Taiwan a mecca for coffee lovers

Taipei, February 5:

Many foreigners know that Taiwan has delicious Chinese food, makes cheap export goods and has the world’s tallest building, the 508-metre Taipei 101 building. But few realise that Taiwan is also a mecca for coffee drinkers. The island’s centuries-old coffee culture is now experiencing something of a renaissance, spreading from the cities to take root in tourist resorts along its coastline and in the mountains.

Taiwan’s coffee culture dates back to its colonial past. When the Dutch colonised Taiwan from 1642 to 1662, they brought coffee beans to Taiwan and planted coffee trees. When the Japanese seized Taiwan in 1895, they judged its subtropical climate to be ideal for growing coffee and established plantations in the Taiwan hills, sending the coffee back for sale in Japan.

A major event in Taiwan’s coffee culture occurred in 1949, when the Chinese Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan to set up its government-in-exile. A Russian called George Elsner, who fled to Taipei with the Chinese, opened the Astoria cafe in Hsimenting in central Taipei, a copy of his Astoria cafe in Shanghai.

The Astoria, with its dim light, parquet floor, delicious cakes and fragrant coffee, soon became a hangout for the Russian community, US soldiers and Taiwan writers. They said it was the ‘only cafe with class’ in Taiwan.

From the 1950 to the 1980s, visiting a coffee shop was a luxury for most Taiwanese. But in the 1990s, with Taiwan’s economic takeoff and the launch of coffee chain outlets, drinking coffee became a part of ordinary life.

Currently there are some 2,000 coffee shops in Taipei, half of them chain stores like Starbucks, Dante, Barista, IS Coffee, Ikari and Brown. The price of a cup of coffee ranges from $1 at Dante to $1.5 at Starbucks. The largest coffee chain — Starbucks — entered Taiwan in 1998 and now has 156 outlets across the island.