One of the more heart-warming stories involving the recent explosion of coffee in Taiwan comes from Taipei’s first apartment community, Nanjichang or “South Airport”, thus named as it was built in the 1960’s on land previously occupied by the Japanese air force’s landing strip in the south of the city (the “north” airport is now the city’s main airport). Once the very picture of modernity, the complex has since become old and rundown, and is now home to the largely underserved demographics of elderly people, disabled people, and immigrants from Southeast Asia. Gang activity in the area was attracting local youth who saw few other opportunities until the village chief, Fang He-sheng, decided to give them another path: He set up a barista school in an unused building, training young people with few other options and setting them up to pursue a career in a burgeoning industry. His son Zachary is one of the instructors, and has opened a coffee shop in the area near Taiwan’s prestigious National Taiwan University. Some of the graduates of his class work there. Outside the shop is a refrigerator just for unwanted foods, such as the uglier fruits and vegetables that other shops can’t sell, free for anyone who wants them. “This isn’t welfare; it’s just sharing,” Fang says. “In everything, we need to think about sustainability.”
The younger Fang provides an introduction to attend one of the coffee classes, and that night I go to observe the teachers, Chen Jin-sheng, Ariel Cai, and Liu Yi-tong, instructing a group of students from underserved communities, many of whom live in Nanjichang. They are fascinated not just by coffee, but the art of coffee-making and even latte art, each trying their hand at pouring cups so that the cream lines up in a pleasing fashion. I ask if any of the graduates of the class have gone on to open their own shops in the six or seven years since it began. “It’s really hard to open your own shop if you lack capital and connections,” Liu says. “And the people we’re teaching here often lack both. So it’s hard. We can only give them the tools.”
Coffee expert Krude Lin has been obsessed with Taiwanese coffee since he first tasted it over a decade ago. At the time his impression wasn’t good, especially given the price. One time he discovered that a former peach farmer’s new coffee plants retained the peach flavor of his former orchard, producing a surprisingly fragrant beverage. Since then he has been pushing the idea of quality over quantity, using specialty coffee that benefits from Taiwan’s unique position to win international awards instead of trying to compete with the cheaper, mass-produced coffee that is readily available at chain shops and convenience stores. This strategy, it must be said, runs against the mindset of a generation of Taiwanese who produced amazing economic growth in the 1960s and 70s by doing the very opposite, churning out massive amounts of cheap goods to the world. Subsequent generations have sought to distance themselves from that.
To Krude Lin, who founded the Taiwan Coffee Laboratory in 2013 and the Coffee Industrial Alliance in 2022, it’s no coincidence that coffee, after being produced under the Japanese and only exported, then not produced at all after the Kuomintang came to Taiwan in 1949, is now flourishing in seeming step with the democratization of the nation’s politics and society. Taiwan lifted martial law in 1987, and began holding direct presidential elections in 1996, to which China responded with missiles that hit just off the coast, a move it repeated in 2022 when U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited with a congressional delegation. Taiwan is also the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, and its National Health Insurance program is seen as a benchmark in public healthcare, relieving its citizens in large part from the crippling medical debt seen in other, supposedly more developed nations.
Lin also points to the fact that, as one of the few developed nations that is itself also a coffee producer, Taiwan’s coffee culture has traveled a different path from developing nations whose coffee resources tend to be plundered without great benefit to the nation itself. Another factor is Taiwan’s entrenched tea culture, which lends itself to a greater capability for the appreciation of coffee. “The structure for discriminating between varieties and quality is already embedded in this society,” Lin says. In Europe and the United States, he points out, coffee is seen more as a tool to deliver caffeine, so consumers are willing to put up with coffee of less-than-stellar quality in order to ensure that it is as cheap and easy as possible to consume. In Taiwan, however, even 7-Eleven coffee is better than the average “quality” drinks available abroad. When reminded that Japan also has a long history of tea appreciation, Lin nods. “The difference is not only that Japan does not for the most part produce its own coffee, Japanese society is more rigorously structured. A coffee supplier has more status than a coffee shop owner, but here, if you have your own shop, you’re somebody. Nobody in Japan dares speak directly or offer criticism, and that includes the coffee culture there; in Taiwan, it’s our coffee, we can improve because we are able to be honest about what needs to be improved, and it has become a vehicle for self expression and personal independence.”