Can a New Bean Make Taiwan’s Coffee Industry Boom?

Taiwan’s first domestically bred coffee bean could potentially help the island’s coffee farmers overcome agricultural and climate challenges.


Life in China was pretty good for Liu Yi-teng. During his six years there, he built a prolific career running a shoe factory. The salary was high: he was able to afford a house and a car, and his wife and two daughters were happy.

But his family members back home in Taiwan were getting old. “I didn’t want to have any regrets,” he said. So he moved back to Taiwan to take over the family business: coffee growing on a farm in Yunlin County’s Hebaoshan area.

That was over a decade ago. Since his return, Liu has used the business chops he acquired in school and working abroad to cultivate his family’s coffee business – Guquan Coffee Farm in Yunlin County – into a more profitable endeavor by turning it into an yitiaolong (一條龍), or one-stop enterprise. He does everything himself, from the growing to the roasting and packaging, and has added tours, classes, and a coffee shop to the business model.

Liu Yi-ting, above, shows off peeled coffee beans and holds up a just picked berry, below, at the Guquan Coffee Villa in Yunlin County.

Without that model, he might have been unable to survive. Taiwan’s coffee industry, while growing quickly, is still small. Domestically grown coffee represents only 10-15% of local demand, and much local coffee is purchased or consumed by local businesses or tourists visiting farms like Liu’s. 

Liu’s 2,500 Arabica, Robusta, and Liberica coffee trees can produce about 1.8 tons of coffee beans a year. High labor costs, he says, have presented a barrier to expanding his output. The other major stumbling block? The plants themselves.

The coffee plants used in Taiwan originally hail from regions like Central and South America, and researchers say these plants have not been able to thrive and meet their full potential in Taiwan’s climate, where only 35% of arable land lies in the middle to high altitudes. Liu’s farm in Hebaoshan, which sits at only 200 meters above sea level, is far from what most coffee experts would consider the ideal climate for growing coffee.

Still, coffee used to thrive here. The Japanese made Yunlin a coffee-growing region, exporting most of it as a luxury good during the colonial era.

“When I was a kid, the reason we could grow so much coffee was because there was frost during the winters and the temperature difference between night and day was much greater, so the coffee grown here was very high quality,” Liu says.

By the time Liu had returned from China, the climate had changed.

“In the 10 years I’ve been back, I haven’t seen any frost, so the speed of growth is a little bit exaggerated,” he says. “When I was small, the time between flowering and maturing was about 10 or 11 months and then the beans could be picked. But now, the coffee is mature after only about eight months, so it’s much faster.”

This change has negatively affected the quality of Liu’s beans. So for the past decade, he’s been diligently experimenting with different coffee varieties and processing methods to find which plants are most suitable to produce the highest quality and best flavor in this climate.

Chang Shu-fen, a researcher at the Council of Agriculture’s Chiayi Agricultural Experiment Station, believes she may have the answer. For the past 15 years, she and other researchers have been experimenting with coffee breeding to solve the problems that farmers like Liu have been experiencing.

Years of painstaking research finally bore fruit last year with the development of Tainung No. 1 (台農一號), Taiwan’s first domestically bred coffee bean, suitable to grow in high-, middle-, or low-altitude climates.

To create Tainung No. 1, researchers mutated an Arabica Bourbon plant until they ended up with a variety that exemplifies its most desirable traits. The result is a plant with smaller leaves, a coffee berry yield 1.2 times greater than average, and a pure taste with a thick body and rich, nutty aroma.

“It should help farmers who are growing coffee in this part of Taiwan,” Chang said. “There’s an opportunity for Tainung No. 1 to become the major coffee variety in Taiwan.”

A growing industry

Many other coffee farmers have chosen a route similar to Liu’s, creating yitiaolong businesses and incorporating tourism as part of the business model.

It’s a trend that’s grown alongside Taiwan’s blossoming US$2.76 billion coffee-drinking market, which has been expanding by 20% a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), Taiwanese consume about 2.85 billion cups of coffee annually and imports of coffee beans were worth US$263 million in 2020, an 11% increase from the year before.

By comparison, Taiwanese drank about 204 cups per year in 2018 and a mere 36 in 1990.

Fang Cheng-lun, known as Taiwan’s coffee prince, showing off his coffee trees, already bearing fruit as early as April.

Taiwan’s domestically produced green beans – or unroasted coffee beans – represent only 3% of the imported volume. Still, the market has been growing: the annual yield has increased from about 700,000 kilograms in 2010 to almost 1 million kilograms in 2020, according to statistics from the Taiwan Coffee Association (TCA).

Seeing these trends, more local farmers are trying to break into the market. Chang says some are even giving up growing tea to pursue coffee growing, which is seen as a more profitable endeavor.

But high costs have also limited the local beans’ access to international markets and even domestic coffee shops, says Van Lin, known as the “godfather” of Taiwan’s coffee scene and owner of GABEE Cafe in Taipei. “When I go to buy coffee, I can actually spend the same amount of money to get a better-quality foreign coffee,” Lin says.

“The challenge farmers are facing right now is the economy of scale,” says Alex Chou of Oklao Coffee, a Taiwanese company that grows, roasts, and exports coffee. “One estate can be responsible for one to two acres of coffee. But after their yearly yield, they might not earn their balance.”

Climate change, too, has forced Oklao to raise its coffee prices after frosts and floods in Brazil damaged crops in recent years. Oklao also grows its own coffee on a farm in Laos, but has plans to start farms in Taiwan soon.

The Chiayi research team hopes Tainung No. 1 can resolve all of these tough agricultural and climate challenges. “Because Tainung No. 1 can adapt better and can be planted in low altitudes at high quality, it belongs to specialty coffee,” says Chang Jer-way, director of the Horticulture Division at the Chiayi Agricultural Experiment Station. “This means that the farmers in lower altitudes can make more money because of the cost of the coffee. Their profits will be higher. That’s our purpose. We hope much of what we grow can make a good profit.”

Some in the industry, like Wu Yi-ling, vice president of the Taiwan Coffee Association, say that this may be a lofty goal and remain skeptical of exactly how much Tainung No. 1 can do for the market. She says some farmers, many of whom get coffee plants from neighboring farms, still don’t know what coffee varieties they are planting.

“I think it’s a beautiful dream; whether it will come true or not, maybe in the future,” she says. “But I think the first thing you have to do is know what variety the farmers are planting right now. Because in Taiwan there are more than 20 different varieties; farmers are making hybrids by themselves.”

Coffee farmers, as well as Chou and Wu, all say that flavor is the most important factor, not just production yields. After all, as demand for specialty coffee grows and farmers have to figure out how to balance costs, they’re more concerned with cultivating high quality rather than quantity.

But Tainung No. 1 still needs time before it hits local coffee shops. Researchers on the project say the variety was licensed to a company to produce more seedlings in October. From there, it could take at least three years for fruiting to begin after field planting, meaning the earliest it may be available for the public to try is 2025.

And trials are still ongoing, as researchers want to continue experimenting with Tainung No. 1’s flavor and its resistance to diseases like coffee rust. As of now, the trees have been grown only at the Chiayi Agricultural Experiment Station, which sits at about 17 meters above sea level. Even though it survives in this climate, “we predict that Tainung No. 1, if we planted it in higher altitudes, would maybe perform better,” Chang Jer-way says. “Of course, we must try first. But based on our research and our experience, it will.”

Lin of GABEE eagerly awaits the arrival of Tainung No. 1 to the market. “This will be a positive development for Taiwan’s coffee industry,” he says. “When we drink Guatemalan, we immediately know this is Guatemalan. So we look forward to, when we drink a cup of Taiwan-grown coffee, thinking ‘this is Taiwan’s distinctive flavor.’”