Bitter taste of limited success

By Sam Sky Wild  /  Contributing reporter

Thu, Sep 05, 2013 - Page 12

The lush, forest-covered mountains surrounding Taiwu Village (泰武村) in Pingtung County bear a striking resemblance to the cloud-kissed, jungle-topped peaks of north-west Colombia. But the comparison doesn’t end there. The tiny Paiwan Aboriginal hamlet has in recent years established itself as one of Taiwan’s principle coffee-producing regions.

Coffee farmer and Paiwan village chief Jack Hua (華偉傑), who has been operating Kavulungan Coffee Farmstead (卡彿魯岸咖啡莊園) for four years after returning from the UK where he was doing a PhD in political marketing, says the commercial organization now produces an impressive five to six tonnes of roasted coffee per year.

Hua boasts that the mountainside coffee venture is the largest organic coffee-producing region in Taiwan, which is also run as a dividend-sharing co-op.

“We now have 30 farmers working together to grow organic coffee,” Hua says.

“We gather the farmers’ crops together and then share the profit. I come from this place and my grandmother used to be the village head. We are Paiwan and in our culture we have to look after the whole village.”

limited market

In an increasingly cut-throat marketplace, Hua’s marketing skills could prove an asset, with many Taiwanese farmers reporting that they are struggling to compete with countries like Vietnam where labor costs are far lower. The focus is now on growing for the high-end local market as well those overseas.

“We just sent some [of the crop] to Hawaii and Japan and we may export to the UK in the future … We really want to increase [exports] … and we are targeting people who appreciate specialty coffee,” Hua says.

Max Hippo (何至育), director of Organic Coffee at the Taitung Coffee Producer’s Association — and a coffee grower based in Chishang (池上) in northern Taitung County — echoes Hua’s sentiments.

“The main market for Taitung-grown coffee is western Taiwan; we sell very little overseas. That’s really because Taiwanese coffee is not that widely known outside Taiwan and there’s limited production … It’s only in the last 10 years that people started tasting our coffee and began to buy it.”

Hippo compares his berries, which sell, roasted, for NT$1,000 per pound, to those found in the gentle mountain slopes of the Caribbean island country of Jamaica.

“Coffee grown in the Eastern Rift Valley is a little bit sweet with a good aroma.”

Known in many countries as “Black Gold” the potential financial trappings of the humble coffee bean are large.

added value

“In Taitung, around 50 tonnes are grown per year,” says Hippo, who is careful to explain that the weight substantially diminishes during the roasting process. Roasting the coffee, he says, as well as innovating new products, are key ways for farmers to try and add value to their slim profit margins in a local industry currently worth tens of millions of new Taiwan dollars per year.

razon thin margins

For many coffee farmers around the world, striving to provide the US, the world’s biggest market, with its daily cup of Joe is a day-to-day struggle. The effective collapse of the International Coffee Organization — precipitated by the US withdrawing from the price-regulating organization — in 1989 saw coffee prices plummet with many impoverished coffee farmers and their families bearing the economic brunt.

Aid agencies, including Oxfam, regularly point to the coffee sector in the tropical nations of Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia and Indonesia — the world’s largest producers — as being characterized by poverty-level wages often driven by the vagaries of the harvest season, the sensitivity of coffee trees which are vulnerable to extreme weather and the overuse of agricultural chemicals as well the stripping of rainforest for coffee plantations.

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.

pricey beans

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.”