On an average weekday morning in Taipei, a swing by the city’s small but cozy cafes reveals a certain detail about the bubbly’s city’s life that almost everyone misses. The cafes are full and vibrant, alright, but most people aren’t ordering what you’d expect – tea.
Instead, they’re showing a preference for another great beverage – coffee. A decade ago, this scene would shock a Taipei native. A decade ago, things were still normal and tea was almost everyone’s beverage of choice. But judging by the number of new coffee shops opening up on city corners and in convenience stores, coffee is no longer Plan C. It has arrived.
Starbucks first appeared in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, in the 1990s, and by then coffee was already a presence on café menus but nowhere near popularity. Tea was a big deal, and it was always wonderfully prepared, so there was never a reason to look further down the menu.
According to Jack Lo, senior partner of small-time Taipei café Cafeist, “Taiwan’s always had lots of specialty drink shops – we just focused more on tea in the past.” The grand arrival of Starbucks gave coffee a much-needed boost, but it seemingly wasn’t enough. Coffee didn’t catch up to tea until later, until, according to Taiwan Business TOPICS magazine, “convenience stores began heavily promoting their own freshly brewed brands a few years ago.”
In every possible way, Taipei coffee owes its growing popularity to the boom that saw the emergence of one convenience store after another within the city. As of 2017, there were more than 10,000 convenience stores across the whole country, and each one of them has a coffee shop tucked in there somewhere.
Ever since the boom, convenience stores have only grown more popular, and on the way up, have carried coffee with them. Benny Ho, president of 120 shop-strong Cama Coffee sums it up nicely: “If you’re trying to sell food or drink to the mass market in Taiwan, convenience stores have the best distribution channels – they’re everywhere.”
At first sight, each coffee shop found inside a convenience store is small and tastefully designed, the picture of relaxation and modern class. Most of these are specialty coffee shops – they brew their own coffee using their own recipes – and some of the most popular coffee shops in the city.
It’s these tastefully designed shops that made coffee a common beverage and priced it affordably enough that almost everyone can splurge on it. According to the most recent data from the Fair Trade Commission, total fresh coffee sales from Taiwan’s five major convenience store chains reached $520 million in 2017 alone. (This doesn’t include sales from Starbucks or coffee shops located outside convenience stores)
Taipei Coffee Unique Blends
Taipei’s coffee scene is full of the usual coffee types that everybody knows, plus a few specialty types common in only Taipei. According to Taiwan Business TOPICS magazine, black coffee ranks high in preference among Taipei coffee lovers.
The Americano is a close competitor. Specialty cafes such as Cama (with all its 120 stores), Woolloomooloo and Rufous Cafe also make popular coffee. Starbucks’ darker roast-variety coffee also has a steady following as more and more people discover it.
Additionally, Taipei has no shortage of unique and innovative types of coffee on its cafes’ menus. Taipei’s coffee shops have a scary reason for trying at uniqueness – it’s a means of survival.
Chu Ya-ta, the owner of Oasis Coffee Roasters in Taipei, states it best. “There’s so much competition in Taipei that you really need to make your coffee shop unique to attract enough business,” he said while speaking to the Taiwan Business TOPICS magazine. And unique coffees are just the tip of the iceberg; most coffee shops also try to sell experiences too, such as Cama Coffee with its selfie-perfect Beano mascot.
Chu’s Oasis Coffee Roasters itself is known for its uniquely blended coffee, the Shakelatto, which is essentially a double shot of espresso with ice that is shaken to froth at the top. Woolloomooloo’s signature drink, the cold drip coffee, is another unique Taipei-only offering.
Unlike regular hot coffee, it’s made using a painstakingly slow technique that eschews heat altogether. The process involves adding freshly ground coffee into drip water, and then ice water is dripped over the coffee, drop by drop. Through three stylishly positioned glasses, the ice water is sieved and the final result is collected in a classy glass. It’s perfect if you have 6 hours to spare.
All-round favorite coffee shop Cama Coffee also gets a mention with its own coffee, which is made from coffee beans that are roasted and ground within Cama Coffee’s individual premises. Woolloomooloo is also known for its lighter roasted beans and the coffee that comes from them – a sweet, clear, sweet-flavored gem of a beverage that evokes the best memories and triggers refreshment.
Lightly roasted beans are something of a rarity in Taipei, as most specialty coffee shops roast their beans dark, including Starbucks with dark Indonesia-sourced Sumatran coffee.
Coffee and The Rest of Asia
Taipei’s good fortune with coffee has extended to other nearby cities and countries in Asia. Cities such as South Korea, China, Hong Kong have all experienced small-time booms in the coffee business, thanks in part to increasing numbers of expats living in the cities and growing interest in international food offerings.
Asia itself is experiencing a new kind of love for coffee, even though not as fast as in other regions of the world. Once upon a time, countries like China were known for their indifference to coffee in exchange for their staple beverage, tea.
Nowadays, residents of major cities in almost every Asian country are going beyond tea, giving into coffee’s charms and spreading the love countrywide. Thanks to the expansion of Starbucks into many Asian countries across recent decades and the proliferation of specialty coffee shops such as Taipei’s, coffee is suddenly up everyone’s noses. And no one is too strong for that tempting coffee flavor.