A guide to the Taiwanese coffee sector
Taiwan is an island in East Asia that sits to the south east of China. It is densely populated, largely urbanised, and home to beautiful mountains and dense forests.
While it is by no means a coffee-growing powerhouse, coffee has been produced in Taiwan for the last 100 years. British settlers introduced the first plants, but it was during the island’s Japanese occupation that production really began.
The Japanese imported seedlings from Hawaii, kicking off production in what is now Yunlin County. The Japanese grew coffee as a luxury crop, and reserved it almost entirely for export to Japan, where it was often offered as a tribute to the emperor.
Today, coffee is still cultivated in Taiwan at a small scale, but the island also has a rich and vibrant culture of coffee consumption. I spoke with two local coffee experts to get a better idea of what the Taiwanese coffee industry looks like, and its potential. Read on to learn more.
You might also like our article on why East Asian buyers sometimes pay record-breaking prices for auction-winning coffee lots.
Coffee production in Taiwan
Joe Hsu is the managing director of Orsir Coffee in Taiwan. He explains that large estates and coffee farms are uncommon in Taiwan, as large-scale production is not well-developed.
“At most, single producers have a farming area of about one hectare,” he says. “This translates to around one tonne of coffee per year.”
He adds that labour costs are high, so many producers actually roast their own coffee and run small local kiosks and cafés to generate revenue.
Taiwan’s coffee harvest season is long, running from November to May. Production is mainly concentrated in four counties: Tainan, Alishan, Pingtung, and Yunlin.
Yunlin County is by far the largest, and home to high mountains, volcanic soil, cool temperatures, and plenty of spring water. In this region, the coffee often has a muted acidity, with notes of nuts and citrus.
Pingtung County, meanwhile, is home to lush, forested mountains, particularly around Taiwu Village. Coffee cultivation has become much more prominent here in recent years.
In Tainan, meanwhile, coffee plants grow in the foothills, with a “coffee highway” located to the south of the hot spring town of Guanziling.
Farmers cultivate a number of varieties in Taiwan, including Typica, Catimor, Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, and Geisha, which are all popular internationally.
However, Joe adds: “Interestingly, of late, the SL-34 from Kenya has been introduced in Taiwan and has become an instant hit.
“It is very popular because of its superior yield and cup quality. Farmers are now even opting for the SL in place of the more traditional varieties.”
The vast majority of Taiwanese coffee farmers work individually, but there are some neighbourhood groups that function as small co-operatives. These groups own private washing stations to process their coffee.
Processing & trade
The majority of the coffee produced in Taiwan is washed, but at lower elevations, some farmers do opt for natural processing to increase the sweetness of their coffees.
Honey processing is also on the rise, and Joe says that a handful of farmers working with international buyers are slowly starting to experiment with other methods.
“After processing, Taiwanese coffee is usually sold domestically,” Joe explains. “It can be sold either as green bean or roasted. Some of the farmers own small coffee shops from where they do their selling. Very little gets exported.”
While Taiwan does grow coffee for predominantly domestic consumption, it also imports coffee from other countries around the world to satisfy local demand.
Taiwanese coffee imports are worth around US $235 million a year, and around 40% is roasted coffee (whole bean, ground, or soluble). The remaining 60% is green coffee, which is then roasted and sold domestically in Taiwan.
Import figures for Taiwan grew exponentially from 2012 to 2016, and similar growth has been forecast for the 2020s. Most roasted coffee comes to Taiwan from the US (45%), followed by Japan (21.5%), Malaysia (12.2%), Italy (8.5%), and Switzerland (3.5%).
Green coffee exports, meanwhile, are fairly evenly distributed. The top five origins exporting coffee to Taiwan are Indonesia (17.9%), Brazil (17.1%), Ethiopia (13%), Colombia (12.6%), and Guatemala (11.6%).
A history of coffee consumption in Taiwan
As the trade figures indicate, coffee consumption is growing in Taiwan. However, the biggest barrier is the Taiwanese population’s longstanding relationship with tea.
Tea has been the dominant, go-to beverage for Taiwanese locals for a very long time, making it the general choice over coffee. The island has innovated with tea products (such as bubble tea, now famous around the world) for decades.
However, if recent data is anything to go by, beverage preferences seem to be changing as coffee becomes more accessible.
Tristan Wang is a specialty coffee barista in Taiwan. He explains that people drink tea all day long, including with meals.
“People may have coffee mostly in the morning, perhaps in the afternoon, and rarely in the late evening,” he explains. “This situation results from the food culture, the eating style, and the cost.
“In terms of value for money, it is easier to get a wide variety of tea-based beverages than decent coffee drinks.”
He explains that coffee has been prominent in Taiwan for around 30 years, and in that time it has grown tremendously. Today, the Taipei Economic and Trade Office reports that there are at least 15,000 coffee shops in Taiwan altogether. Coffee consumption more than doubled in the eight-year period from 2010 to 2018
“[Coffee dates back] back at least to the Japanese time,” he says. “In the late 1990s, espresso-based coffee beverages became a new wave, mainly due to Starbucks. Around a decade ago, people started to learn about specialty coffee.”
Even just 30 years ago, most of the coffee available in Taiwan was soluble, with only a handful of coffee shops across the island. However, this began changing in the 1990s, with the influx of roasted coffee from abroad.
Since then, the growth of espresso-based beverages and filter coffee has exploded, and led to a change in the beverage preferences of the Taiwanese population.
Today, Taipei is full of coffee shops, and specialty coffee is becoming increasingly prominent.
“The market for specialty coffee is currently pretty mature,” Tristan says. “Many people are now engaged in this industry, including cafes, retailers, roasters, importers, and even farmers.”
Joe adds: “I would say around 98% of Taiwanese green coffee ends up being consumed domestically. However, most of these farmers work directly with roasters, which is a good thing to see. It’s very real.”
Local coffee events for producers
Joe explains that local coffee competitions have helped to promote the growth and development of Taiwan’s coffee production. For the most part, these are held by private organisations or local government.
A lot of these, he says, are focused on farmers and production, and try to be as accessible as possible. The Taiwan International Coffee Festival is one of the most popular.
“Even the very small scale growers are encouraged to join in these competitions,” Joe explains. “However, they are required to submit crop samples to the local government to participate in them.”
As a result, Joe tells me that the government provides training and guidance to support farmers to enter their lots.
What comes next?
According to Joe, most of the coffee produced in Taiwan is consumed locally, but its cost can still be high for many domestic consumers.
Furthermore, he says, producers don’t know much about the domestic and international market for coffee, making it difficult for Taiwanese coffee to improve its reputation.
“There is still a lack of knowledge as far as marketing is concerned,” Joe notes. “Coffee education among producers is important to change this ignorance. Thankfully, there has been some local government and private intervention.”
For producers, the other major barriers are a generational gap and rising labour costs – which are challenges common to other origins.
Most coffee producers in Taiwan are aging, and younger generations in these families often seek to leave to find employment in cities. Even those who do want to work in coffee prefer learning about the consumer side, by working in coffee shops – which is largely viewed as more desirable.
Despite these issues, there is plenty to get excited about in the Taiwanese coffee sector, whether it’s on the production or the consumption side.
“In general, people are open to trying new stuff, especially where food and beverages are concerned,” Tristan concludes. “Younger people are getting more creative and interested in all sorts of activities for coffee, and there’s plenty of influence from those who have travelled overseas.”
However, for Taiwanese coffee to make a name for itself and for farmers there to improve their income, awareness needs to grow on the international stage. It’s clear that the demands of domestic market alone cannot support Taiwanese coffee production to grow at any kind of scale.
Enjoyed this? Then try our guide to understanding the Singaporean coffee market.
Photo credits: Peter Gakuo
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