Taipei Coffee Culture: Rich, Robust, and Satisfying

A decade ago it was difficult to find a decent cup of coffee, but today the city is a haven for specialty blends and cool places to drink them.

By Jules Quartly

Steaming mugs 2Coffee is a many-splendored thing, and Taiwan’s love affair with it is complicated by the existence of a significant other, namely tea. The two beverages have alternately tugged on the affections of the populace for centuries, ever since tea’s younger and possibly more glamorous rival entered the scene as far back as the early 17th century.

While tea had a long and classical upbringing in China that was naturally transplanted to Taiwan, it was the Dutch who introduced coffee – not long after the brew had spread from its original homeland of Ethiopia in the 16th century. If you were to draw a graph charting the relative popularity of tea and coffee in Taiwan, it would show that you can’t have too much of a good thing: caffeine in this case. Generally, when tea drinking rises in popularity, coffee dips and vice versa. At present we are very much on a coffee upswing and the trend shows little sign of flagging.

Look around Taipei and you are spoiled for choice. From the former milk tea and bubble tea vendors who are now capitalizing on the coffee fad, to well-established franchise chains and boutique or slow-life cafes, coffee has never been more popular on the island. In malls, on main streets, and down hard-to-find alleys, coffee has changed both the physical and cultural landscapes of the city and indeed the country as a whole.

But it has taken time for the humble coffee bean to become firmly rooted in Taiwan’s soil and its people’s hearts. The story begins with the Dutch establishing a foothold in what is now Tainan, in 1624. Spurned by China and spurred by trade, the Dutch East India Company saw Taiwan as a likely coffee plantation, and that was when the now famous coffee growing area of Gukeng, in Yunlin County, is thought to have first cultivated Coffea arabica.

Simon Hsieh – a recognized expert in the field as author, roaster, coffee buyer by trade, and owner of Soaring Phoenix Trading – says the Dutch also tried to grow seedlings in Tamsui but failed to recognize that the low altitude and salty, humid climate was entirely unsuitable. Even the success in Gukeng did not last long after Koxinga and his cohorts chased off the Dutch in 1662. Coffee growing there then went by the wayside, and it’s said that the only use for the red bean was as a form of decoration by Aboriginals.

Coffee expert Simon Hsieh enjoying a cup at the Chamber Cafe in the “coffee zone” near National Taiwan Normal University.

For a century, tea took hold and coffee was nowhere to be seen. It required another foreign colonization to reverse the tide – this time by Japan, which occupied Taiwan between 1895 and 1945. “The first coffee in Taiwan,” according to Hsieh, “was not planted by English traders (as the story is sometimes told) but rather it was Hawaiian seedlings sold to the Japanese, who brought them here in the late Qing Dynasty and transported them from Sanxia in Taipei County down to Gukeng, where they took hold.”

“The coffee wasn’t drunk here. The beans were all sent back to the emperor in Japan as a form of tribute. Even so, it was the Japanese who later established what was Taiwan’s first form of coffee culture, so perhaps we should be thankful,” Hsieh says.

A fascinating exhibition presented by the National Museum of History five years ago looked at Early Taiwanese Coffee Culture and portrayed how the Japanese set up the first cafes in Taiwan, along what is now HengYang Road, near Ximending. They were often opulent establishments, catering to high society individuals. Called katakana, they were the height of fashion. The interior design changed seasonally, as did the uniforms of the pretty waitresses. Some coffee houses morphed somewhat into lounge bars, which were effectively brothels. Meanwhile, Taiwanese who had studied abroad returned to open their own coffee shops. Artists and intellectuals gathered and the cafes occasionally became hotbeds of foment against Japan’s rule.

The eventual defeat of Japan in World War II and arrival of the Kuomintang in 1949 effectively set back the cause of coffee for another 40 years. The mainland migrants were loyal to tea and helped develop oolong into a world-beating brand. Then, milk teas bubbled up out of nowhere and coffee was out in the cold. In Gukeng and elsewhere, coffee plants were ripped out of the ground and replaced by tea plants and betel nut and fruit trees.

But the bean bounced back strongly in the 1990s and coffee houses started opening their doors, not so much for the upper echelons of society, as in Japan’s day, but for the ordinary man and woman on the street. The standards weren’t always high, but tastes were developing. Part of the new coffee revolution was Mr. Brown Coffee, which became a worldwide brand after its launch by the King Car group in 1982.

Taiwan-Grown-CoffeeIt was only a matter of time before Starbucks entered the fray, which it did in 1998. Other franchise coffee shops followed, such as Taiwan’s 85°C Bakery Café, whose business model has been to sell relatively inexpensive coffee and make its money from pastries. The owner, fittingly, used to run a chain of bubble-tea stores.

Now in the era of gourmet coffee outlets and boutique cafes, Simon Hsieh says the country’s economic performance over the past decade provides a ready explanation for the extraordinarily fast development of a flourishing and relatively mature coffee culture that is the equal of anywhere else.

“Ten years ago, the stock market was good and a few people who had extra funds started investing in coffee shops,” he relates. “Then with the stock market crash in 2008, many people who got laid off opened coffee shops. Ten years ago there were about 200 coffee shops in Taiwan; now there are well over 12,000, and they’re still opening more.”

Never slow to cash in and innovate, Taiwan businesspeople have made the most of the trend. Back in Gukeng, farmers started replacing the tea plants, betel nut trees, and fruit trees with coffee once more. Other nearby areas such as Dongshan in Greater Tainan followed suit. Meanwhile, Alishan in Chiayi County has made a name for itself with some super coffees – floral and fruity, complex and lighter than a dark roast – one of which was named by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) as a top-50 entrant in a competition for the world’s best.

Coffee Scoop and BeansObstacles to expansion

The pristine air of Alishan has an elevation and climate that is ideally suited to produce great coffee, following a long harvesting season from late November to May when the beans are picked, in stages, only when fully ripe. Hsieh says it is difficult to plant more coffee in the area because the land is often owned by Aboriginal tribes, which have protected the environment and understandably don’t want it to be spoiled by farming.

Another obstacle to further expansion, he continues, is that such coffees can never compete with most international brands on cost alone because labor is more expensive here and the sector hasn’t been opened to foreign workers. The only option is to compete in terms of quality, which is what Hsieh intends to do, working with farmers in the area to try out different processes, equipment, and strains of beans to produce the perfect cuppa.

Hsieh has a “zero defect” philosophy, which involves removing all unripe, insect infected, or moldy beans from the bag before roasting. He says that while even premium grades like Jamaican Blue Mountain Number One have up to 30% bad beans, he insists that sorting them out makes a better brew.

Water is another of Hsieh’s pet subjects – in particular the total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water, such as minerals, salts, and metals, which affect the brewing process. Naturally, softer and purer is better. He and other experts pass on these and other details in numerous coffee classes offered in Taipei and other cities, attended both by future café owners and the merely curious.

All of which is creating a land of aficionados equal to the world’s top coffee cities, according to a BBC Travel report in April 2014. An accompanying infographic demonstrates the cost of a good cup of coffee compared with the essentials of living like rent and gas. Taipei ranks well, along with Cuba’s Havana, meaning specialty coffee is an affordable pleasure here. The ratio in London, for example, is more than three times higher.

Also surfing the wave of coffee’s popularity is the Taiwan International Tea, Coffee & Wine Expo, which has developed massively since it was first established 23 years ago. Sales manager James Yau says the annual event has grown 10 times bigger since 2004, mainly due to a surge in the popularity of coffee. When the 2015 show is held at Nangang’s Taipei World Trade Center, probably in November, there are expected to be 528 coffee exhibitors, as opposed to 175 for tea and 149 wine booths.

Explaining the transformation in coffee’s fortunes, Yau says “Taiwan is a small island and can easily accept and transform various cultures from abroad.” As to whether coffee will continue to grab the attention of fickle consumers, he is bullish. “Coffee culture changes rapidly, just like consumption habits, so it’s hard to say that coffee culture is here to stay,” he reflects. “Even so, looking forward we are highly confident that it will keep growing.”

Ikari-coffee-taiwanCafés for all tastes

At Fong Da Coffee on ChengDu Road in Ximending, the roasting machine out front is tended by the manager, who scoops up the beans by hand and sniffs them to determine whether they are ready to be bagged. It’s an effective attraction because any nearby coffee lover is naturally drawn by the smell like a bear to honey.

As they have done since the café was founded in 1956, customers enter with noses twitching and eyes shining brightly, looking for a fix of Java, Arabica, Robusta or Typica – all varieties of coffee neatly displayed in wooden drawers. Adding to the atmosphere is the shop’s piled-high collection of French presses, coffee jars, and cups. There are also old-style Taiwanese biscuits in huge jars, a drip iced coffee device, and a couple of grinders to serve the true addict buying fresh beans for the home.

The décor at Fong Da may be slightly frayed, but it is clearly devoted to coffee, which is served from beans ground to order and percolated in bulbous glass beakers over a low naked flame. The product is unassailable, arriving black and steaming, mostly unadorned with froth, cream, or anything else.

Second-generation owner Tsao Shih-hua is ably assisted by his son, and the 90-something patriarch still pops in frequently to keep an eye on business. Fong Da has survived the slings and arrows of fate over its nearly 60-year history by being in the right place and sticking to core principles. It has always focused on specialty coffee and quality pastries, developing a loyal following.

Another place worth scouting out is Chamber Café in the “coffee zone” of National Taiwan Normal University, down a ShiDa Road back alley. Styled on a 1920s speakeasy, the café comes recommended by coffee expert Simon Hsieh, who praises the owners’ attention to detail when preparing his favorite blends. The staff will even discuss your requirements and explain where the coffees come from. Full of antiques, Chamber charges a premium for the experience, but it’s a perfect spot to while away a couple of hours and wonder afterward where they went.

A personal favorite is Orange Days near Taipei 101 and not far from the old military dependents’ Village 44 on WuXing Street. Again, it has a vaguely retro, New York-styled ambience. While the coffee is good, it is the small but perfectly formed collection of cakes home-baked every day that really hit the sweet spot.

Second-generation coffee shop owner Tsao Shih-hua roasting beans at his store.

For a taste of Australia and its specialty coffee culture, Woolloomooloo has a couple of branches around town, all industrial chic with light woods, steel, and gray plaster. While the smell of coffee often draws in passing traffic, the gastropub-type food, beer and desserts also have their fans.

Among the many places worth visiting in Tamsui, which has had a coffee culture longer than most areas around Taipei, is Eudora on GongMing Street. Cozy, with flower boxes on the window ledge and views of both the mountains and sea, it has a loyal following.

Whether you are looking for a blend, a destination, food, or a franchise, Taipei offers an abundance of choice. You are best advised to explore and discover a gem for yourself. Alternatively take the advice of a friend, flip through Facebook, or browse any number of blogs, websites, and even apps devoted to the city’s rich, robust, and satisfying coffee culture.