Denny Lee

The coffee scene in Taiwan is as complex and vibrant as its coffee beans

The last time I was in Taiwan was in 2018, and the coffee scene was very different. It was mostly filled with 7-11, Family Mart, and Starbucks (and its copies) dotted all around the island. But starting a few years earlier, there was a significant agricultural change in Taiwan. The “betel nut transformation” encouraged farmers to grow less damaging crops to the hilly Taiwanese soil, continually at risk for erosion. In this process, coffee beans have become a valuable crop to replace the addictive betel nut. Similar conceptually to chewing tobacco, betel nut happens to be the fourth most popular psychoactive drug in the world

Taiwanese coffee beans cannot compete in volume with other coffee-producing nations. For example, in 2022, Indonesia produced 794.8 thousand metric tonnes of coffee beans. While Taiwan only produced 1000 metric tonnes, it can compete on variety and complexity. The island’s extremely mountainous terrain may make cycling difficult, but it allows entrepreneurial Taiwanese to grow different varieties.

Taiwan’s hills and mountains are famous in the cycling world. Taiwan’s King of the Mountain (KOM) Challenge is 3500m of climbing over 105km. It is considered one of the most challenging cycling races in the world.

I will go more into my experience with a fantastic small farmer and roaster (國姓佳芳咖啡 in Nantou. But let me start with the cafes in the cities. And for Taiwan, that means I’ll start with THE city – Taipei.

Simple Kaffa in Taipei

Our coffee journey started with Simple Kaffa due to my ongoing attempts at latte art. Berg Wu (吳則霖) is the 2016 World Barista Champion that helped catapult Taiwan into the world coffee scene. And he is one of the founders of this elegant shop. Despite my high expectations, my initial to-go oat milk latte was exquisite. The oat milk was fatty and flavorful, and its sweetness played a delicate concerto with the coffee bean flavonoids. Due to its popularity, Simple Kaffa can sometimes be hard to book an appointment even with it steadily expanding.

Try to go to the Simple Kaffa – The Coffee One (興波咖啡), which has elegant tastings. But if you’re on the go, head to the kiosk on the first floor.

Oklao is a Taiwanese coffee powerhouse

Oklao Specialty Coffee is a Taiwanese coffee powerhouse with shops across the country. They predominately grow beans in Laos and Brazil, and, more recently, Taiwan. They roast a wide variety of specialty coffee beans in Taichung (台中) per their catalog.

Fantastic selection of coffee beans from Panamanian Gesha to Ethiopian Yirgacheffe
Fantastic selection of coffee beans from Panamanian Gesha to Ethiopian Yirgacheffe

Just arriving in Kaohsiung (高雄), they were simply the closest cafe to our stay. Imagine me being dumbfounded, stumbling into a store with a wide selection from Panamanian Gesha to Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans. All I was trying to do was to find a sit-down cafe. Instead, I found a new favorite coffee shop where the baristas now know my order.

My cozy coffee corner at the Oklao Speciality Coffee on the 2nd floor in Kaohsiung's Qianzheng district.
My cozy coffee corner at the Oklao Speciality Coffee on the 2nd floor in Kaohsiung’s Qianzheng district.

Speaking of Kaohsiung, go to Rue Coffee!

There is plenty of great advice on great cafes in Taiwan – such as The 25 Best Coffee Shops in Taiwan (thanks, Herman Wu, for the suggestion!). As expected, number one on the list is Simple Kaffa in Taipei. Number two is Ruh Cafe in Taiwan’s southern city of Kaohsiung (高雄).

For those from the Pacific Northwest, think Taipei is to Seattle like Kaohsiung is to Tacoma. Mind you, Kaohsiung is larger than both cities combined. Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s second city that unfairly gets dinged for its industrial past (think “Aroma of Tacoma”). But like any great city, Kaohsiung has cleaned up and has a vibrant waterfront and arts scene – just like Tacoma.

My favorite location is Run Cafe No. 5 at the heart of the Pier-2 Arts District on the waterfront. Like any arts district, Pier-2 arts district is eclectic and creative. During the summer, it hosts an art market along its cobblestones. It parallels Kaohsiung’s in-expensive and extremely convenient light rail/tram service.

Check out Yasumi Cafe in Taichung (台中)

Between two typhoons that hit Taiwan, we skirted to Taichung to visit my cousin, Chianan Chen.

Taichung (台中) is well protected from most typhoons due to the mountains to its east.

Upon her realizing how much of a coffee fan I was, she proceeded to (willingly) drag me to 休憩咖啡 Yasumi Cafe due to their fantastic latte art.

Yasumi Cafe is nestled in Taichung’s south district (or financial district). It happens to also be owned by the 2018 Taiwan latte art champion. And yes, these works of art are delicious lattes.

A Segue to Tea in Nantou County (南投縣)

Nantou County (南投縣) in central Taiwan is famous for its tea. Grown on these fertile hillsides, the tea has complex and delicate flavors from the surrounding fruit and flowering trees. The following pictures are from Sun Moon Lake Antique Assam Tea farm. It is a still-working tea factory and farm producing some of the most exquisite teas, including their No. 18 and No. 21 varieties. This post by Nick Kembel does a beautiful job explaining why Sun Moon Lake tea is so good.

Spanning over a hundred years, Nantou County has been home to generations of farmers perfecting their craft. And why is the only landlocked county the perfect place to grow tea? This quote provides it succinctly.

The climate is ideal for growing tea. There are tea plantations in almost all of Nantou’s 12 townships, and because of the varying terrain, elevation, and climate conditions, each area produces tea with a unique character.

Coffee conversations at 國姓佳芳咖啡

In my trek to learn more about Taiwanese coffee – thanks to my awesome cousin, Chianan Chen – we traveled to Nantou County. The county is home of Sun Moon Lake and some of the world’s best teas (see previous section). It is also home to an unassuming little coffee shop 國姓佳芳咖啡. But this wasn’t your standard cafe in an agrarian county, but a manor that went from planting to roasting.

I had a great conversation with the owner and proprietor of Jiafang Coffee (佳芳咖啡), 詹清喨. Between my broken Mandarin and his broken English (his English was better than my Mandarin), I learned a lot about his coffee process and the entrepreneurial spirit of Taiwan’s youth.

It all starts with the coffee beans

This post started eons ago on Taiwan’s “betel nut transformation,” where the government encouraged farmers to grow different crops. To come full circle, in 2015, 詹清喨’s father planted 3000 coffee trees during this transformation. Traditionally, bourbon coffee beans are grown between 1100-2000m, while gesha coffee beans are produced between 1700-1950m. Yet amazingly, these coffee beans are thriving being grown at 1050m. Nantou’s ecosystem that has encouraged and perfected tea growth has transferred quite nicely to coffee.

For all of you data scientists, this would be an organic example of “transfer learning” (golf clap applause).

After handpicking the beans, they are processed in various ways, including washed, sun exposure, anaerobic, and honey process. For more information on these processes, check out this informative guide: Coffee Processing Methods Explained: Natural, Anaerobic, Honey, Oh My! Suffice it to say the washed process results in a cleaner taste. Meanwhile, the honey process tends to be sweeter, and the processes in between tend to provide more complexity.

Quality control via hand-picking coffee beans to ensure there are no defects before roasting.
Quality control via hand-picking beans to ensure there are no defects before roasting.

Finally the coffee

Being a smaller farm and shop, they offered up nine different coffee blends with four single-origin from their farm.

  • Two bourbons (one honey and one sun exposure process),
  • One SL34 – a Kenyan coffee bean suited for higher altitudes) via the anaerobic process, and
  • A gesha via the washed method.

To infuse a bit of complexity, they also included five blends that mixed their farm’s single-origin beans with various beans from Central America and Africa (primarily Panama and Ethiopia, if I understood it correctly, but there may have been a lost-in-translation thing here).

The first of four coffee tastings, this one being selection 1 - a bourbon bean via honey process with hints of beets and honey.
The first of four tastings, this one being selection 1 – a bourbon bean via honey process with hints of beets and honey.

While enjoying a relaxing coffee tasting of four different varieties, I was continually reminded of the warm hospitality of many Taiwanese – old and young. While their young child was happily running around, Mom and Dad were busy grinding the coffees and completing the pour-overs for the small crowd that filled their front room. Grandma took over child duties when she wasn’t trying to give us longan fruit for free that was naturally growing throughout their farm.

A small note about Taiwanese hospitality

After purchasing our coffee, we found a small restaurant famous for its crispy noodles (link to the restaurant and a picture of their tasty noodles). The proprietor is a woman in her 80s who cooked, served, and cleaned the three dishes we ordered – all by herself. In addition to ensuring we were all well fed and chatting about how and what she cooked (e.g., the super thin bamboo shoots are one of her specialties), she also insisted on getting our phone number that she wrote into a worn-out little paper notebook.

Why did she want our number? In the past, the roads in and out of this mountainous region were … suboptimal. She wanted to call us that evening to ensure we got home safely.

Medium-light to medium-dark roasting

At the back table near the coffee station, while my youngest daughter was playing with the pre-roasted coffee beans, I was having this wonderful conversation with 詹清喨 learning about their farm’s process. Another tidbit is that their beans are roasted medium-light to medium-dark, i.e., after the first crack but before the second crack. If you’re unfamiliar with this process, please check out Sweet Maria’s FAQ on this topic.

Due to the subtle and delicate characteristics of their coffee, pour-overs are the preferred option. As opposed to milk-based coffee drinks like lattes which require longer roasts and a more oily sheen.

Jiafang coffee sign

For this trip, we purchased their single-origin Jiafang coffee beans:

  • A golden gesha washed that is clean and bright with floral with hints of lychee. This should be perfect for Chemex and Japanese-style iced.
  • A bourbon sun exposure with solid hints of passion fruit and pineapple. I may experiment with espresso-based drinks due to their surprisingly intense sweetness.


What started as multiple small posts about different Taiwanese coffee shops turned into a diatribe. Now, this post is part for the love of coffee, Taiwanese coffee history, Nantou County tea, and the entrepreneurial spirit of Taiwanese youth. This inspiration is best summarized by a quote directly from 詹清喨’s website:

在2015年父親面臨檳榔轉型一口氣種了3000棵咖啡,20初頭歲的「詹清喨」剛畢業返鄉回來看到滿山的咖啡樹還十分錯愕與懵懂,和他起初想的在咖啡廳沖咖啡的樣子完全不同,為了接手經營這片家鄉的土地與家人同伴,從種植、栽培管理、採收、後製、挑豆、烘培開始學習並全部一手管理! 年輕人經營台灣咖啡是好事,因為他們比想像中的更堅持、更固執,「好,還要更好!」

It tells his story from his father planting coffee trees in 2015, how upon graduating and returning home in his early 20s, he had to learn everything himself, from planting, cultivation, harvesting, picking, processing, and roasting with the help of his friends and family. It’s through this stubbornness that he and many of his compatriots have turned Taiwanese coffee into a wonderfully complex and vibrant scene in such a short amount of time.

The most telling part is the last part of his quote, which encompasses this Taiwanese entrepreneurial spirit for coffee.

「好,還要更好!」meaning 「Good! Now let’s make it better!」

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: