Taipei Overview

Taipei has an incredible coffee scene, 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.

    img_3178
    “Night market” espresso, $35 NTD (about $1 USD). I use air quotes, because it wasn’t at an official night market, just a booth set up alongside other street food. A solid shot.
  • I do mean everything:

    img_3698
    Polar Bear Latte from the Polar Cafe. Not worth the $200 NTD (abut $6 USD), but I suppose you’re paying for the photo too.
  • 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.”

    img_3190
    Trust me, it’s not.
  • 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!

    img_3238
    Poor photo of a micro-roaster next to the store mascot in Cama, a multi-location cafe at a price/quality point that doesn’t really have an analog in the U.S.
  • 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.

Natural Coffees in Taiwan

I’ve been seeing a lot of natural coffees on menus here in Taiwan over the last few days. I’ve only had four, but they seem to have embedded themselves in my understanding of Taiwan coffee. Perhaps that’s because I was warned that the Taiwanese market favors naturals. Perhaps it’s because I only started to learn how to appreciate and recognize a natural while I was staying at Rusty’s Hawaiian. Or perhaps it’s just because I’ve been having some really good naturals in Taiwan recently. In any event, by now you’re probably wondering what the heck a natural coffee is.

Natural refers to a method of processing coffee. Coffee is the fruit of the coffee tree/shrub and it needs to be processed from cherry to green bean (the seed of the fruit is green) before it can be roasted into what most people know and love as coffee. Classically, coffee is processed in one of two ways: washed and natural. (There’s also a whole lot of in-between, as well as a different method used nearly exclusively in Indonesia, but let’s keep things simple for now.)

In the washed process, the cherries are removed by a pulper, and the sweet, slimy stuff coating the bean inside the cherry (called the mucillage) is washed off through a fermentation process. The resulting coffee is dried in the sun and the parchment is removed to get green coffee, which is roasted. The top row of this nifty little box from the UCC farm tour in Kona illustrates the washed process by showing what red cherries, parchment, green beans, and roasted beans look like.

IMG_1911
The top row of this box from the UCC farm tour in Kona illustrates the washed process. I’m actually typing this caption text from a UCC cafe in Taipei.

By contrast, in the natural process, the bean dries inside the cherry, which allows the sugars in the mucillage and skin of the cherry ferment naturally and are imparted to the seed inside. The natural process therefore results in a sweeter cup of coffee, but one that is also more volatile and difficult to control. This is because there is more variability in the fermentation process. As a result, washed coffees are often described as tasting “cleaner” than naturals, which can sometimes have a funky or “fermenty” taste.

 

There is an excellent illustration of the natural process on the Hula Daddy tour, but my photo below unfortunately doesn’t do it justice. On the lower right-hand side are dried cherries. Like some other farms, Hula Daddy doesn’t let the skins go to waste, turning them into a fruit tea called cascara, and on these you can see some of the color of the dried cherries. What gets roasted, though, are the green beans, shown here on the upper left.

IMG_2517
I’m a bad photographer. You can see some of the color of the cherries in the cascara, but the light does a bad job of showing the rich burgundy color of the dried cherries on the far right.

If you’re still confused, you can try to think of washed vs. natural as similar to white vs. red wine. Like red wine, natural coffees get some of their flavor from the skin of the cherry. This makes for a more vibrant and complex drink. Washed coffees, by contrast, present a cleaner cup with less volatility or natural variation.  This is not a perfect analogy, but it’s helpful as a first illustration and I’m apparently not the only one who uses it.

Which brings me back to the coffee I’ve been drinking in Taipei. The better coffee shops here will tell you not just the origin of the coffee, but also how the coffees are processed, and I’ve been noticing a lot of naturals on the menus.

I’ve only had four naturals here, but two of those were among my more memorable cups. The first was an Ethiopian natural that Simon Hsieh, a coffee importer and roaster in Taiwan, prepared for me when he gave me a lesson in brewing techniques. (Taiwan baristas have excellent pourover technique, which I plan to post about once I edit some of my videos.) The coffee smelled like a natural even before tasting it, and in the cup it had the classic winy texture and sweet taste of a natural coffee, without any of the fermenty taste that I’ve been told some Taiwanese coffee drinkers love. Simon’s coffee was exceptionally restrained, but even the other naturals I’ve had here have been pretty clean, except for some of them on the last sip, where the sour acids seem to drop in the cup.

As it happens, the other memorable natural coffee I’ve had here was also the most expensive: Simon recommended that I check out Fika Fika Cafe, winner of the 2013 Nordic Roasters Championship, and while their espresso-based drinks are priced in line with what I’m used to seeing in New York, I wanted to check out their pourovers, which are unfortunately a bit pricey, as you can see below.

IMG_3602
Pourover menu at Fika Fika. 100 New Taiwan dollars is equal to about $3 USD. Note that the Kenya AB, which is washed, is just as expensive as the naturals on the list.

I was thankful that I had already had a cup of Taiwanese coffee at Fong Da, since if I hadn’t, I might have felt compelled to check out Fika Fika’s, which would have set me back about $16 instead of the $4 I had paid earlier in the day. I opted instead for the Burundi natural (second on the list), which was still a whopping $11.

The pricing of specialty coffee is an interesting and very complicated subject, and I had a lengthy discussion with Simon about the factors that go into it. I still don’t know whether the coffee I had was “worth” $11, and I certainly wouldn’t spend that on coffee every day, but the cup I did have was delicious and expertly prepared. The coffee had a sweet, caramelly taste without much acidity, and toward the end of the cup (which is saddeningly small for the price, see photo below), a pleasant nutty aftertaste developed. The very last sip had that sour fermenty taste that many people love in their natural coffees. I didn’t particularly like it, but I did enjoy the fainter version of that taste that lingered on my tongue even after I left the coffee shop.

IMG_3617
Burundi natural at Fika Fika. The coffee was served alongside a different, iced preparation of the same beans. (The alternate preparation involved brewing the coffee in an espresso machine without tamping and then pouring the resulting brew onto ice. It struck me as a waste of good coffee, as most iced specialty coffee drinks do. In any event, the pourover cup on the right was delicious, complex, and memorable.

 

 

Hawaii coffee recs

I’m about to start jumping out of order in my posts, so I wanted to throw up some coffee recs from my time in Hawaii before I start posting about Taiwan.

Buying beans

  • The best beans in Hawaii are grown and roasted not in Kona but Ka’u by Rusty’s Hawaiian. Literally every specialty coffee professional I spoke with asked if I was going to visit Rusty’s Hawaiian during my travels, and as it turned out I was lucky enough to stay there and work at the farm for a few days. (More on that later, of course.) The beans are sold throughout Hawaii, but the easiest place to find them is at the Curb in Honolulu, especially if that’s where you’re flying out of. If you’ve already left, Blue Bottle also buys the beans green and roasts them, or Rusty’s Hawaiian can ship them to you if you prefer to have them roasted at the farm.
  • If for whatever reason you need that Kona label, the best traditional option is to buy from Greenwell, which is experimenting with some new varietals but still primarily grows Kona typica, the classic Hawaiian coffee varietal that was introduced from Latin America in the 19th century. If you want something a little geekier but still grown in Kona, check out Hula Daddy or Buddha’s Cup. Daylight Mind is also a great place to taste different Kona coffees and pick up a bag of the one you like.
  • Other Hawaiian roasters — I did not get to visit them, but I heard great things about Big Island Roasters from the coffee professionals I spoke with. I can personally vouch for Paradise Roasters, whose tasting I went to in Hilo. Paradise is based in Ramsey, MN, but their coffee guru has been living on the Big Island for several years and they have a roastery on the island as well, where they roast Hawaiian beans as well as great beans sourced from around Asia and the rest of the world.

Coffee shops

  • The Curb (Honolulu, Oahu) — They’ve only been around for about two years, but everybody I talked to told me to go there, and I was not disappointed. The place even has groupies, one of whom drove me from their first location to their newest and then took me on a driving tour around Oahu. Excellent pourover coffee and very knowledgeable staff. (E.g., they close shop for coffee conventions on the mainland, so that all their staff can attend.)
  • Daylight Mind (Kailua-Kona, Oahu) — This is far and away the best coffee shop in Kona. They are starting to train some smaller shops, like the Sweet Spot and the Green Flash, but these guys are the originals and, in my opinion at least, still the best. They also have the best view from any coffee shop I’ve ever been in, since they’re right on the ocean. Yoga class in the mornings, if you like the idea of yoga on the ocean before or after your morning coffee.
  • 9bar HNL (Honolulu, Oahu) — My favorite espresso in Hawaii. Modern vibe, except their pastry box looks like it’s from a school bake sale.
  • Coffee Talk (Kapaa, Kauai) — Damn good espresso made with love by Ken, who’s from the island. Ken got the coffee bug working in a Borders on Kauai several years ago and clearly knows his stuff. He recommended some farms on the Big Island, but I had already left. 😦
  • Arvo Cafe (Honolulu, Oahu) — A cute Aussie-style coffee shop with excellent food. The coffee was fine, but I was expecting better. Still worth a visit for the food and the garden store it shares space with.
  • Java Kai (Kapaa, Kauai) — Great pastries and an easier place to sit down with friends than Coffee Talk. The coffee is solid.
  • Other Kauai shops — Cortado Coffee and Dark Roost are near each other and both are fun stops, set up in food trucks. I tried the iced Coco Loco at Cortado, but sadly made it out of Hawaii without ever trying a loco moco. Dark Roost is inside a fun little shopping center in a warehouse that becomes a bustling market on Fridays.

Kona farm tours

  • Greenwell — Start here: Kona old-school and a necessary stop if you’re into coffee enough to have read this far down.
  • Buddha’s Cup — They’re renovating, but the place will be really cool in a few months with a new visitor center and even an amphitheater (!).
  • Hula Daddy — Much easier to drive to than Buddha’s Cup, with a fun tour and excellent coffee. They know their coffee and invest in their staff’s coffee development. I got some cupping pointers from the owner and from their head roaster.
  • UCC and Doutor — Farms owned and operated by Japanese coffee chains. The coffee is fine, not great, but UCC had one of the most informative tours I went on, and they’ll even let you roast your own beans on-site. Doutor is next door and worth seeing just for their gardens. At the end of the self-directed tour, you can sample their coffees while enjoying a spectacular view of the ocean. If you’re not that into coffee but want to see how it’s traditionally grown, these two are a good alternative to Greenwell.

The Starbucks Roastery

I stopped in Seattle for a day, and despite my efforts to find somebody in their press office to have a cup of coffee with, I couldn’t meet up with anybody from Starbucks while there. Oh well, I was still going to check out their cool new roastery and tasting room.

It was worth the stop. The siphon coffees I tried were disappointing, but the espresso was excellent, and they take it seriously, with four different grinders, each dialed in for a different kind of coffee and adjusted throughout the day to ensure a proper shot.

IMG_1180

The staff in the shop was also more than happy to talk coffee. The most interesting conversation I had was with their roaster Mikey, who started homeroasting a little before he started working at Starbucks about 15 years ago. He still roasts on a stovetop popcorn-maker, but he is skipping about 10 steps of home technology to upgrade to one of these babies in the near future. Count me jealous.

I also stopped at Victrola, which is next door and one of the Seattle shops with a better reputation. But after the equivalent of about 5 cups of coffee in a short amount of time, I was too caffeined out to check out any of Seattle’s plethora of indie shops. Next time.

“Illy is better. Sightglass is bougie.”

This is what the gentleman at the ticket desk inside sfMOMA told my friend Jess and me when we asked about the coffee options inside the museum. Thankfully, we didn’t listen to him, because the “bougie” shot I had there was one of the best I can remember: a rich crema with a nutty/chocolatey taste and a solid body. I learned from my short time in the Bay Area that quite a few people love to hate on sightglass, but I will definitely check out their 7th Street location the next time I find myself in town.

Most of my short stay in the Bay Area, though, was with my friends Peter and Betsy, who recently moved to Walnut Creek from San Francisco. When Peter doubted that I could find good coffee in Walnut Creek—Peter had already shown me that Walnut Creek has the best tacos I’ve ever had—I decided to treat it as a challenge. Yelp made the challenge a little too easy, though. We found the Coffee Shop, a multi-roaster cafe that serves excellent “bougie” coffee from all over the country, including Cafe Grumpy from back home. We also had some great old-school espresso at Pacific Bay Coffee Co., a coffee shop and micro-roaster in downtown Walnut Creek. The head roaster Chris geeked out with us, offering samples of some natural-processed Colombian coffee (he explained that most Colombian coffee is washed, not natural), and we talked shop a little. I picked up some Guatemalan beans for my travels.

Of course, we also had to hit up the Blue Bottle in Oakland, where Peter snapped this photo of me. (There were others, but he insisted I use this one.)

IMG_3019

Portland, OR

IMG_0967
Portland has lots of classic cars. And lots of really good coffee.

Portland coffee is probably most famous for Stumptown, but the highlight of my coffee experience there was the walking tour of Eastside roasters offered through Third Wave Coffee Tours. The tour took us to five different Portland roasters, including Stumptown, and one tea shop. The coolest stop, in my opinion, was Buckman Coffee Factory, a shared-roaster facility that allows Portland’s micro-roasters to roast their own small-batch coffees without investing in the equipment and buildout required to build a food-safe roastery. Few cities have enough micro-roasters to support a business like this, and Portland has two! Stephanie, the events director, and Joey Buckman, the owner, walked us through a cupping of two Kenyan and two Costa Rican coffees. (I expect to write in more detail about cupping as my travels progress, but for the uninitiated, this kind of cupping has nothing to do with Michael Phelps). I couldn’t really detect any flavor notes in the coffees, but I liked the Kenyans more, which is consistent with my general preference for African coffees.

Coffee Recs in Portland

Both on the tour and off, the coffee was excellent, and hard to miss: according to our tour guide, Portland has more than 800 coffee shops, most of them independent. Even Seattle likes Portland coffee best. I was only there for two days, but I walked away with several favorites:

  • Third Wave Coffee Tours — If you like coffee or just want something “different” to do while in Portland, I’d recommend looking into which tours are available while you’re there.
  • Heart Coffee Roasters — I had their drip back once back in New York, and made a point of visiting in Portland. They weren’t on the tour, but heart’s Ethiopia Worka was the best cup of coffee I had on the trip: mild acidity and medium body, with cherry and peach notes.
  • barista — An independent institution in Portland, with four locations throughout the city that feature coffees from multiple roasters. One shop, the Brass Bar, features their own coffees, and is located in the Pine Street Market.
  • Coava Coffee Roasters — I had a macchiato on the tour, and didn’t have the time to try their drip or espresso, but Coava was a featured roaster at barista, and highly recommended by Patrick, a friendly chocolatier from Québec City that I ran into at a coffee shop in the Pearl district doing his own coffee tour of Portland. Plus, the space at their brew bar on Grand Avenue is just really cool.
  • Courier Coffee Roasters — I did a bad job of finding the hipster spots, but if you’re looking for one, this fit the bill, at least when I was there. A bearded dude holding two 33-rpm records at the bar was chatting with the barista about Steven Seagal movies and how to make the most of one’s time in prison, while suggesting that if the shop charged more for the cookies, they would sell more. The coffee was good, and it was served without any of the typical hipster snobbery.
  • Stumptown — We went to their headquarters on the tour, where we got an overview of Stumptown’s buying practices and approach to coffee. I’m not the biggest fan of Stumptown, and this trip didn’t change my opinion a whole lot, but hearing the company story, beginning with a 1919 Probat that you can still look at in their store, was really cool. Unfortunately, I think you can only get this tour through Third Wave Coffee Tours. If you just want the coffee, you can go to one of their many locations around Portland, including one in the airport, which opened in July and is quite hard to miss when you get past security.

Thank You

I want to thank Hanna Neuschwander of World Coffee Research for taking time to give me some very useful pointers, and Lora Woodruff of Third Wave Coffee Tours for squeezing me in off the waitlist and for offering an awesome tour of Portland coffee roasters.