Meet the man behind Beijing’s best coffee and café guide

Black White Filter is chronicling the best of the city’s independent cafés

Black White Filter
Amid the city’s explosion of cafés in recent years, one man’s mission to comprehensively document Beijing’s best is proving invaluable to capital caffeinistas (us included). Started in 2017 by Italian coffee and café expert Marco Constantini, Black White Filter is the online guide that’s sorting the divine from the dregs, with excellent reviews and news of local openings, as well as useful introductions to coffee jargon for the uninitiated. We caught up with the Marco to talk Beijing scenes, beans and recommendations.

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Black White Filter's sleek homepage

Where did this passion for coffee begin?
I was born in Italy, where coffee is part of our culture and day to day life: a stove-top at home in the morning, a cappuccino at the bar, a macchiato after lunch. I’ve worked for years as a barista and café manager in Europe and then New Zealand, experiences that introduced me to very different ways of making and drinking coffee.

And then China – here I’ve learned about appreciating light to medium roasts, floral notes, and pour-overs. All this has cemented my belief that there isn’t a right or wrong way of drinking coffee, and to appreciate the passion and hard work that have gone into making any cup put in front of me, as long as it is made with integrity.

Generally, how does the quality of coffee and baristas in Beijing compare to elsewhere?
Baristas here have different sets of skills, which aim towards pour-overs rather than espresso-based coffees: their knowledge of V60s, syphons, hand drips and similar is extensive. Baristas are also more likely to be roasting themselves, though this comes with inconsistent results.

There’s definitely a Beijing ‘coffee scene’, possibly just past its infancy stage, and it’s a tight community – café owners know each other, collaborate, and they are trying not to step on each other’s feet.

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A Berry Beans barista in action

In the explosion of cafés in Beijing in recent years, many have gone for a similar aesthetic, though quality of product can vary. How do you tell the good from the not-so good?
There is definitely a proliferation of what I call the ‘Metal Hands look’: exposed walls, marble benches, angular Ikea furniture, mirrors, and lots of cactuses. Metal Hands was the first one to introduce it, and many have followed suit. Some have just copied the design (and failed), some have used it as a backbone and developed their own look and feel as they have grown.

In terms of quality of product, a quick look at the menu and equipment can give away lots of information. It’s always recommended to ask who roasts the beans, when, and where; a quick browse through the selection of beans on offer gives an understanding of what to expect; an oily hopper or a dusty coffee machine are never a good sign.

I don’t speak Chinese and sometimes the baristas don’t speak English, so there are a lot of non-verbal exchanges – I’m Italian, I can talk with my hands! – but if they quickly try to sell me a coffee or totally ignore me, I usually walk out. If they try to engage and understand what I am looking for, then I would give it a go.

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Metal Hands' Wudaoying outlet

For you, which cafés stand out? Which are offering types of coffee that no others are?
Metal Hands is a special place for me as it was my first ‘local’ café in Beijing. It always delivers great coffee and service is impeccable. Their signature drink is called a dirty – a shot of espresso (from their Victoria Arduino lever machine) on cold milk.

With her great knowledge of tea, Da Xiao’s (Big Small) owner Yipeng has started a trend by using ground rooibos instead of coffee in chappuccino and chaffogatos. Its first location in the hutongs created a very loyal community and it’s sorely missed.

Basic Coffee offers nitro (cold brew and nitrogen), which is especially great in summer. Voyage is a safe bet for people that don’t know too much about coffee, as it has designed a menu to cover all bases. At the other end of the spectrum, Soloist has all the toys: Modbar, steampunk and a retro look that tick all boxes. I also look for ambience and comfort, and Living Room stands out with its really cosy and welcoming atmosphere, it really feels you’re in someone’s house.

Finally, you’re in a rush – where are you getting your quick fix? A convenience store coffee? Starbucks?
I’d rather wait than get a bad coffee! If I really had to, I’d probably go to Starbucks, but I wouldn’t recommend it…

Head over to Black White Filter for more of Marco’s coverage of the Beijing coffee and café scene.

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