My first experiences of % Arabica were in department stores/malls, initially in % Arabica’s hometown of Kyoto in 2017, where I visited its Fujii Daimaru Department Store branch, then last week in Shanghai, in the newly-opened Xintiandi Plaza branch. In both cases, it was disposable cups only: disappointing, given that both cater to sit-in customers, but forgivable, given the location/style of service. I was therefore looking forward to visiting % Arabica’s combined Shanghai roastery and coffee shop, in a prime location just off the Bund.
I have a rule on the Coffee Spot never to write negative/critical pieces. Today, I’m partially suspending that rule. Never have such high expectations been met with such bitter disappointment. Don’t get me wrong: the coffee was excellent, while the setting has so much potential. However, counter-service and disposable cups just don’t cut it for me, not when you could do so much more.
Talking of the coffee, there’s a house-blend (Brazil and two different Ethiopians) and a single-origin, both available as espresso or pour-over (through the Chemex), but that’s pretty much it. You can, of course, buy the beans, while there’s a limited range of merchandising on sale, but don’t forget to bring your own cup.
UNDEF/NE is inside an art gallery (Brownie) in a complex full of coffee shops, art galleries and coffee shops inside art galleries (Shanghai Art District M50). It was one of many recommendations I received from Joyce of Beijing’s The Corner when I visited in 2017. It had the additional merit of being close to my hotel, itself chosen for its proximity to Shanghai Railway Station, the terminus of the sleeper service from Beijing. This was one of the hotels I stayed in on my return to Shanghai in 2019, so naturally I made several visits to UNDEF/NE over those two trips.
UNDEF/NE occupies part of the ground floor of what was an old factory building. It’s a series of multiple, interconnected spaces, including two mezzanine levels, which is part café, part gallery, the distinction between the two sometimes blurred. There’s a standard espresso-based menu, including flat whites, with each drink available hot or over ice, all made using a house-blend. There’s also a range of flavoured lattes, plus a small selection of tea. Alternatively, several single-origins are available as pour-overs through the V60. If you’re hungry, UNDEF/NE has a selection of panini and filled bagels, plus a range of cakes.
The original Manner Coffee on Nanyang Road in the Jing’An neighbourhood was one of my finds from my first visit to Shanghai, part of my first round-the-world trip in October 2016. When I returned at the end of 2017, I discovered that a second branch of Manner Coffee had opened on Fengxian Road, just a couple of blocks to the east of the original. Naturally I had to check it out.
Whereas the original is a hole-the-wall, literally a window in the side of a building, opening onto the street, the new Manner Coffee is much bigger, although it’s still tiny. This time it occupies the front half of a shop, with the rear section home to a small restaurant. The operation’s very similar though, with a window at the end of the counter opening on the street, where you order.
The offering’s also very similar, Manner roasting all its own coffee, with a blend on espresso and up to seven single-origins on pour-over through the V60. Naturally, all the beans are available to buy.
Finding today’s Coffee Spot, Little Bean, was a combination of good luck, guesswork and determination. I first came across Little Bean’s coffee at AUNN Café & Co. on my first trip to Shanghai in October 2016. Back then I was told that the roastery/coffee shop was in Pudong, so when I found myself back in Shanghai the following year, staying/working in Pudong, I was determined to track Little Bean down.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, Little Bean occupies a unit in an outdoor mall on Jinyan Road, across the river from Century Square. A spacious coffee shop, complete with a dinky Probat roaster behind the counter, occupies the ground floor, while upstairs there’s a training school and on-site bakery.
Turning to the coffee, Little Bean has a pair of single-origins on espresso (it also has two espresso machines, but I never worked out if the machines/origins were paired in any way) and another five on pour-over through the V60, plus you can buy the beans. As well as freshly-roasted coffee, you can have freshly-baked bread, with a wide variety to choose from, including croissants and various pastries. Finally, there’s a very tempting array of cakes/desserts to choose from if you want something sweet.
My first taste of speciality coffee in Shanghai came from a chance discovery on twitter/Google maps when trying to find a coffee shop that someone in Hong Kong had recommended to me. I’ll say this for the Shanghai coffee scene: there are lots of great places out there, but they take some finding. I was very reliant on people that I met helping me out with directions and suggestions.
Sumerian Coffee is a roaster and coffee shop, which also specialises in bagels. Like most of the roaster/coffee shops I came across, Sumerian does its roasting in an off-site facility. The coffee shop itself is a fairly spacious, bustling spot, kitted out almost entirely in wood. While it wouldn’t have looked out of place in London, there was something of the local character about it.
Turning to the coffee, Sumerian has a house-blend on espresso, a very impressive-looking La Marzocco Strada taking pride of place on the counter. There are five single-origins, including a decaf, available as pour-over, plus cold-brew and various coffee-over-ice options. For food, there are the aforementioned bagels, plus a range of (western) cakes and homemade cookies. You can also buy any of the beans in 200g bags.