Taiwan's Quiet Coffee Revolution

An abbreviated version of this article was published in Issue 30 of Standart Magazine in early 2023

Coffee was first brought to Taiwan in the late 1800’s by the British merchant Tait & Co., and although actual large-scale coffee production began in Taiwan under Japanese rule (1895-1945), most Taiwanese still consumed tea. The Japanese made coffee production a priority, sending it back to Japan, where it was even supposedly a favorite of the emperor, but after Japan left Taiwan following World War II, coffee production ground to a standstill, and tea continued to reign supreme as the Taiwanese drink of choice. 

It took a massive earthquake in 1999 to resuscitate the industry, when farmers and other residents looked to coffee production to bring life back to areas devastated by the disaster. However, coffee has not only become a significant industry in Taiwan today, it has become a hugely popular drink, the consumption of which has surpassed even that of tea, not to mention boasting one of the highest densities of coffee shops in the world. Indeed, in contrast to its more traditional rival tea, coffee has come to represent personal style, independence, and free and open discourse.

The center of popular culture during the Japanese era was in Taipei’s Dadaocheng, along the Tamsui River where boats unloaded their wares for sale in the city and across the island back then. The area was famous for its Western restaurants, the first of which opened in 1934, and some of Taiwan’s most notable popular music was composed and recorded there as well. After falling into decline for decades as the city developed eastwards away from the river, a recent renaissance has brought the area back, with the ornate old shops being renovated and younger entrepreneurs moving back to cater to shoppers who prefer the quirky, traditional atmosphere of the old neighborhood over the cookie-cutter department stores that dominate the city’s Eastern District near the former world’s tallest building, Taipei 101. And many of the new businesses popping up in the old neighborhood center around coffee. 

Zoc Gao, who runs the Yanhua Op.118.2 coffee shop in a secluded alley off of Dihua Street, insists on keeping the atmosphere inside dark and moody. The old building, with its high ceilings, terrazzo floor and well-used antique furnishings, has the feel of a speakeasy. Old jazz wafts from a vinyl record player, though the place’s name refers to Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo Opus 118 no. 2. Customers sit in the dark sipping their coffee and chatting quietly. Gao, a bespectacled middle-aged man sporting a newsie cap and a constant smile, offers up a sample of a special concoction he has made by soaking coffee bean shells for a couple of weeks to make a sweet, plum-like syrup, infused into soda water. He has been on the coffee scene since the 1990s, and is excited to introduce all of the denizens of the alley, which feels like a small, tight village, including not only coffee shops but also fabric stores, restaurants and an import shop run by an enthusiastic Japanese couple. Gao plans to move across the alley to a larger space and hand his current shop over to a young coffeemaker, Eric Lin, who currently sells the beverage on the street from a stand incorporated into an antique bicycle.

“How does everything stay in place when you’re riding?” I ask Eric, noting the complicated arrangement of coffee-making equipment and paraphernalia spread out on the wooden board that folds up into a box on the back of the old bike. 

“It all fits together so closely that there is no room for it to jostle around,” he says, adding that it will be good to finally have a space of his own.

A rather more bizarre scene awaits just one alley over from Yanhua at the Cabinet of Migrants coffee shop. Inside, young people sit sipping coffee and chatting surrounded by an amazing amount of taxidermy. Dozens of wild animal heads stare down from the walls, while a large brown bear appears about to jump off of a table in the center. The shop was opened by a pair of young artists, Wen and Ars, whose studio is on the second floor, including Ars’ tattoo studio, where a picture of white Jesus stares down from above the tattoo bed. The entire building is rented by a collection of artists who each contribute to the rent. Much of the antique furnishings were rescued from even older buildings in the neighborhood that were going to be torn down. I sit on a 1960’s sofa watching as the two open a package that contains a small bust of Sun Yat-sen, examining the ceramic figurine for its kitsch value.

Zoc Gao, in the alley where his shop is located.
Wen and Ars examine a statue of Sun Yat-sen.
The Cabinet of Migrants coffee shop
Eric and his coffee bicycle

Not a Coffee Shop

“This is not a coffee shop,” Lin Shi-bo, who runs the Cang Tian (“Hidden Field”) coffee bean store, insists, gesturing at his small coffee-filled space. Sporting longish hair, a silver chain necklace and a slim frame, he runs to fetch orders for customers who drive up the narrow Yongkang Street where the store is located to pick up bags of beans from him, but he has to act quickly as the cars block the narrow street. “It’s like a drive thru,” he says, laughing. But Lin is serious about his coffee. He sells both local and imported beans, and can pick out any flavor desired from the rows of glass bottles that line the walls of the shop. While he may treat friends and neighbors to a cup now and then, “it is definitely not a cafe.” 

“Coffee used to keep me up and make my heart race,” one middle-aged woman says she selects beans at Lin’s shop. “But I can tell you that it’s not the coffee that does that, because when I started using the right beans, all that stopped.”

“You make me sound like a pharmacist!” Lin protests. He is definitely an advocate for making one’s own coffee at home, however, as opposed to drinking it from potentially untrustworthy sources such as cafes or, he shudders to mention, convenience stores. He is fighting an uphill battle in this respect, though, as the lion’s share of coffee in Taiwan is purchased at convenience stores due to the fact that chains such as Family Mart and 7-Eleven provide far higher quality fresh-ground coffee than their counterparts in most other countries, while chains like Starbucks and Louisa have cornered the market on providing welcoming spaces in which to consume coffee as well as meals.

Lin Shi-bo's coffee bean collection
Lin Shi-bo in his shop
Lin Shi-bo's vacuum-packed beans (and sandals)

Coffee Education

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.”

Liu Yi-tong teaches coffee technique
Krude Lin at the Taiwan Coffee Laboratory
Zachary Fang at his cafe

Arcade Coffee Culture

When one thinks of independent spirit, one might think of the first physical entry points of coffee into Taiwan throughout history, the rough-and-tumble northern port city of Keelung. First during the Japanese era and then when international ships would dock there in subsequent decades, all kinds of foreign produce would pour into town. Known for its cool, rainy climate, a kind of “arcade culture” developed in the city, with restaurants and bars often doing better business on the covered arcades outside their shops, next rows of scooters parked on the street, than inside. When coffee houses began springing up there in recent years, they also followed this trend, and dozens of customers enjoying a hot or cold coffee at rows of tables along the covered sidewalks has become a common sight. 

Chen De-xin, the owner of Ah-xin Coffee, stands behind the counter of his small shop overlooking the surrounding seating area, which is all located on the arcade and is quite extensive thanks to the shop’s corner location. He features local as well as foreign coffee, served in separate glasses so that the customer can sample their drink at different temperatures and concentrations. Chen has been on the spot for around a dozen years, and also acts as a judge for coffee competitions, sometimes traveling to Alishan, where the best-known coffee plantations in Taiwan are located. There farmers will participate in contests to see whose beans make the best-tasting coffee. “It’s a process of selection that makes the top coffees here better each year,” he says, pointing to the slew of international awards Taiwanese coffees have been garnering in the last few years. 

One interesting take on the traditional coffee shop is the Fei Fa Cafe and Hair Salon, also in downtown Keelung. One might wonder how the two might even be compatible, but Carol Yu, who had the idea five years ago to make a coffee shop/hair salon, is a believer. “I like hairstyling, and I love coffee,” she explains amid the busy shop full of customers getting their hair done and drinking coffee. “It made sense to just do both together. You don’t have to get your hair done, you can just have coffee, or vice-versa. It’s all good.” Outside on the veranda, in true Keelung Arcade fashion, two young men sit smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, one of them with his hair in bright yellow and purple curlers. “Fei Fa”, which is the “fei” from the Chinese word “ka fei” for coffee and the “fa” from the Chinese word “tou fa” for hair, is a homonym in Mandarin for “feifa” or “Illegal”, adding a rebellious, unconventional feel, rather in line with the city’s reputation.

Chen De-xin at this coffeeshop in Keelung
Carol Yu at Feifa cafe/salon
A customer sips cafe while waiting for his hair to set outside the Feifa cafe/salon.

Coffee Rules

“I had three rules at my first coffee shop,” Joe Hsu tells me when I visit his establishment in Central Taiwan’s Taichung. “The first was no politics, the second was no religion, and the third was no disrespecting women. This was not that long after the lifting of martial law, and I didn’t want any trouble. It took me eight years to break even. But unlike a bar where the music is too loud to talk and everyone just becomes more incoherent, conversation in a coffee shop just tends to get better and better.” 

Hsu is a legend in Taiwanese coffee circles; most people have heard his name and know the brand he founded in 1993, Orsir. Born in the heart of coffee farmland, mountainous Nantou County and raised in a fruit produce family, Hsu has traveled the world seeking out the best coffee, becoming an internationally recognized judge in the craft, and working for decades to develop Taiwan’s coffee industry. His shop has been modernized with a plain white theme. “Some of my old customers complained,” Hsu says. “They liked the old wood-paneled feel.” He acknowledges that turnover is high in the coffee shop business. “You have to be dedicated, not to the money, but to improving your craft. It’s not as easy as it may look.” This survival-of-the-fittest situation has its upside, he maintains, in that the coffee shops that do stick around tend to be quite good.

One of Hsu’s associates, Li Ya-ting, who won the inaugural World Siphonist Championship in Japan in 2009, stands over coffee brewing in a round glass vacuum pot, her concentration illuminated by the heating elements as she dips a stick into the liquid to test its qualities. Nearby, an employee heats up paste made from fresh lychees to make flavored coffee. They are also experimenting with mixing other local flavors like orange, mango and lemon, as well as flowers such as Osmanthus. Downstairs at the counter, a row of canisters provides free samples to anyone interested in trying them. “Experimentation and honest feedback are invaluable to anyone wanting to improve their craft,” Hsu says. The free samples are not only a way to attract and increase interaction with customers, they can provide valuable insight into how people feel about various kinds of coffee. “It’s kind of like how temples put out free water for those who need it,” Hsu says.

Hsu also emphasizes cultivating good relations with coffee farmers. “That is the only way to truly know what you’re buying,” he says. “Communication is key, and back before the internet information about beans, consumer tastes and market trends was hard to access, especially for farmers.”

Joe Hsu
Sampling coffees at Orsir in Taichung
Experimental ingredients at Orsir in Taichung
Li Ya-ting makes siphon coffee

Country Fresh

Seeking a view on what coffee farms in Taiwan look like, I drive inland into the mountains east of Taichung, towards the border with Miaoli County, to the Sijiaolin Organic Coffee Farm, along the Dahan River valley. Here I am greeted by Qiu Wen-bin, a stocky middle-aged man on an old scooter. We head down the road among the coffee plants, our feet crunching through fallen leaves. “These are maple trees,” Qiu says, displaying the singular shape of the leaves that have fallen from the taller trees in the area. “They provide shade and protection for the coffee plants. We raise nine varieties here, and have around 8,000 plants on five hectares so far; some are from Guatemala.” Further down the road, he points to a pair of red tubes hanging from one plant. “In recent years, the coffee berry beetle, which reproduces rapidly and is highly aggressive, has caused real headaches for farmers. But we don’t use pesticides, just traps to control the beetles. The coffee plants are part of a whole ecosystem; we have plentiful fireflies in the spring, and I’ve seen pangolins and Reeves’s muntjacs in the area as well.” He shows photos he took on his phone as proof. Qiu gives tours and classes about coffee production, but although the government provides subsidies, he doesn’t have the staff to accommodate groups larger than ten or so people at a time.

In addition to coffee, mining was another important rural industry during the Japanese era, but now, long after the mines were abandoned, the old infrastructure is being repurposed, and coffee is taking over here as well. I take the train to the end of the northern mountain line, past the tourist-ridden stops of Shifen and its waterfalls, and Pingxi with its infamous sky lanterns, to Jingtong Station, where the tracks end at the feet of mountains that were the site of extensive mining operations for decades before the ore ran out. There, up the hill, atop the concrete stilts of a long-abandoned coal processing facility, sits the Coal Cafe, a makeshift coffee shop run by Mr. Hu, a friendly elderly gentleman with gray hair and glasses. “The original owners retired, and their children weren’t interested in continuing, so I took over,” he says from behind the bar. The shop is hidden from view of the station, but Mr. Hu says the people who find it love the taste of his coffee. “It’s the water,” he exclaims softly, as if he is imparting a secret. “The water in these mountains makes for a special taste, regardless of the beans used to make the coffee.” The water flowing from the mountain, filtered of course, goes to making the coffee, while the rest feeds a large Koi pond and then splashes down into algae-covered puddles at the feet of the structure. 

Further back up the line is Shan Yu, a coffee shop near Sandiaoling run by the young, forthright Shan Shaw, dressed in a white T-shirt bearing a Japanese art theme. Located just after the railway splits into two, one carrying the vast majority of passengers to the verdant east coast while the other takes mostly tourists into the mountains, Shan Yu comprises two structures, one a former guard post and another a former electrical substation, both in service of an old mine immediately adjacent, from which water pours past the warning signs into a small stream. Shaw bustles in and out the old guard shack, which she has made into her kitchen and office, taking meals and drinks up the short set of stone steps to the old substation, which now houses tables, a stove, and a bunk bed. If one is agile and daring enough one can walk across a narrow beam to the roof of the kitchen to sit and enjoy one’s coffee there, the Keelung River valley spread out at one’s feet. 

“The food is all well and good,” Shaw tells us. “What I want to provide here is good coffee and a unique atmosphere.” Bearing out her words, the establishment is full of people of all ages, either chatting in groups or up to their own devices, even in the late afternoon after the food has run out. Because there is always coffee. 

Qiu Wen-bin
Mr. Hu at the Coal Cafe
Shan Shaw at her cafe, Shan Yu, in Sandiaoling

The development of coffee and personal freedom have followed a similar path in this young, vibrant democracy in recent times, and while neither has been particularly smooth, the future smells amazing.

April 2023

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