Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: Olympia Graeco-Egyptian Coffee – Fresh Roasted Since 1927

For decades, a small shop with a strange name filled Old Bailey Street with the smell of freshly roasted coffee. The aroma was coming from the cluttered premises of Olympia Graeco-Egyptian Coffee Roasters, where a slight, balding man named Ho Shiu-kai ground coffee to order for a stream of regular customers. It was one of Hong Kong’s few sources for fresh-roasted coffee – and a particularly affordable one at that. 

The spot where the shop once stood is now a hole in the ground as workers build a luxury high-rise in its place. But the story doesn’t end there. Nor is that really the beginning. Founded nearly a century ago, Olympia continues to thrive as a family-owned business, keeping up with the increasingly complicated demands of a city where coffee has become far more than just a simple cup.

“Coffee has really supported our family since I was born,” says Katie Ho, Shiu-kai’s daughter, who now runs Olympia with her brother Edwin. The business traces its origins back to 1927, when a Greek-Egyptian man opened the Graeco-Egyptian Store in the China Building, at the corner of Pedder Street and Queen’s Road Central. It sold house-roasted coffee alongside other sundries. After World War II, the original owner passed the business down to his son in law, Gregory Sarafoglou, who hired Ho Shiu-kai as an employee in 1955. Ho took charge of roasting coffee and followed the business as it moved to Hollywood Road and then to Old Bailey Street. When Sarafoglou retired, Ho took over the business and added “Olympia” to the name. 

Like any good family business, Ho had his children help out on the weekends. “I have to admit I hated coffee when I was young,” says Katie. “I wanted to go out and live my life, meet my friends. When I could meet them, I felt really embarrassed because I was full of coffee smell. The smell of coffee wasn’t really attractive when it was mixed with your sweat and everything.” She eventually came around. “I started to understand that coffee is actually quite nice when you sit down to enjoy it,” she says. “And I understood that it supported my family.”

In the early days, Olympia did more wholesale business, supplying restaurants and hotels. But it eventually became too difficult to compete with large companies like Tsit Wing, a coffee equipment importer that began roasting industrial-sized batches of coffee in 1963, or Pacific Coffee, which came onto the scene in the 1990s. So the roastery began to focus on retail clients. In a 1998 interview with the South China Morning Post, Ho said he had regular customers from as far as Canada and Australia who rang him up for coffee whenever they were in town. “I’ve even popped down to the hotel where they are staying to drop some off for them,” he said. Katie remembers seeing generations of the same family pass through the business. “Fathers would come with their children and when their children grew up and began drinking coffee, they would come in too,” she says.

There was a reason for such loyalty. It wasn’t long ago that good coffee was hard to find in Hong Kong – especially if you wanted to brew it at home. “[Olympia] used to be about the only place you could buy coffee beans, other than Wellcome’s counter with these big glass boxes that had the same beans sitting in them for years, and where you had to go and ask to get the key to turn on the grinder,” says former Hong Kong resident Nicholas Olczak. 

Angelo Costadimas remembers reading about the shop in a travel guide when he first moved to Hong Kong in 1988. “It stuck in my mind because my mother, as well as both her parents—one Italian, the other Greek—were born in Egypt,” he says. He often went to buy dark roast coffee “that would yield a good and strong cup of coffee on my stove top moka pot.” Occasionally, Ho would brew him a cup of Turkish coffee. “He would ground some freshly roasted beans and then he would boil them in a small copper pot with some sugar,” he recalls. “It was pretty much perfect, like you would get in Greece or Turkey.” 

For years, Olympia was a reliable source of coffee that didn’t break the bank. Anyone who trudged up the hill to Old Bailey Street would be rewarded by a bag of fresh-roasted coffee that was less than half the price of something comparable at supermarket. But the days when it was difficult to get a good cup of coffee in Hong Kong are long gone. The city has embraced so-called “third wave” of specialty coffee, which promotes the idea of coffee as a true agricultural product, with terroir and complexity that varied from place to place, or even from farm to farm. Olympia has kept up with the changing market. Ho Shiu-kai had always focused on traditional Italian-style blends, but after died in 2011, Katie and Edwin took over the business and began exploring other kinds of coffee.

It started with a fateful trip to a small café in Taiwan. “The cup that converted us was a cup of Geisha,” says Katie, referring to a variety of arabica originally from Ethiopia, but which is now grown around the world. This particular batch was farmed in Colombia. Katie and Edwin were sitting a couple of metres away from the barista when he ground the beans. “It was so fragrant, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. He brewed it using a syphon, a kind of vacuum-based machine that looks like something a mad scientist would use to make coffee. The siblings were blown away by the results. “When we tried it we realised [coffee] didn’t have to be acidic, it could actually be quite sweet,” says Katie. They followed it up with an equally great cup of Brazilian yellow bourbon and vowed to dive head first into the world of specialty coffee. 

Back in Hong Kong, Katie and Edwin began buying specialty-grade beans, which they roasted at different levels—light, medium, dark—to bring out a variety of flavours. In 2013, Katie decided to bolster her coffee knowledge by taking a course to become a Q Grader – the coffee equivalent of a sommelier. 

“It was really tough,” she says. “After the first lesson I was completely depressed. I was trying to learn something new, support my family, and I didn’t think I could pass the exam. Luckily, the tutors there were really helpful. And so were the students. Most of my classmates were already into specialty coffee so they had a little experience. They helped me out. I was one of the 50 percent of people who passed.”

That launched Katie into the world of professional coffee evaluation, which took her to Costa Rica in 2017 to serve as a judge in the Cup of Excellence, a competition and auction for specialty coffees. It was a chance for her to visit coffee farms and develop a relationship with the farmers themselves. She returned to Costa Rica again in 2019 to visit some of the people she had met on her earlier trip. “I want to introduce them to people in Hong Kong,” she says. 

The siblings recently roasted a batch of Geisha beans they imported from Costa Rica. “When the farmer introduced it to me, he said they had a funky fermentation,” says Katie. One of the revelations of specialty coffee is that the flavour of coffee can vary not just from one variety of bean to another, but from how the coffee cherries themselves are processed. In this case, the farmer was using a new method that involves harvesting the cherries and letting them ferment in an anaerobic environment. Coffee begins to ferment as soon as the cherries are picked from the tree, infusing the beans with natural sugars, acids, carbon dioxide, ethyl alcohol and other compounds that give coffee its flavour. Fermenting the beans in a vessel without oxygen is a way to amp up certain flavours and dial back others. Katie says the Costa Rican farmer “increases the temperature so the speed of fermentation can be increased in a short amount of time. You end up with a more yogurt type of acidity in it, which is quite interesting.”

That may sound wonky, but it’s exactly the kind of thing coffee geeks are looking for. And there are more and more of them in Hong Kong. Over the past few years, the specialty coffee scene has exploded, with small shops all over the city serving espresso, pour-overs, syphon coffee and more. There are more and more small roasters, too, with companies like Knockbox, 18 Grams, N1 and Craft Coffee serving the same market as Olympia. “There’s always a difference between each roaster,” says Katie. “We have different roasting machines, different preferences of roasting styles, different beans. Some people like trying different roasters. There’s competition but it’s not negative at all – it makes things more vibrant.”

Olympia’s gradual evolution was interrupted three years ago when it was forced out of its Old Bailey Street shop. “We were looking for a ground floor shop, hopefully in the same area, but 2018 was still boom times in Hong Kong. It was too expensive,” says Katie. After a brief residency at PMQ, she and Edwin found a new home for the roastery inside a Kowloon Bay industrial block. 

“It is about 400-something square feet,” she says – double the size of the Old Bailey shop. Virtually all of the shop’s coffee is now delivered directly to customers. It includes plenty of specialty roasts, but also the same traditional blend her father made, which at HK$50 is still one of the most affordable bags of beans in town. “Even our current customers will buy a mixture of the old-style coffee plus the new-style coffee,” says Katie. After all, when you’ve been in business for nearly a century, it’s important to keep some connection to the past.

Olympia Graeco-Egyptian’s coffee can be ordered for delivery via its Facebook page.

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