Coffee Commune drives 'Shangri-La' dream

Lin Lixin
Cafe is a bridge for farmers to promote their high-quality coffee beans to domestic and global consumers, says Eric Baden, the owner of Coffee Commune.
Lin Lixin

"扎台型" Shangri-La

Coffee Commune (咖啡公社) is one of the few cafes focusing on supporting Yunnan coffee in Shanghai. Its chief executive, Eric Baden, is a German who used to be CEO of a chemical company and has lived in Shanghai for nearly 20 years.

Coffee beans from Yunnan are the major product on the shelf as you step into the cafe near Longyang Road Metro Station in the Pudong New Area.

A high ceiling with a large space provides consumers with a relaxing bright and pristine environment. The wall painting, showing a woman planting coffee beans, depicts the cafe's connection to Yunnan farmers.

For Baden, Coffee Commune is a "Shangri-La" from the bottom of his heart. It is not only a place for him to realize his coffee dream, but an intermediate platform between Yunnan farmers and the global coffee market.

Coffee Commune drives 'Shangri-La' dream
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Coffee Commune enables Eric Baden to communicate with people from different age groups with different coffee preferences.

Connecting Yunnan coffee to the world

Ten years ago, Baden happened to learn about stories of impoverished people from Yunnan. After careful deliberation, he decided to devote himself to the coffee industry and help local people earn a decent living through planting coffee beans and expanding their markets.

He thinks that "we need to attack the root of the problem and help rural communities actually stay intact, so that people don't have to leave where they were born and grew up and become part of the community."

Baden systematically gained his coffee knowledge in a Yunnan coffee school. Now, he regularly goes there, at least once a month, to teach farmers how to grow, harvest and dry better coffee beans.

He feels connected and touched by these local people. Seeing the living condition "these very sincere and hard working people are living in" just broke his heart. But knowing that "they have so much joy in doing what they do and make progress" also won his heart. That's the reason for him to try so hard to protect these farmers' "Shangri-La."

Based on Baden's efforts, the word "commune" implies he is "trying to build a community." Farmers are more familiar with the Chinese "gongshe," which was widely used as "Renmin Gongshe (People's Commune)" during the second half of 20th century in china. It's the best way to close the gap between locals and expats, and the young and old.

Coffee Commune drives 'Shangri-La' dream
Eric Baden / Ti Gong

Coffee Commune is also like a bridge enabling farmers to reach domestic and global

consumers to promote their high-quality coffee beans to the world. Baden continues trying to find a space for Yunnan coffee in the world and is focusing on the region's red earth. He has a dream that it can be branded the "The Red-Earth coffee community." He wants to set up a chain to prove Yunnan coffee could be a brand equivalent to that from other origins, such as Colombia and Ethiopia.

His hard work started to pay off at the end of 2019. A roaster from New Zealand invited him to attend Golden Bean ANZ 2019, one of the world's largest coffee competitions, in Sydney. He won the silver medal in the milk-based category, making him more confident about the enormous potential of Yunnan coffee.

The impact of COVID-19 has been a major challenge in his quest to promote Yunnan coffee. previously, he had many chances to be a coffee judge around the world, so he would bring Yunnan samples with him. During breaks, he would ask other judges' advice and then give the feedback to Yunnan farmers to improve the quality.

Although he cannot personally represent Yunnan coffee around the world since the pandemic, he is insisting on sending samples to different countries, so that more people get to know about the high quality of coffee beans from Yunnan.

Shanghai coffee ambiance

Baden first visited Shanghai when he was posted to the city by his former chemical company. He now finds life and the culture easy and has built more relationships, so he stays.

He has lived with his family in Kangqiao, a community 10 kilometers away from his cafe, since he came to Shanghai. In his leisure time, he loves walking his dog Daisy and enjoys family time in the garden, activity that makes him feel like being back in his own country.

Baden knows more about Puxi through his habit of "cafe hopping" – taking the subway, choosing a kind of coffee, like Espresso, Latte or Americano, and ordering it haphazardly in different cafes, just walking slowly along old streets with sycamore trees and old villas.

Coffee Commune drives 'Shangri-La' dream
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Yunnan coffee beans sold in Baden's cafe near Longyang Road, Pudong New Area

In terms of coffee culture, he feels Puxi and Pudong, separated by the Huangpu River, are like Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York City. The Manhattan-style "espresso culture" is fast, like it is in Puxi, where consumers prefer quick short coffees. On the other side of the river, they are more willing to "enjoy the smell of the coffee" in a Brooklyn-style cafe.

"That was my vision for this place," Baden said. Coffee Commune is his dream cafe – a large space with a slow pace. It's more like a "lab" for consumers to gather and enjoy coffees now and then, enabling Baden to communicate with people from different age groups with different coffee preferences.

As an expat living in Shanghai for two decades, he has been deeply attracted by the city's fast-changing and creative coffee culture, with localized specialties. Cafes are like "Shangri-La" for coffee lovers to escape from the bustling city for a short rest.

Baden notices that big brands like Starbucks initially brought coffee into China. Many expats opened individual cafes later, but they paid more attention to expressing their own coffee culture to local consumers. Most coffees were roasted and made in exotic but traditional ways, such as espresso, flat white or pour-over coffees, in the first generation of cafes in Shanghai.

Coffee Commune drives 'Shangri-La' dream
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

With the rapid development of the local coffee culture, cafe owners, dominated by young local baristas and Generation Z, have become more sophisticated and creative.

"They like to mix and match everything. They start out learning everything they can about coffee, so they know all the different styles. They just open a cafe at the sweet spot they personally prefer." In terms of diversity in Shanghai, Baden finds that is fascinating.

He also finds that in the digital age, most cafes are beyond selling coffees and are not a third space for social communication anymore: "It's changing to become more like a space of self-expression than a space to spend my time and do my usual routine."

Wanghong (Internet celebrities) rush to famous and crowded cafes, focusing on the design instead of flavors and continuously take selfies to cater to social media. It's a new way to express their personalities, but Baden believes that "designs come and go, what stays is a solid product."

Although it's hard for Baden to promote samples overseas because of the pandemic-affected international logistics, there are now opportunities for Yunnan coffee in the domestic market, especially for specialty beans. More cafe owners and coffee lovers are choosing local and high-quality coffee beans.

Baden has noticed that the demand for coffee beans in china has changed from quantity to quality. The market share of premium beans has increased a lot, especially Arabica which is becoming the major product of Yunnan coffee.

Baden thinks it's the best time to seize the opportunity to improve Yunnan coffee beans' quality and image: "You need to bring together your unique product and promote it."

With more mature coffee consumers in Shanghai, Baden anticipates that the city will play an increasingly important role shaping the future of global cafes.

He doesn't "feel like a foreigner here anymore" because after living in the city for so long, Shanghai has gradually become his home.

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