I know Chengdu is a popular tourist destination, for its panda centre as much as for its location on the route to Tibet, but we were amazed just how many western-style coffee shops there were dotted around town. The ones we found were all run by Chinese, though we didn’t see a single local actually having a coffee in one!
Our first coffee in Chengdu was a completely chance find. We’d been wandering more or less aimlessly. Without wifi, without a map and with only a few basic words of Chinese, it is not easy to start navigating a coffee trail in a big city like Chengdu.
And even when we did find a street that seemed to have a fair range of decent-looking cafés at round about 10am, they were mostly shut, and had the look of bars that opened around midday.
We decided to take refuge in a hostel that claimed to serve good coffee. And that’s how we discovered The Loft, with its own coffee shop and a really nice, relaxed vibe. (It’s in Xiao Tong Xiang by the way)
The coffee was in a different league to anything we’d drunk since we left Istanbul. A smooth, rich roast that was not too strong and left the palate craving more, that’s the kind of coffee I love.
As I ordered my second cup, I commented on how good it was, and was told that the roaster was one of China’s top coffee guys; he lives in Chengdu, they said, and runs his own coffee shop in another part of town. We made a note of the address and got ourselves over to Let’s Grind the next day.
Now, the thing about coffee shops in China is that – just as we’d found in Iran – they don’t tend to open for the early risers on their way to work or the university. Many only open at 12, and sure enough when we got to Let’s Grind at about 10.45am, it was boarded up and very much shut.
We went somewhere else down the same street and had a coffee that was not half as good as at The Loft, and felt very disgruntled, especially as there were no opening times on the door of Let’s Grind.
Well folks, I’m pleased to report that Let’s Grind opens at 11am, so we went in for another coffee as their first customers of the day. Sadly, the owner and champion roaster guy (whose name I have written down somewhere, but it is lost in a pile of papers in my backpack – so I’ll add that it once we are at the end of our journey) was away for a few days in Shanghai, but his staff of baristas made us a fabulous cappuccino, and brought some cheesecake out of the fridge for us to wolf down while they had their breakfasts of meat and noodles.
They have a wonderful blend for the espresso machine, a whole range of options for the pourover coffees and some delicious-sounding single origins, all roasted locally in Chengdu. Let’s Grind is a real coffee lovers’ paradise.
We returned with some other coffee-loving Brits we’d met a couple of days later. Again, we arrived at 11am, just as they were opening up, only to find out that the grinder had completely broken and they were unable to make us our coffees.
We had visions of the little café in Osh where they individually hand grind the coffee for each cup, but there didn’t seem to be a plan B for Let’s Grind. You could tell the barista was very upset, and we couldn’t help wondering what she’d be doing for the rest of the day, but we had to move on, with only the memory of the wonderful coffee we’d had on our first visit.
Still, top tip for coffee in Chengdu has to be Let’s Grind in Tangba Street (that’s Tangba Jie and it’s an extension east of Dongsheng Street/Jie)
We only managed to try one other coffee shop during our time in Chengdu. Corner Coffee was well-placed just between Mao’s statue in the centre of town and the People’s Park (about which more in our blog on tea in Chengdu).
The coffee was not as good as Let’s Grind or The Loft, but it was a decent brew in a nice little place, with tasty cakes to go with it.
Coffee is blooming in Chengdu in a far bigger way than we’d seen in Xi’an, and there are far more independent coffee shops opening up in small premises. In that way, it’s growing into a coffee scene more like an average big city in the UK.
And with local roasters like the guy at Let’s Grind (name to follow, sorry) upping the quality, things are looking great for the future of coffee in the city.
What we’d struggle with is the timing of the opening hours. Very few are open early in the morning, and most open long into the evening, so coffee seems to be a sociable drink for afternoon/evening rather than a morning booster.
It’s not even a lunch time drink, since it’s rare outside the big chains like Starbucks to find anything savoury to have with your coffee in Chinese coffee shops. Cakes you may find, but even that not always.
Of course on this trip we haven’t been to Beijing or Shanghai, so it’s quite possible the coffee scene is developing differently and more quickly there, but Chengdu felt like it was a long way ahead of Xi’an.