How Can Taiwanese Specialty Coffee Reach the International Market?

Entrepreneur Krude Lin has in a decade gone from calling Taiwanese coffee “yucky” to being elected chairperson of the Coffee Industrial Alliance of Taiwan. What potential does he see in Taiwanese coffee? 


The first time Krude Lin sampled Taiwanese coffee was over a decade ago. “It was expensive and yucky,” he recalls. But in April last year, when the Council of Agriculture established the Coffee Industrial Alliance of Taiwan (CIAT), Lin was elected chairperson. So what happened during the past ten years that made Lin believe in CIAT’s ambitions to take Taiwanese coffee to the international stage? 

While studying Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at National Taiwan University, Lin joined forces with his friends to establish Red on Tree, a company making jam and preserves from Taiwanese fruit. As Red on Tree became an overnight sensation, few knew that Lin was also a coffee enthusiast. 

When he was just a high school student, Lin brewed coffee at school daily. He also worked as a barista at a café and passed the catador (Spanish for “coffee cupper”) certification exam. 

As part of his fruit preserves sales representative work, Lin traveled around Taiwan visiting farmers. Hearing that a peach farmer had switched to growing coffee, Lin couldn’t resist defying his skepticism to try the coffee. To his surprise, Lin found the batch had a light peach flavor and an intense fruity aroma. The taste of good Taiwanese coffee ultimately convinced him that Taiwan’s soil and climate could cultivate coffee beans with unique characteristics. 

High-unit-cost specialty coffee is Taiwan’s solution 

“Taiwanese coffee has a chance to create value of a different kind,” asserts Lin. 

As a first step toward his new mission of promoting Taiwanese coffee, Lin set up a coffee department at Red on Tree. From there, Lin introduced coffee from around the globe, guiding and educating the market to lessen information asymmetry in the sector. The department would in 2012 break off on its own to become the Taiwan Coffee Laboratory.  

Although there were a few scattered coffee-producing areas around Taiwan a decade ago (the two most well-known being Kukeng in Yunlin and Tungshan in Tainan), they have yet to receive the attention they merited. In official Agriculture and Food Agency statistics, coffee-growing acreage figures have occasionally reached zero. Among coffee farmers, there is still talk of the government’s “three no’s” policy toward coffee: no promotion, no subsidies, and no guidance. 

Coffee wasn’t always deprioritized in Taiwan. During the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), more than 1,000 hectares were used for coffee cultivation, and during the post-war period, coffee was made a showcase crop. Despite this, the industry was unable to sustain itself.  

Krude Lin believes Taiwanese coffee holds great potential if the right efforts are made to cultivate and promote it.

“The government behaved as if this industry had disappeared,” says Lin, adding that instead of sitting in a café criticizing the government, it would be more productive to provide suggestions for improvement. 

Having toured many of the world’s major coffee-growing regions, Lin knows well that Taiwan’s best bet is specialty coffee. Coffee farmers must understand international quality standards early in their cultivation efforts to find their place in the market. 

Before assuming the position of Chairperson of the Coffee Industrial Alliance of Taiwan, Lin had spent several years working with different regional agricultural research stations to develop national specialty coffee evaluation guidelines. He also rallied farmers from various regions to participate in ratings to help them better understand their market competitiveness and improve investment and production methods.  

Attesting to the impact these types of efforts have had on the market is Yu Jy-chyi, founder of Aura Cafe in Taipei. “Once the catador certification system and competition-judging mechanisms were introduced in Taiwan, it helped farmers grow coffee beans that meet international standards.” 

Gaining international attention 

Following many years of promoting increased coffee standards, Lin last year teamed up with the Taiwan Coffee Association and the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE) to hold the Taiwan Private Collection Auction (PCA), a domestic spinoff of the global internet auction platform that promotes better pricing for coffee farmers.  

The auction featured nine Taiwanese coffee bean varieties and attracted bidders from 14 countries. These included respected names like American Blue Bottle Coffee, a company considered a major player in the third-wave coffee movement, which emphasizes high quality and distinctive flavors. 

Reportedly, when the Taiwanese American executive at Blue Bottle tasted one of the coffees on auction and learned that it had been grown in Taiwan, he exclaimed with shock, “No way! Taiwan doesn’t even produce coffee.” 

Sun-dried Geisha coffee beans from the Chuowu Shan Coffee Plantation in Chiayi set an ACE record during the bidding, fetching US$500.50 per pound. Four vendors joined the bid, including Simple Kaffa, a joint venture between a Hong Kong coffee company and multi-time World Barista Champion Wu Tze-lin of Taiwan. As for the other eight varieties, buyers from countries like the United States and Saudi Arabia won the bids. 

The auction’s effect, according to PCA finals head judge Scott Conary, is that “the demand and supply will certainly increase greatly” for Taiwanese coffee. 

The success of the PCA ultimately inspired Lin, Yu, and Taiwan Coffee Development Association President Tsai Chih-yu to form an industrial alliance. 

The group’s short-term goal is to ensure that farmers on the production end have a good grasp and understanding of coffee quality. After that, they aim to distinguish Taiwanese coffee through innovative approaches, such as blending spices like cinnamon and orange with coffee beans during fermentation and fermenting the beans in oak barrels. 

Their ultimate goal is to raise the value of Taiwanese coffee to the point where it can become a high-growth industry. However, Lin emphasizes that “first, more people, including local citizens and the international market, must become acquainted with Taiwanese coffee.” 

This article first appeared in CommonWealth Magazine in May 2022. It has been reprinted, with editing and updating, with permission from the publisher. Translation from the original Chinese was done for CommonWealth by David Toman.