'Third wave' coffee culture, in many coffee strongholds around the world, is the 'new normal'. Local roaster? For sure. Latte art? Obviously. And if you want to go a step ahead of the others, open your own roaster (or roast in-house) and offer hand-pours with descriptions like 'Ninety Plus Panama geisha'. Coffee aficionados have come (somewhat happily) to be able to expect this. But Ocean Grounds in Beijing isn't just one but two steps ahead of the curve by offering not just hand-pour specialty roasts, but also a wide and changing range of signature drinks. And in all places, in Beijing! They're definitely challenging local palates. It's going to be a long road, but they will definitely be able to say they were first in Beijing, and among the first in China.
The minute I walked into Ocean Grounds I realised I wasn't even going to bother with a pour-over of whatever specialty grade African bean they had on display. Why waste my time when there are FIVE 'signature' drinks that the owner/barista/mixologist Jim Lee has carefully concocted for the climate, local preferences and of course, his own fairly sophisticated taste. Just take a look at the offerings on the 'Discovery Bar' menu. Of course something like 'Black's Beach' doesn't tell you enough to be able to decide to try it. But once you ask and you hear what it is... it's hard to say no.
Jim's attitude to his tasting bar is one of a showroom: showcasing what can be done with coffee, highlighting how far it can go, and perhaps those who go along for the ride may end up at least part of the way there.
Getting advice from Jim, one of his guests (a local chef from Lido's Eudora) and Jim's girlfriend, I chose the 'New Orleans Iced Coffee' as my first pick. A unique take on the traditional chicory-infused coffee, Jim's recipe is based around a spherical coffee ice block that's infused with chicory, and served with fresh milk and raw agave. The preparation and presentation of this drink were as good as the delicious contrast of warm and cold flavours in the one drink. I highly recommend it, even on a slightly chilly day like when I visited in March.
If you're thinking of one of the others - don't think too hard. Just pick one. They're all good. I haven't tried them all, but as Jim described each drink for me, the various other regular customers kept chiming in 'that one's amazing' and 'that one's also amazing'. In summary, they're probably all amazing.
Jim's approach to all his drinks is the same approach he takes to drinks in general and to food as well. Opening his liquor cabinet, he began talking effusively about the independent brewers responsible for each bottle, the origins and what made them special. When the cafe closes at 7pm every evening and Ocean Grounds becomes a bar, visitors get to experience Jim's passion on a whole other level.
It takes guts to go past what the other cafes are doing, and it takes particular chutzpah to do it in a place like Beijing where there is a lot of education of the local palate to be done just to bring it to the level of other global coffee centres. But we're glad that Ocean Grounds is there and hope it's there to stay and grow.
Find Ocean Grounds on the north side of the Shimao mall (世茂国际中心) just west of Sanlitun, on 13 Gontibeilu (工体北路13号). They're open for coffee from 7am to 7pm daily. After 7pm on Friday and Saturday they become a cocktail bar (not serving coffee), open till 1am.