Coffee drinking has become part of daily Taiwanese life, with many people starting the day with a cup. The popularity of coffee can be seen by the increased amount of coffee imported over the past decade, reaching 17,885 metric tons (raw and pre-roasted beans) in 2010 from just 4,794 in 1999. In terms of coffee consumed, the ratio was 480 million cups (21 per person) in 1999 versus 1.79 billion cups (78 per person) in 2010, an almost four-fold increase in 12 years.
Previously coffee was perceived as an accoutrement of foreign high-class culture, both remote and inaccessible in the 1950s, reported Taiwan Panorama. Then a number of coffee shops cropped up in Taipei, and became a gathering place for the cultural elite, intellectuals, politicians, business moguls and men of arts and letters. Such establishments catered to Taiwan’s most rarefied echelon, a realm away from “ordinary” Taiwanese people.
Increased prosperity in the 1970s and the growing number of Taiwanese people studying abroad kindled an interest in foreign cuisine, and coffee has steadily gained in popularity ever since. Coffee entered the mainstream following the stock market boom of 1985 in Taiwan. Canned coffee preloaded with milk and sugar, typified by Mr. Brown and other brands met market demand for less-bitter-tasting coffee in an inexpensive format.
In 1992, the first coffee chains opened in Taiwan. Chains such as the Japanese franchise Kohikan, Doutor Coffee, Dante Coffee and Ikari Coffee, sold machine dripped coffees for about US$1.20. Other chains serving Italian style coffee – Barista Coffee, Is Coffee and Starbucks – also entered the market.
Dubbed “the McDonald’s of coffee,” Starbucks was brought to Taiwan by Uni-President Corp. Using a highly streamlined business approach with an emphasis on stylish presentation, Starbucks swept throughout the island with over 200 individual outlets. The years 2002 and 2003 marked a watershed in coffee’s rapid takeover. Ecoffee was founded to provide takeout coffee at NT$35 (US$1.20) and then came the 85 Degree C Café chains which combined coffee and cakes into one single package. Within five years, they had expanded to over 300 locations, according to Taiwan Panorama.
In 2004, 7-Eleven of Uni-president unveiled its City Café brand with economically priced coffee available at 4,500 individual stores throughout Taiwan. Other convenience stores like Family Mart and Hi-Life also entered the fray with their own brands. By the end of 2008, there were 731 individual coffee franchises in Taiwan as compared to 695 for fast food.
It is estimated that the total number of establishments where one can purchase a cup of fresh coffee, including convenience stores, fast food outlets and both independent and chain coffee stores, now tallies to over 10,000. In monetary terms, that translates to more than half of the NT$40 billion (US$1.3 billion) which is generated by coffee annually.
Despite the profusion of coffee establishments, its quality has not suffered. On a recent trip to Paris, Yeh Yi-lan, a culinary travel writer, made the rounds to all the cafes, including those on the River Seine’s legendary Left Bank, and could not find a satisfying cup until her return to Taiwan, when she tasted her first cup at a convenience store at the airport.
Europeans have been drinking coffee for over 500 years. It has become ingrained into their culture, while Taiwan, a relative newcomer, approaches coffee from a fresher perspective. Besides, in the long history of tea drinking, Taiwanese people have become adept at classifying tea leaves according to quality and freshness, a skill which easily carries over when searching for choice coffee beans from a particular region.
“The reason why Taiwanese coffee tastes so good is because it’s true to the original character of the bean – it’s able to highlight the intrinsic layers of fragrance and texture,” Yeh told Taiwan Panorama.
In the early days, there was only limited coffee information and technical know-how in Taiwan. After 1993, the internet helped bring together coffee enthusiasts throughout the island to share coffee information online. In 1997, a group of coffee fanatics formed “Irvine Café,” an online forum, introducing the work of Seattle-based espresso guru David Schomer, the basics of espresso making, and sharing notes on roasting beans.
After a while, they were able to find the components involved in making good coffee, including quality beans, roasting techniques and brewing skills. The obsession of these coffee connoisseurs and their fastidiousness has broadened Taiwanese consumers’ appreciation for coffee, reported Taiwan Panorama.