Cafe Reviews

Beijing's New Normal: Fresh Bean (鲜豆知味) and Chinese cafe entrepreneurship

Mr Feng. Ever understated. Ever scientific.

This is the cafe review I’ve wanted to write from the beginning, if only I had the photos to let me do it. This is about one of the most charming coffee spots in Beijing, and a must-see cafe to see how coffee culture has landed. It’s unpretentious, affordable, comfortable and with coffee that’s unfussy but interesting, thought-through and perfectly executed.

After years of despairing for convenient coffee in Beijing, a specialty boutique cafe opened just minutes walk from my house. Minutes! This was in a city that could take hours to traverse in car or subway, with multiple changes of line required and almost zero chance of a seat. Mr Feng (冯先生) opened his specialty roaster and cafe on the up and coming Wudaoying Hutong (五道营胡同) only a month before I decided to leave Beijing, as if to mock the decision. It was pretty effective.

Today's coffee offerings. Just 8. All roasted in-house.

What I love about Fresh Bean is the sheer hard-working, entrepreneurial ‘do it everything’ spirit of the pleasingly un-hipster but super cool Mr Feng. He epitomised the Chinese idiom '吃苦耐劳精神', literally a spirit of enduring labour and the very buddhist 'eating bitterness' (explaining somewhat Chinese taste profile preferences). Mr Feng manages to stock a full menu of really interesting coffees that he roasts himself in 500g batches in a drum roaster twice a week. On this latest visit he showed me, among others, a Yirgacheffe ‘Level Up’, a delicious-smelling dry processed Indonesian (the majority of Indonesian being wet-hulled) and a Kenyan whose sweetness I could smell. He talks forever about roast profiling and the tendency of most specialty roasters to not fully develop each bean's given flavour, the taste preferences of customers (how he switched away from a Yirgacheffe cold drip because of people not appreciating the lemony taste) and what’s special. Mr Feng presses his customers to all try pour-over, cold drip or ice drip, and it’s only on occasion that he pulls an espresso shot.

Mr Feng does all this without any of the hipster pretense of other, younger bars. Not that I object to pretentious hipsters (I mean, I'm part of the way there), but when you see someone so down-to-earth brewing a specialty cup it signifies that coffee is on the verge of hitting mainstream. At Fresh Bean, there's no pretense - just you, the coffee and the sunshine.

The three coffees I’ve had at Fresh Bean (a cold drip, an ice drip and a pour-over) have all been extracted really pretty perfectly, presenting a strength and a sweetness that I rarely see done consistently in China. It's not magic - get good beans, roast them well then brew then correctly - but so many seem to miss the science which Mr Feng has nailed every time. He really knows his beans. It’s a labour of love.

The space itself is perfect, located near the corner of the ever-improving Wudaoying Hutong and Jianchang Hutong (箭厂胡同). Wudaoying is a street people love to call ‘the new Nanluoguxiang’ (南锣鼓巷) for its hipster vibe, new restaurants and strollability. Mr Feng has reconfigured it in the last six months and really opened it up so there can be multiple tables both inside. I’ve only seen it on gorgeous days with blue skies, but it has always been so appetizing to sit there with a cold or hot drink. There’s free wifi if you’d need it too.

The space at Fresh Bean.

Mr Feng and Fresh Bean are a must-see in Beijing to understand where coffee culture is heading there. Get there at 60 Wudaoying Hutong (near Jianchang Hutong) in Dongcheng (东城区五道营胡同60号,近箭厂胡同) and see for yourself.