Taiwan and coffee haven't always been closely linked in people's minds. After all, this is the country that invented bubble tea. Yes, exactly. That gooey, mysterious tea-beverage with small tapioca balls orbiting around. But today, Taiwan, and especially the capital Taipei, is a veritable coffee lover's paradise.
I went there in November last year to participate in the Taiwan International Coffee Show, where I was more than impressed. The show boasted 1,828 booths from all over the world, and almost 200,000 visitors made their way out to the massive Nangang Exhibition Hall during the four days the show was on. Everywhere you turned, there were free samples of rare Geishas, brewed by international barista champions such as Tetsu Kasuya as well as local luminaries Berg Wu and Chad Wang.
My experience at the show would be indicative of the rest of my time on the island. There is coffee everywhere you look in Taipei, and for the most part, it’s top shelf stuff.
Coffee culture in Taiwan is quite old compared to that of many other Asian countries. The Japanese occupied the island from 1895 to 1945 and brought with them an appreciation of fine coffees.
This influence can still be experienced in many coffee shops in Taipei today; the vibe is similar to that of the Japanese “kissaten”. At the same time, there are plenty of forward-thinking and unique cafes, making Taipei a place where old and new coffee cultures intersect.
Taiwan native Berg Wu won the World Barista Championship in 2016, instantly turning his coffee shop into a must-visit for any coffee lover in Taipei.
Having read the Sprudge interview following his victory, I knew that the lobby of Simple Kaffa, as his place is called, wouldn’t be easy to find. Hidden away in a basement, sharing the locale with a clothing store, it’s an unlikely home for a portafilter magician such as Mr. Wu.
It’s a dimly lit place, with a lot of seats packed into a few square feet. Customers at neighboring tables had hushed discussions, while the baristas on duty were working efficiently behind the brew bar.
As is the case in a lot of the better coffee shops in Taipei, you don’t order at the bar. Rather, a waiter comes to the table to take your order.
I got a nitro coffee and an Ethiopian natural brewed in the Clever Coffee Dripper, which is actually a Taiwanese invention. Of course, I also had to sample Simple Kaffa’s famous cakes—and settled on a tiramisu and a matcha cake roll. Both were incredibly rich and delicate at the same time. The coffees were balanced and flavorful, but it’s the cakes we’re still raving about.
Rufous is the kind of coffee shop where old and new coffee culture intersect and morph into something uniquely local.
The vibe and the decor at this place are akin to the kind of backyard jazz bar that a Haruki Murakami protagonist would frequent, as opposed to a typical modern minimalist-chic coffee shop. The Synesso espresso machine and the sheer volume of coffee paraphernalia on the shelves behind the bar, however, tells you that this place isn’t about booze, but rather caffeine.
With two universities in close proximity, this 10-year-old cafe is a popular hangout for both teachers and students. The day I visited, plenty of patrons were sitting at tables, flicking through notebooks or typing away on laptops. The business hours are from 1:00-11:00pm, which also tells you something about the ambiance: this place is for the night owls and caffeine hounds, not the usual morning coffee crowd.
The coffee is roasted on-site and as is typical from local coffee spots, the selection of light-roasted, single-origin beans is spectacular. You have Geisha from La Hacienda Esmeralda, Panama, and Maragogype from El Injerto, Guatemala.
Asked which item on the menu he’s most proud of, the owner, Xiao Yang—a certified Q grader and former Italian chef—pointed me to the espresso combos: get a cappuccino and espresso brewed from the same coffee, to truly experience its potential.
Coffee Lover’s Planet
Coffee Lover’s Planet is the kind of place that is likely to divide the true coffee snobs out there. This place is upscale, all right. Located in a high-society mall among shops like Prada and other European fashion houses, the cafe attempts to make some of the world’s finest beans accessible to a crowd that normally doesn’t frequent Third Wave coffee shops. From the moment you enter, waiters rather than baristas guide you through an extensive menu of in-house roasted beans.
The spacious room is dominated by a huge circular brew bar with an eye-catching brewing device prominently displayed. The Ueshima Dripmaster 5000 looks like something out of a sci-fi movie from the 80’s with portholes emitting pulsating neon light.
I ordered a sample set consisting of three different beans from Bali, Ethiopia, and Panama, all brewed on the Dripmaster, and the Japanese brewing machine did well; they were full-bodied and sweet.
Coffee Lover’s Planet is owned by the large Japanese coffee company UCC, and the company occasionally launches new exquisite beans at the cafe. The day I dropped by, coincidentally there was a presentation of a new and ultra-rare Bourbon Pointu from the French island La Réunion taking place, gathering a crowd of local bloggers and coffee geeks.
The shop also serves Geisha from the world famous Esmeralda farm in Panama, as well as the expensive and rare Taiwanese grown Alishan coffee.
The Normal belongs to a new breed of coffee shops that truly stands out. Rest assured that the name is wonderfully understated.
The menu here consists solely of beans from the renowned coffee brand Ninety Plus at a very competitive price point. Offering Geishas at around six dollars for a pour-over and Ethiopians for half of that price, it’s cheap both by local and international standards.
The Normal boasts that certain kind of minimalist feng shui that seems to reel in the Instagram crowd. The interior is mostly white, but a royal blue color is used as an accent strategically around the bar and on the staff’s uniform; a futuristic, monochrome mix between a rugged lab coat and a Japanese kimono.
Talking to the owner, Kai Hsiang Kuo, he explained that the cafe is meant as a place where busy people can grab a quick coffee—either to stay or to go. It’s supposed to be world-class coffee without all the fuss and usual rituals. This is illustrated by replacing the old school gooseneck-toting barista with four automatic pour-over Marco SP9 machines. Yes, the robots are coming to steal our jobs; even in specialty coffee.
The coffee shop had only been open for a few weeks when I dropped by, but seeing the professional aura emanating from every little detail, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Kai Hsiang is one of the co-owners of another famous Taipei coffee shop named All Day Roasting Company, also worth a visit.
Asser Bøggild Christensen (@thecoffeechronicler) is a Danish journalist based in Asia covering tech and the digital nomad movement for Information, F5, and more. Read more Asser Christensen on Sprudge.
Taipei photo courtesy of Greg Hung.