ails you.
Tribe’s dedicated barista cranes over her rosettas and the breaking blooms of her pour-overs with the deliberate expression and demeanor of Clint Eastwood in one of his later, more serious films, often delivering the drinks herself with a subdued but deserved pride. The espresso is fruity and bright, and the milk drinks are excellent, largely owing to the quality of the milk - local, organic milk from Green Yard Organic Farms puts Tribe leaps above cafes relying on more dominant and often controversial milk suppliers.
With food that lets you feel self-righteous, air purifiers for the nervous expats, and coffee worth writing about, I’m recently somewhat of a regular at Tribe. That said, I have yet to try their signature drink, a cold brew infused with cardamom and orange ringing in at 58 RMB (over USD$9), but I’ll be back soon and perhaps by then a wealthy relative will have passed away.