Leisure & Culture #54

Running a Business is Far Harder than Picking Beans

Olympia Graeco Egyptian Coffee

Text & photo: Kit Chan
Translation: Derek Leung

Out a slew of coffee beans are poured onto a bamboo sieve, then off a rough but dexterous hand shows to stretch the beans and pick out the dissatisfying ones. Over and over again such an action of check and pick goes and on and on for batches of beans…

The same scene shows whenever I step into Olympia Graeco Egyptian Coffee. A bad coffee bean to be picked out of thousands is like a needle in a haystack. Is it necessary to be that nitpicking?

“If we don't pick it up by hand, the coffee will taste dry and astringent and its aroma will be affected,” understated the owner Edwin.

Most of the pick, rather than the premier ones, are the immature or the unripe, or even the bad beans that have been worm-eaten or rotten.

Not only do the eyes suffer from this handpicking procedure, the fingers may also be cut accidentally by the bamboo splits when the beans are stretched on the sieve. This is the reason why Edwin’s index finger is always wrapped in a rubber sleeve.

Most of the time a coffee roaster spends is not only roasting but on picking beans. Bean picking can be carried out around the clock because best roast is believed to be from well-picked beans.

Such a persistent cost-disoriented approach is inherited from the former owner Edwin’s father Uncle Ho.

Uncle Ho is deemed identical to Olympia Graeco Egyptian Coffee and both can be considered the legends of Hong Kong: The shop was founded in Pedder Street, Central in 1927 by an Egyptian couple from Greece and was engaged in the sale of coffee beans and tobacco. After wars, the ownership cum management was handed over to the couple’s son-in-law and Uncle He was employed in 1955 for bean roasting and daily shop operation. In 1984 when the shop ownership was handed over to Uncle Ho, the shop name was officially changed to Olympia Graeco Egyptian Coffee.

In those years when the coffee culture was not very popular in Hong Kong, Olympia Graeco Egyptian Coffee was one of the very few roasters in a prime location with frequent patronage of celebrities, artists, and even civil servants from the neighboring Victoria Prison (now known as Tai Kwun), as well as frequent purchase from a few five-star hotels.

Turning to the millennium, the coffee culture becomes a fashionable. While upcoming coffee brands are sweeping through, Olympia Graeco Egyptian Coffee takes its pace and sticks to its practice on bean picking and roasting. Thanks to the word-of-mouth recommendation, this city legend remains and its competitiveness has never been reduced.

In 2011, Edwin and his elder sister Katie took over the business since their father Uncle Ho died of illness. The vintage well-brewed Regular House Blend personally developed by Uncle Ho has never lost its classiness to the sought-after taste of the present time, while Edwin’s up-to-date concoction of Gold Blend together with the recent addition of coffee beans from independent origins and various brewing tools are the latest timely, though slow, development of the brand.

Yet, the sea is never still. Last year, the two siblings were informed of the demolition and reconstruction of the building concerned. A brand with five relocation in Central over the past 90 years cannot but move again.

Now temporarily nestled in PMQ until end-January, 2019, Olympia Graeco Egyptian Coffee will be moved to a unit in an industrial building in Kowloon Bay, officially bidding farewell to Hong Kong Island where it has been located for nearly a century.

“Dad would surely be unhappy if he knew that,” expressed Katie, calm and composed. “But it might be the way out. Who knows?”

The Hobart grinder from the US dated back to the 1920s, the classic abacus, the newspaper clippings about the interviews throughout all these years, and Uncle Ho’s photos taken in the old store, the unknowingly famous football given to Uncle Ho as a souvenir by a national Japanese soccer referee, as well as a black-and-white old photo showing a blurred image of the first ever shop location and so on will be carried along and placed in the next location.

While the world is ever-changing, something that can remain unchanged should be kept forever.