Occasionally, the line between a producing country and a consuming country blurs. Taiwan is starting to blur that line. I had the opportunity a few years back to cup several Taiwanese coffees. At the time I was not impressed and sort of wrote them off as a producer of specialty coffee. I probably should not have done that!
Taiwan is embracing specialty coffee with a passion both as a producer of coffee and as a consumer. There are already five SCAA certified labs with more in the pipeline. Q–Grader classes are happening on a regular basis, as are barista trainings and roaster workshops.
Small shops with one kilo roasters are popping up, and the proficiency I witnessed rivaled any of the 3rd wave shops in the U.S. both in roast quality and hand pour preparation. It was amazing to me to see all of these shops stocking as many as 20 single origin coffees that would all score in the high 80’s and low 90’s.
Perhaps my surprise is misplaced. As has been common in the industrial age, Taiwan has taken the best practices of the Western world and made them more efficient and less expensive. Since the average wage is far less in Taiwan than the U.S. they have to do that, and we in the West might find some new best practices to look at ourselves.
There are really only two levels of coffee that I found in Taiwan. First is the ever-so-nauseating 3-in-1’s poured in most restaurants. If you are not familiar with this treat, it is freeze dried coffee mixed with some sort of powdered creamer and sugar crammed into one packet, hence 3-in-1. Tear it open, add hot water, and voila you have some crappy, sweet, light-brown water. The other level of coffee would be considered our Third Wave—slow bar, expert craftsmanship, and professional presentations celebrating the coffee.
In Taipei, the largest city of Taiwan, I was able to get to four of these Third Wave shops. When you go into one, you are usually told which of their people won whatever award for either their roasting skills or barista prowess. They are proud of these people, as they should be, and are excited to tell their customers about it. In Kaohsiung I visited two more with the same result.
After giving some lectures at ‘National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism’ (NKUHT), the staff treated me to a trip to of one of the oldest growing regions in Taiwan. It is called Taiwu in the Daiwu Mountains. It is an Aboriginal tribe that harvests the coffee in this area as they have for over 100 years.
In 2009, a flood wiped out all but a few houses in the mountains. The government supported the building of housing and a village center in the foothills of the mountain. It is now the village mill, as well as the visitor center where all of the smallholders bring their coffee to be processed. A local man who studied abroad, named Jack Hua, brought some best practices home with him and the tribe is now producing some beautiful specialty coffee.
They use plastic tubs to ferment about 40 kilos of coffee each and drying trays similar to African beds to dry the green. They also use the honey process to try to get different cupping notes. I found one of the visitor center’s staff sitting at a table hand sorting the green coffee. This was off-harvest so there was not much green, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the attention to detail. They also roast their own coffee onsite and prepare beverages in their well-appointed coffee shop in the visitor center. Each step is done with best practices in mind.
We went up the mountain to the growing areas and found experiments with intercropping and different shade trees. Without a doubt, this grouping of Aboriginal tribes will be producing the best coffee possible from this area. They are still awaiting soil analysis to help determine better varietals to plant. Most of these improvements have come since the flood and since money flowed into the area. It will be amazing to see just how good the coffee can become!
The biggest surprise of all happened while up on the mountain. I had a ‘farm-first’ at a creaky coffee shack on the side of a hill, a lovely 70-year-old woman, Sirapa, showed me the beans that her husband had just roasted, and they were gorgeous! She then proceeded to make me a perfect siphon pot of the coffee and presented it in a way that would impress your World Champion Baristas. If you have ever been ‘down on the farm,’ then you know that this NEVER happens!
Quality has definitely found its way to Taiwan and it will be an origin to watch!
Rocky Rhodes is an 18 year coffee veteran, roaster, and Q-Grader Instructor, and his mission now is to transform the coffee supply chain and make sweeping differences in the lives of those that produce the green coffee. Rocky can be reached at rocky@INTLcoffeeConsulting.com