My good friend Sauzanne used to warn complete strangers NOT to speak to me in the morning. Unless I had 2 full cups of coffee. Not 1. 2. And that was very sound advice. I am a coffee addict. I seriously need it. I’m not particularly proud of this, and like some smoker friends, I was once quite good at quitting. And restarting. Eventually, I simply gave up trying to abandon my habit, and upon discovering high-quality coffee years ago, I thankfully began to not just depend on it, but to enjoy it.
Before moving to HK, I imagined the dominant Chinese and British influences meant that tea ruled over coffee. Tea has a very rich history and prominent place in local culture. Various tea shops and cha chaan tengs (traditional, contemporary or, somewhat sadly, chain) tea restaurants, can still be found throughout the city. But coffee culture is certainly well-entrenched, particularly among the younger generation, if not to the extent it is in other countries.
For better or worse, Starbucks is quite pervasive here – although not with multiple storefronts on the same street corner as was sometimes the case back in NYC. Their shops are also admittedly more pleasant here, less ‘fast coffee’-style – with a bit more thought put into their layout and ambience. Pacific Coffee is another chain scattered about HK. caffe Habitu is yet another chain, incorporating more food into their concept than the others. In 2012, caffe Habitu extended their reach with an ambitious endeavor entitled Coffee Academics.
Their flagship is in Causeway Bay, just a hop from Times Square. Our good friend, Jessica, first invited me there for lunch several weeks ago. Their front patio allowed us to remain cool and comfortable in the mixture of typical blasted A/C coming from the main area and the sweltering outdoor heat. For those who opt to remain indoors, there is a communal table up front and other smaller tables (and a large side banquette) throughout. As soon as you enter, you can tell this place takes their coffee very seriously, as it looks almost like a laboratory with various brewing equipment on display (in a good way).
It was overall a lovely mid-day break. Their interpretation of croque madame is not the best I’ve ever had by any means, with a much higher bread:filling ratio and less of a cheesy gruyere crust than there should be. However, the iberico in place of the more traditional, basic ham was a nice switch. Among my less sophisticated food cravings are curly fries. I sort of hate myself for this, but I really love them. And their version is quite tasty, even if not the best pairing for croque madame (they accompany all sandwiches here). My savory course was outshone by the affogato, unsurprisingly in a place that prides themselves on coffee expertise. It achieved the right balance of sweetness, slight bitterness, and creaminess.
As I believe strongly in visiting a spot at least twice to fairly assess (both consistency in quality and some variety in offerings are important), I returned recently with Mark. Somewhat obsessed with croque madame in general, Mark also tried it and had a similar opinion as mine (not a ‘real’ croque madame, nor a great re-interpretation).
The spinach and cheese savory pie I tried on this visit was disappointing, cute but way too small to be satisfying beyond a snack, on the dry side, and lacking in flavor. The side salad was truly an afterthought, uninteresting and under-dressed.
Mark and I both adore macarons, but unfortunately the interpretations here, while colorful and pretty, were just that. Not only were they served inappropriately cold, the exterior halves were hard and crunchy, instead of with the slightest of outermost crisp and immediately yielding tenderness that should characterize macarons. Mark didn’t bother with more than one bite. As I was still hungry, I finished the rest, tricking myself into thinking they were simply regular cookies so I could just move on.
But what about the coffee, you ask? We both ordered the iced drip version of their Classico No. 3. These arrived, without ice (presumably and appropriately to avoid dilution), and in wine glasses. I raised an eyebrow at first. I mean, this is a bit of a pretentious move. But why not? It did make me think about my beverage a little more carefully, and practically speaking, it prevented my hand from warming the drink itself. I do appreciate a place that brews iced coffee properly, rather than just putting hot coffee in the fridge and/or on ice. Ice drip allows the final product to be both rich in flavor and almost without any bitterness. No sugar needed. Very good indeed, a nice blend of chocolate and citrus notes. The iced latte I took ‘to go’ on another visit was on ice and of course, in a plastic cup. Still tasty, but not quite as nuanced as the prior cup (I should say, glass) I experienced.
Also on offer is a fairly extensive variety of other coffee brews, including mostly familiar espresso-based beverages, yirgacheffe from Ethiopia, and much pricier Jamaican Blue Mountain and wild kopi luwak (an overhyped, gimmicky bean harvested from civets who digest and pass the coffee beans – yes, you read correctly).
Happily for us, Coffee Academics sells their beans, as well. After our lunch, we asked for their Geisha S94 variety sourced from Panama. A pricey option at 288 HKD/100 g, it is described as a rich, tartly sweet bean, with ginger and melon tones, lightly roasted. One of the on-site roasters advised this was available if we were willing to wait for fresh roasting. Score! Fortunately, we had a little time on our hands (it took roughly 15 mins or so), and we thoroughly enjoyed observing the ritual in the Roasting Room and basking in that oh-so-satisfying smell. The beans did make for a lovely French pressed cup the next morning. I’m not totally convinced it’s worth the hefty price tag, but I did love the experience. Their chocolatey house espresso blend with hints of passion fruit is also quite lovely and more palatable for the wallet as well, at 98 HKD/165 g.
The on-site Coffee Academy and Roasting Studio allows aspiring baristas to learn or hone their coffee-making skills, with a range of basic-to-intensive classes and even full curricula. Prices start at 288 HKD and escalate quite a bit from there.
Interested in creating a bespoke coffee blend? Coffee Academics can help you with customization for yourself or your company, at a cost, of course – initial consultation is around 500 HKD, if I remember correctly.
Another discovery – Coffee Academics has another branch in Wan Chai, just a few blocks from our flat. We have passed by but have yet to give this locale a try. It’s a caffeine junkie’s relief to know high quality beans are just around the corner, though. Their Cupping Room, at this location only, hosts private tastings.
So go for the coffee, not the food, which is quite mediocre overall. The service is spotty and generally quite aloof, at least at the Causeway Bay branch. But the coffee is definitely worth the visit. And the cafes have a good feel about them, as any real cafe should (but so few really do), so you will likely want to linger for a little while. Similar to many other spots here, blessedly no one will be chasing you away either (a welcome change from NYC) – so you can relax and enjoy your cup (or glass) of joe.
38 Yiu Wa Street, Causeway Bay
35-45 Johnston Road, Wan Chai