Coffee in Taiwan
Taiwan is historically known for tea, and until the mid 1990’s visiting java junkies had few choices for a bean-juice fix outside of the cheap burnt drip served at Mickey-D’s and a small handful of Japanese shops serving pricey but excellent coffee by the cup, usually brewed using a dual-chambered glass vacuum coffee maker more reminiscent of lab equipment than a kitchen appliance.
But the days of precious few choices for visiting bean fields are long gone, and in 21st century Taiwan a perfectly serviceable cappuccino can be bought at any small-town 7-11.
The cities, meanwhile, boast a veritable embarrassment of riches for the traveling coffee lover, and though opinions vary wildly among coffee aficionados from a mix of excellent chain coffee shops like Cama, Louisa and 85° C to smaller boutique shops run by third-wave purists boasting single origin beans.
What happened to bring about the sea change in Taiwan’s caffeine habits?
Well. Starbucks opened its first Taipei branch in 1998, heralding the start of coffee consumption as something more than a niche foreign habit. Competitors soon followed – less than a decade later, the aforementioned Taiwanese chain 85° C had overtaken Starbucks as Taiwan’s big dog of coffee. These days, old men playing xiangqi (Chinese chess) in the park are almost as likely to be doing so over lattes as they are with tea.
But scratching the surface, one finds that Taiwan’s coffee history dates long before the Seattle Mermaid ever emerged from the briny waters of Puget sound.
There’s some evidence of coffee being grown both by the Dutch and by local tribespeople, with the former group being mostly unsuccessful in their efforts to cultivate the plant for its stimulant effect and the latter being somewhat more successful in using the beans as decoration.
But the first serious coffee cultivation in Taiwan was carried out by the Japanese, who brought over seedlings from Hawaii and planted them in the rich soil of Gukeng, in Yunlin county. The coffee wasn’t for local consumption, though. It was a luxury item sent back to Japan, and when the Japanese left, most local plants were torn and replaced with tea, the beverage favored by bendiren (local Taiwanese) and waishengren (Mainland immigrants) alike.
Interested in reading about Taiwan’s coffee history in greater detail? Check out Taipei Coffee Culture: Rich, Robust, and Satisfying at Topics Magazine.
The resurgence of coffee as a cash crop
One place to head if you’re looking for genuine local coffee experience is rustic Gukeng, located in the western foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range. While it isn’t on most bucket list, the place should be for any serious java aficionado. Gukeng is home to a number of small batch coffee farmers growing some of the finest world’s finest beans. Blessed with a climate and altitude similar to Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, the Aribica beans produced in Gukeng have a smooth, nutty flavor and low acidity, making it a good choice to be drunk black even by those who normally take theirs with cream. Though many coffee shops outside of the area claim to serve Gukeng coffee, most locals will tell you that demand for Gukeng coffee (both in and out of Taiwan) far outstrips supply, and that to get the real deal your best bet is to visit the area yourself.
There are other coffee growing areas in Taiwan worth visiting. Just south of Tainan county’s famous hot-spring resort area of Guanziling (who’s waters are well known for acting as a near-narcotic anti-stimulant, read more: Hot-spring bathing at Guanziling) is where you’ll find the Dongshan region, where you can sip locally grown blends while taking in the area’s abundant scenery. And even Chiayi, a place far better known as one of Taiwan’s premier tea-growing regions, many long-standing tea growing farms and families are increasingly carving off acreage for production of another cash crop: Made in Taiwan coffee beans (for which demand currently outstrips supply).
Getting Caffeinated in Taipei : The Capital’s best coffee shops (according to our social media followers)
We asked some of our Twitter and Facebook followers to chime in.
Karen Chung told us
“Fox Coffee in Dapinglin – they have an adorable baby son! Free wi-if, good place to work, too!”
While Susanne Palm said:
“Fonda in Hsimending. Oldest in Taipei and great coffee.”
Lonely Planet author Dinah Gardner chimed in with
“Louisa by far! They have flat whites and cheeky grins. Cama is way too bitter and their giant plastic bean logo is creepy.”
John Lysfjord is a fan of Wooloomooloo in Xinyi.
“I Love their coffee, meals are good, and the cakes are divine! They also got branches in Ximending and one near the airport.”
Dubbs had a couple of suggestions:
“It depends but if we’re talking about just getting some coffee to go, Louisa and 7-11 are my favorite, thanks to price and location. I went to a cafe near Ximending called La Grotta; the cakes were amazing.”
As did Andrew Ryan:
“Homey’s feels like home, has a great creative vibe; About Animals is located south and has great vegan burgers + social issues stances; Booday is warm and has nice set meals and lovely cakes; Nichi Nichi has a cool Japanese aesthetic. All have good coffee.”
Jonathan Sullivan suggested:
“羊毛與花 Youmoutoohana in an alley off Yongkang street is my main haunt in central Taipei; the cold brew is sublime (albeit not cheap at $180). Its got a comfy “Japanese” feel to it, quiet and popular with readers and writers”
While Michal Thim said:
“創咖啡 TRUST CAFÉ – decent coffee and very well suited for work, if that’s what you require from cafe…which I did”
On the subject of cats, Stephanie Huffman says her favorite coffee place in Taipei is actually more of a pet grooming salon in Muzha that happens to also serve excellent coffee:
“I go to a place called Baison on Muxin road where they groom pets. Mostly cats and a few small dogs. They make excellent and surprisingly inexpensive cappuccino, bot what’s most rewarding is that every time I go I get kitty kisses from BonBon, one of the many beautiful resident cats!
Taiwan Scene guest columnist Jenna Lynn Cody wrote:
“We like Rufous on Fuxing South Road, Shake House on Wenzhou street, A8 between Dunhua and Anhe near Heping, Drop on Xinsheng S. Road near NTU, Zabu at the north end of Tianmu…there are others but these are my particular favorites. The Lightening on Fuxing South Road has a cat on weekdays and fair trade coffee, and Pillow on Rui-an has a corgi.”
Ordering coffee in Taiwan (a brief linguistic primer)
Even if you don’t speak a word of Chinese, you’ll be able to get your java needs taken care of around Taiwan. Nearly every convenience store serving coffee has menus in English and Chinese, as do some of the smaller shops. But why not try your hand at ordering your coffee in Mandarin? It’s not as hard as you might think, will impress the hell out of the person behind the counter, and makes your coffee fix all the more rewarding.
“Wǒ yào yībēi…. (I’d like a cup of 我要一杯…. )”
And then add your coffee of choice:
“Měishì kāfē (Americano 美式咖啡)” / “Mókǎ (Mocha 摩卡)” / “Ná tiě (Latte 拿鐵)”
Temperature comes next:
“Rè de (Hot 熱的)“ / ” Bīng de (Iced 冰的)”
Followed by cream and sugar:
” jiā… “ (add 加…) / “Bùyào jiā… “ (don’t add 不加…)
“Táng (sugar 糖)” / “Nǎi jīng (cream 奶精)”
So, to put it all together, what I say twice a day every day at my local coffee shop from November to March:
“Wǒ yào yībēi rè de měishì kāfē. Jiā nǎi jīng, bùyào jiā táng. Xièxiè!” (“I’d like an Americano, hot. Add cream, no sugar. Thanks 我要一杯熱的美式咖啡，加奶精，不加糖，謝謝！”)
And from April to October:
“Wǒ yào yībēi Bīng de měishì kāfē. Jiā nǎi jīng, bùyào jiā táng. Xièxiè!” (“I’d like an Americano, iced. Add cream, no sugar. Thanks! 我要一杯冰的美式咖啡，加奶精，不加糖，謝謝！”)
Don’t forget to add Xièxiè – even if you mess everything else up, the person serving your coffee will appreciate your manners!
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