Retired engineer makes coffee his business

Mr Thomas Tian, 63, in his Beijing workshop with student Michelle Cai. Mr Tian teaches people how to roast coffee beans and how to make a good cup of coffee.
Mr Thomas Tian, 63, in his Beijing workshop with student Michelle Cai. Mr Tian teaches people how to roast coffee beans and how to make a good cup of coffee.ST PHOTO: GOH SUI NOI

Mr Thomas Tian is proof that there is life after retirement.

When he retired at 60 three years ago as a mechanical engineer, he packed his bags and headed to Beijing to start a business in what has been a passion and a hobby - coffee roasting and coffee making.

"I have to do something after I retire," he said simply.

He now runs a workshop for those who want to learn about coffee beans, how to roast them and how to make a good cup of coffee.

His students come from all over China, including the far-flung Xinjiang region. They comprise people who just want to make good coffee, those who want to work in the coffee industry or those already in the business who want to upgrade their skills. The last group makes up 80 per cent of his students.

One of them is Ms Michelle Cai, 44, a coffee lover always looking for a better way to make the aromatic drink - she bought a coffee machine from Italy during a trip there.

The freelance event presenter had learnt of Mr Tian's workshop from a friend who had attended it.


"It's like a big family here," she said of the workshop.

Mr Tian's long odyssey to Beijing began when he was five and given coffee and biscuits for breakfast in his hometown of Kuching, Malaysia. Later, as an engineer in Singapore, he chanced upon a coffee roasting factory and loved the aroma so much he became a student of the business owner.

He spent many of his after-work hours with his "shifu" - master - as he called the man who taught him coffee roasting, including knowledge about different coffee beans and the type of roasting needed to bring out their aroma and flavour.

A year before he retired, Mr Tian started to travel regularly to Beijing to get to know its coffee industry.

He chose Beijing over places like Shanghai and Guangzhou because coffee drinking was less developed in the Chinese capital and therefore he would face less competition.

At the same time, Beijing was not too underdeveloped - there were enough expatriates, what with the embassies and foreign companies' representative offices, and Chinese nationals who have returned from overseas, who drink coffee.

Still, it was an uphill task. Much of the first year was spent knocking on doors, giving demonstrations at cafes and organising coffee tasting sessions at his workshop. But he never thought of giving up.

"I knew things would come slowly," he said.

In the second year, he began to build contacts and his brand. And after three years, he said: "I feel more confident."

Said Mr Tian, who has a son in his 30s: "I enjoy my life, I enjoy teaching and sharing my skills with my students, they are my sons and daughters."

Goh Sui Noi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'Retired engineer makes coffee his business'. Print Edition | Subscribe