While local producers may not be struggling in the way their third world counterparts do, it is clear that Taiwanese farmers whose crops grow up the side of mountainous slopes are facing an uphill journey in terms of establishing a working financial model. Taitung coffee is largely grown and harvested by hand and much of the crop is organic and it carries a higher price tag as a result.
Critics, however, including coffee shop owner Monet Joe (張新舟), who imports seven tonnes of coffee from Guatemala every two years to feed his cafe clientele in Hualien’s Liyu Lake (鯉魚潭), argues that locally-produced coffee remains overpriced in contrast to better-quality beans shipped from overseas.
“Due to ... economic factors, in terms of the quality, the price is too high and I’m not planning to sell it,” says Joe, who has been operating two brands, Balanjoyo Coffee (布蘭赫亞咖啡) and Don Gus Coffee (谷氏咖啡), for 10 years.
Liza Ku (辜意珺) and her husband Eric Chen (陳郁仁), who operate Oddo Coffeeshop (怪豆咖啡) on the outskirts of Taitung City, are planning to add Taitung-grown coffee to their list of specialty beverages next season. But, Ku says, getting hold of local beans is a challenge.
“It’s expensive and there is a limited supply,” she says.
Ku cites cafes in Taipei where a single cup of Taiwan-grown coffee can fetch between NT$300 and NT$400 and complains that a handful of established, bespoke coffee supply chains are buying up most of the annual crop.
But for Ku the issues surrounding Taiwanese coffee are deeper.
“Taiwanese coffee is just not as good as coffee from other countries — but it costs a lot,” she says.
Sitting over an impressive typhoon-salvaged wood-top counter with a cup of coffee, Ku says local farmers are at a disadvantage compared to countries which have been growing coffee for hundreds of years. The coffeeshop owner, who has been roasting coffee for over five years, added that the “art of roasting” has not taken root among local producers. “You can turn a medium grade coffee into something very special if you know how to roast it,” she says with a wink.
Taitung coffee may be struggling to take root, but Taiwan’s love affair with the powerful stimulant is evident. Ministry of Finance figures show that imported coffee products grew from 7,990 tonnes in 1997 to 25,085 tonnes in 2010.
The size of the growth of the local coffee market has not gone unnoticed by major corporations, and Starbucks announced in March that it is planning to open a further 300 outlets to compliment its existing 285.
In rain-drenched Taitung City, Ku takes a sip of hair-raisingly powerful espresso and then says, calmly: “I’m not sure that Taiwanese coffee is the way forward — we grow great tea here, maybe we should stick at that.”