Coffee lovers no longer have to feel left-out in tea-drinking Taiwan. More and more high-end cafés are opening, catering to those who know their beans.
BY JANE RICKARDS
Leopoldo Sposato, the Italian Trade Office trade director, is fond of quoting the old saying that real coffee “must be black as night, hot as hell, and sweet as love.”
Increasingly, many Taiwanese are feeling the same way. Traditionally a tea-drinking country, Taiwan did not see the development of widespread coffee habits until the early 1990s with the advent of various low-end Japanese coffee chains. Since then, the situation has changed dramatically, with the emergence of a variety of sophisticated cafes catering to gourmet coffee tastes. TOPICS surveyed members of the Italian and French communities, as well as Taiwanese and Americans, for their top picks.
The furniture is minimalist-style fire-engine red tables and simple black chairs, while colorful posters of coffee flowers and stainless-steel coffee equipment line the café’s walls. A percolating espresso machine wheezes amid the sound of clinking glasses. Barista Sanders Chen is making espressos behind the bar.
Espressamente illy is a café chain created by Illycaffe, a 75-year-old Italian coffee company headquartered in Trieste. For most of its history, says Taiwan spokeswoman Michelle Chao, the parent company specialized only in coffee beans, but since 2003 it has launched over 200 Italian-style cafes all over the world. The two outlets in Taipei, both located at Taipei 101, were designed by well-known Italian architect Luca Trazzi.
The espresso here comes in a tiny white cup, and its fragrant aroma has hints of hazelnuts, toasted bread, and honey. The taste is strong and biting at first, but then becomes velvety and mellow to swallow. Its slightly bitter aftertaste packs a punch.
The Illy group has high standards, Chao explains. Its Arabica coffee beans are sourced from nine different countries (including, surprisingly, China’s Yunnan Province) to guard against seasonal variations in any one area creating a bad harvest that would interfere with the company’s high quality. The coffee beans are all handpicked, Chao says, as humans are better at identifying mature coffee fruit than machines. If the fruit is too unripe, she says, it can create excessive sourness in the brewed coffee. The beans – the seeds of the fruit – are then sun-dried and sent to Trieste for roasting in either a medium or a dark style. Over-roasting, Chao adds, can create an excessively bitter taste. “Most espressos in Taiwan are too bitter or too sour,” she says. “Here, you can feel the balance.”
Chao says the company works hard to keep the quality consistent at all stores. Espressamente illy baristas in Taipei were trained by Fritz Storm, winner of the 2002 World Barista Championship and the chief judge of the 2008 World Barista championship, during Storm’s visit to Taipei in September.
In Italy, espresso is considered the basic coffee unit, with other options as variations on that theme. For example, Espressamente’s espresso doppio is two espressos served in a medium-sized cup, an espresso all’Americana is an espresso served in a large cup and diluted with hot water, and a cappuccino is an espresso served in a large cup with abundant warm emulsified milk. Adding flavorings to coffee – such as caramel or even dark cherry or toffee nut syrups as Starbucks is offering this year – is an American habit, and definitely not in the Italian tradition.
Sposato says a good coffee can be detected by its fragrant aroma and notes that some American coffees have no smell and rely on additional flavorings for their taste. Nevertheless, Espressamente has introduced some modern innovations in the form of coffee cocktails. Their “Amore” – an espresso combined with amaretto di saronno, brown sugar, and cream – was delicious and a perfect winter warm-up.
Espressamente illy aims to offer Taiwanese a taste of the Italian lifestyle and indulges in luxurious designs. “Drinking coffee is not just about coffee, it is also an art,” Chao says. Besides having a top architect design the café, Espressamente has invited various renowned designers and artists to create coffee cups, some of which are available for purchase. Coffee beans are also for sale. Prices for a cup of coffee range from NT$75 to NT$180.
Taipei 101 35F, 7 XinYi Rd., Sec. 5, Taipei
Taipei 101, GF Shopping Center, 7 XinYi Rd., Sec. 5, Taipei
At Haaya’s Coffee, the coffee menu doesn’t merely tell customers the country and region where the coffee beans in each beverage come from. It provides such additional detailed information as the name of the coffee farm or estate, the year the beans were harvested, and the variety of the Arabica bean. Typical offerings might include Brazil – Cerrado “Da Terra” 07-08 Amarelo Bourbon or Galapagos – San Cristobal Island “Fazenda El Cafetal” Organic 07-08 Bourbon Natural.
The president of Haaya, Izuru Mikami, imports green coffee beans from all over the world and roasts them in Taiwan, ensuring fresh quality. He offers three different kinds of roasts. The Medium to High roast features mildly roasted beans that produce delicately flavored coffee with mild acidity and a fruity taste. The City Roast has a balanced, stereotypical coffee taste, while the Full-city French Roast features a fuller, longer roasting process that produces a more bitter, but not-so-acidic coffee.
While the Italians tend to shun the use of drip bags to make coffee, Mikami says he prefers them as the natural pull of gravity on the water does not put pressure on the coffee grounds, producing a cleaner taste. He finds that the compression of the grounds by an espresso machine creates an oily quality that is not to his taste. Mikami also generally refrains from mixing beans from different regions, and he suggests that customers drink his coffee black to appreciate the subtle fragrances and variations. Many of the imported coffees are approved by environmentally friendly organizations, such as the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International. The prices of most coffees are around NT$180 to NT$200. Mikami is also prepared to grind coffee beans to take home: just name the region and the roast, and he can tailor-make a batch for you.
66 Tianmu North Road, Taipei
No 4-1, Alley 25, Lane 113, MinSheng East Road, Sec. 3, Taipei
This brown-walled café has a very relaxed and earthy feel. Enormous globe-shaped lights offer soft lighting and hang over a main coffee counter, which seems more like a lounge bar for customers to congregate at, buy drinks, and linger. “We want our guests to be comfortable,” says founder, Lin Tung-yuan, who is known locally as Taiwan’s coffee guru. The name “Gabee.” is a play on words. Gabee means coffee in Taiwanese, while a period or full stop is pronounced dian, which also means a shop. Hence “Gabee.” means coffee shop.
Every single winner of Taiwan’s annual Barista Competition works at this café. Lin was the first to win the title when the competition – judged by various Taiwanese coffee experts who followed international regulations – was first held in 2004. He won the annual competition again in 2006 and represented Taiwan in the 2007 World Barista Competition. In 2005 and 2007, Gabee. Barista Ho Kuo-chuan won the Taiwan Barista Competition, and the 2008 winner, Tsao Chin-ming, is also on the Gabee staff. Lin has also published two books – Latte Art, which teaches Taiwanese to recognize the different kinds of coffee, and Life Creativity Caffe.
Lin, who opened the shop four years ago, says coffee is his life’s passion. He is mainly self-taught and likes to do non-traditional things. For the 2004 contest, when required to show off his creativity, he prepared a coffee drink flavored with Taiwanese sweet potato. Nevertheless, Gabee also has standard coffee offerings, including around 24 kinds of hot coffee, such as espresso ristretto and espresso doppio, and 21 kinds of iced coffee. Lin also uses a variety of espresso machines – from the 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s – as they produce different flavors, he says. There are also 20 different varieties of hot chocolate – the cointreau chocolate, with real whipped cream and garnished with fresh orange peel, was especially delicious – and 31 kinds of tea, with tealeaves from an upmarket French company, Mariage Freres. Coffee prices range from NT$100 to NT$180.
No.21, Lane 113, MinSheng East Road,
Sec. 3, Taipei.
Walking inside Martinez Coffee can be a bit like entering another country in another era – perhaps British Victorian times. The VIP room at the back of this coffee shop is especially elegant, with a sparkling chandelier, cream paneled walls with gold patterns, and a French-style Louis XV settee. Soft classical music plays soothingly and discreetly in the background. If you pull the gold and brown brocade curtains together and fasten them, you are sealed off from the rest of the cafe and can have your own private coffee party. The atmosphere of old-fashioned stylishness extends to the rest of the shop, with more chandeliers hanging from gold-flowered ceiling panels and a hand-made silk Kashmiri carpet hanging on the wall. “When people come here, they will feel comfortable and peaceful,” says manager Richard Chen.
Chen is the Taiwan agent for Martinez Coffee, a high-class Jamaica-based coffee brand that is also sold in the United States. It dates back to the 1860s, when a Spaniard, Carlos Martinez, left northern Spain for Jamaica and began trading with the United States. The coffees at Martinez Coffee are identified by region, and beans from different regions are rarely mixed. The coffee is best drunk black – in sips, after the aroma has been inhaled – to appreciate each distinctive flavor and fragrance. “Martinez identifies estates where a combination of soil, climate, topography, and cultural practices gives the beans a taste and aroma as distinctive as fine Burgundy,” Martinez Coffee says on its website. For example, beans for the Yemen Mattari Mocha Coffee have a natural chocolaty taste and smell.
The green beans for the India Monsooned Malabar Coffee are kept in an open warehouse for three months and dried slowly in seasonal winds from the Indian Ocean. “The acidity of the coffee goes down,” Chen says. “The flavor changes, making the coffee smoother and milder.”
While beans are roasted abroad, Chen says the roasting is done immediately after he places an order, and if he has the shipment delivered by FedEx it can arrive within two days. “Our coffee is very fresh,” he says. Since Chen considers that such high-quality coffee deserves to be served in beautiful china, he uses coffee cups of Wedgewood bone china, Noritake china, and for special guests even Hermes china.
Coffee prices range from around NT$240 to NT$280 per cup, and Martinez Coffee also offers various teas and cakes. Chen also offers classes in coffee appreciation, which attract many students from the nearby National Taiwan Normal University.
No. 26, Lane 243, JinHua Street, Taipei (flagship store).
149-11 XinSheng South Rd., Sec. 1, Taipei.
No. 27, Lane 91, HoShan St., Tainan City.
With antique lamps hanging from wooden roof beams, carved brown cupboards, and classic French paintings on the wall, Paul aims for an atmosphere reminiscent of rustic France. The only thing preventing it from achieving this effect are the throngs of Taiwanese customers. Since its grand opening in Taipei in late September, the French bakery chain, first established in 1889, has seen rip-roaring trade in Taiwan. Spokeswoman Angel Wu reports that in the first two weeks, two months worth of stock was sold out, and it even had to close its doors for a short period while inventory was replenished.
Given that 95% of the ingredients are imported from France, it is an ideal place for French coffee and cake. There are various quiches, over 100 types of bread, mini-croissants as well as various desserts such as flan Normand, a pastry with apples, or moelleux au chocolat, a kind of cake. The coffee itself is Italian from the top-end Turin-based company Lavazza, but it is prepared French-style with offerings such as cappucino noisette, café crème glace, café vienois, Café moka, or café allonge, which is similar to American coffee.
Wu says she thinks the Taiwanese need to experiment more with coffee. She points out that they often fear that an espresso may be too strong, and normally ask for American coffee – but in fact American coffee is water with a shot of espresso, and if the espresso sits in a lot of water for too long, it becomes even stronger. She also expresses the hope that as in France, drinking coffee at a café will develop into a social habit in Taiwan. “We want people in the area to think ‘this is my coffee place, this is my bakery,’” she says. With Eslite’s 24-hour bookshop nearby, the bakery, which now shuts at 10 p.m., is considering staying opening round the clock.
The service from staff members wearing white bakers’ outfits is ultra-efficient. They have all been trained in basic French and get reprimanded if they say huanying guanlin rather than bonjour or bonsoir when customers come in. With its crowds of patrons, Paul might not be the best place to linger for hours discussing politics or philosophy, but it could be just right for executives looking for quality and efficiency. The price of coffee is NT$120 to NT$160.
107 RenAi Road, Sec. 4, Taipei.
Whether it is mille feuille vanille, glistening with brown glaze and sprinkled with pistachios, clafoutis griottine-pistache dotted with dark brandied cherries and sprinkled with sugar, or crème d’Anjou with salty sour cream cheese and rich raspberry sauce, French patisserie 15ème boasts the most decadent and scrumptious cakes in town. Like Paul, it is also a good place for coffee. Founder Hung Che-wei lived in France for six years, where he studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu and eventually worked in a Michelin two-star hotel in Paris. He set up 15ème almost two years ago, with the dream of introducing Taiwan to a Paris- style patisserie. Members of the French community praise Hung’s pastries for their authenticity.
Four kinds of coffee are available – café Americaine, café espresso, café au lait, or café cappuccino. While my cappuccino, lightly sprinkled with cinnamon, was excellent, Hung says that the French tradition is to keep coffee simple. “If we have lots of taste in the coffee, we cannot taste the cake,” he points out. The coffee is a mix of beans from Africa, Indonesia, South America, and other areas. Prices range from around NT$100 to NT$120.
No. 11, Lane 113, MinSheng East Road
Sec. 3, Taipei.