Taipei has an incrediblecoffeescene, so I knew that with only four days there, I would hardly scratch the surface. I somehow managed to learn quite a lot, though. Here are the highlights:
Taiwan grows coffee. This is kind of basic, but I never realized it until somebody told me in Hawaii. I knew of course that Taiwan grows tea, but I didn’t know they also grow coffee. I was not in the country long enough to visit any of the farms in the south, but I did get to drink a cup of it at Fong Da.Don’t expect to see Taiwanese coffee in your supermarket, though: I’m told most of the cherry is bought underripe by Chinese cosmetics companies who want the antioxidants in the seed.
There are a ton of coffee shops in Taipei running a wide gamut in terms of quality. In the States, coffee shops fall pretty squarely into the categories of first, second, and third wave coffee. (Think roughly of Maxwell House/Folgers; Starbucks/Peet’s; indie shop serving Counter Culture/Intelligentsia/Stumptown.) But even in the mere four days I spent in Taipei, I found everything from night market espresso—costs about $1 and tasted pretty good for the price point—to the $11 cup of Burundi natural that I wrote about earlier.
I do mean everything:
A lot of the better shops only open in the afternoon. For example, Simple Kaffa, the home of World Barista Champion Berg Wu, only opens at 12:30. On the flip side, I wish I could get coffee that good late at night in New York. More on one late-night discovery in a forthcoming post.
“Specialty coffee” means something different in Taiwan. In the States, the term “specialty coffee” is usually used to differentiate quality coffee from commodity coffee. It is sometimes also used to differentiate a type of coffee shop, with cafes that serve espresso-based drinks, lattes, and mochas saying that they serve “specialty” drinks. In Taipei, that latter usage seemed more prevalent to me. I suppose the reason for it is because the term “specialty coffee” has more currency for the Taiwanese market, which seems to have consumers at every possible point along the spectrum of sophistication. To differentiate the actual “specialty” from the catchphrase, some coffee professionals will describe their coffee as “super specialty” or classify the other shops as “premium.”
Not everybody drinks coffee. As I heard more than one coffee professional complain, in the West, most people drink coffee, which means they are looking for, or at least interested in, a place to get their daily fix. In Taiwan, some people drink tea or milk tea in the morning, and others may drink soda or no caffeinated beverage at all. That makes it difficult for a coffee shop to develop a steady business. They are competing not just with other coffee shops, but also with other morning habits.
The average Taiwanese person has no idea that Taipei has become a huge coffee city. The friend of a friend who hosted me was genuinely shocked that I had come to Taipei for coffee. So too even some of the baristas at cafes I visited.
Everybody and their uncle roasts coffee in Taiwan. I kind of knew this already, but the numbers are astounding. Taipei alone is home to more than 1,000 roasters, and that doesn’t even count homeroasters. Part of the reason for the number of roasters in Taiwan is that even lower-tier shops will roast their own in a small roaster near the front window. Usually these do 0.3 kg batches, which are about as small as the batches I used to roast back in my tiny New York City apartment!
The Taiwanese market prefers lighter roasts. It’s unclear to me whether the demand for light roasts is coming from the consumers or being imposed by the roasters. I saw some backlash to this, but the prevailing roast level was still pretty light, not much more than first crack. I saw a greater variety of roast levels in Japan.
Taiwan’s coffee culture comes from all over. I had assumed that most of the burgeoning coffee scene in Asia was prompted by Australians, who are obsessed with coffee. That’s not true, though. As I’ve since read online, and seen firsthand, Taiwan’s coffee culture has a mix of coffee influences, including the Japanese influence on pourover and siphon, North American third-wave coffee, as well as some European and Australian influence. (I saw more Aussie influence than this author suggests, but I would tend to defer to the local.) I was told by a few people that Starbucks, much as it did in the States, prompted a lot of the enthusiasm for coffee in Taiwan.
Coffee is expensive in Taiwan. I had the impression, largely confirmed during my visit to Shanghai before I began my travels, that coffee was priced in Asia as a luxury good, which like whisky or red wine, allows wealthy locals to demonstrate their leisure and worldliness at the same time. I still think there is some of this in Taiwan—how else to explain the $11, or even $15 or $20 cups of coffee, that I saw. But I have been persuaded that a lot of the price issue in Taiwan is due to the logistics of importing beans and the taxes on coffee in Taiwan.Because the Taiwanese market is not big enough to do much direct importation, coffee is usually imported indirectly through countries like the United States, which means there is a double duty, and another set of importers and exporters, to pay. And even though the cost of living in Taipei is much lower than elsewhere, rent is quite high, especially in the nicer areas where a specialty coffee shop is ideally located. While some of the high prices do seem to be driven by price signalling instead of competition, it was difficult to tell how much, or how this price signalling compares to that in the States.