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Beijing cafes booming not because of coffee, but space

While it is no surprise that many Beijingers have taken to coffee since foreign companies arrived on the scene nearly 10 years ago, customers are hanging out at cafes not for the coffee - but the environment.

Ren Yue, 31, is the face of the Chinese coffee drinking generation. As a successful banking consultant, drinking a cup of Joe became part of her daily routine more than six years ago. Her doctor even recommended she started drinking coffee to aid digestion.

While she is a coffee lover, most of her friends are not - but that has not stopped them from being part of Beijing's emerging cafe culture.

A decade ago, Starbucks opened its first store on the Chinese mainland, looking to shake up the long-standing tea drinking culture with a jolt of caffeine. A few years later, Yue had her first sip of coffee and she was soon hooked.

Starbucks now runs about 700 outlets on the mainland. Martin Coles, president of Starbucks Coffee International Inc, told Bloomberg news agency in July that "China clearly is a huge opportunity for us, today and into the foreseeable future".

Starbucks is not the only foreign coffee chain doing business in China. Popular United Kingdom company Costa Coffee started serving Chinese customers in Shanghai in 2006 with the opening of their first Chinese store, and has opened 33 stores in China since.

However, its President Paul Smith says the business model is different from that in the UK because it is not about the product people are buying, but the place that it is offered in.

"It's not just coffee that you're selling in China, it's 20 minutes' of personal space, in a country of 1.3 billion people and you only have to sit and watch the seats that fill up first to really understand how important that factor is," Smith said.

Yue herself first stepped into a Chinese cafe called Sculpting in Time, near her home in Wudaokou several years ago. She soon found herself bringing piles of books into the outlet on the weekend and camping out for hours until it closed, soaking up caffeine and reading novels cover to cover.

"At home, I always think about watching TV or cooking, or doing something else," she explained. "But at the coffee shop, I have nothing else to do except reading." For her, the coffee shop was a stress-free place to relax.

For college students in the Wudaokou area, four-storey coffee shop The Bridge has become the ultimate hangout.

Close to Tsinghua University and several other schools, the place remains packed throughout the day with Chinese and foreign students. Many of these students share small dorm rooms with several roommates, so The Bridge offers a place to get some space.

Yue hangs out there with several girls dragging on cigarettes and sending cellphone messages to friends. While Yue likes her coffee black, her friends do not actually like the taste of the drink. They say they are there to enjoy the environment.

One of the most popular expat cafes in the capital is The Bookworm in Sanlitun. The establishment brings in its customer base by encouraging customers to build communities in their space, Bookworm's events coordinator Jenny Niven said.

In the last two years, more Chinese people have started attending the cafe's events, she said.

"There are people whom you see every single morning. They use it like an office," she said.

Niven said it is not just the sophistication of the coffee that is bringing people in. "If it was coffee, they would all just be going to Starbucks," she said. "We invite people to make it a home."