Mention Taiwanese coffee and usually it brings to mind coffee produced in Gukeng Township (古坑), Yunlin County, or Dongshan (東山) in Greater Tainan, as well as the act of sipping coffee while admiring the scenery.
How the nation’s coffee beans would become one of the top 50 selected by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and allow the local coffee industry to survive is encapsulated in the little-known story of one coffee farmer.
One day in the middle of November, a young man named Fang Cheng-lun (方政倫), the manager of Zhou Zhu Yuan Farm, a coffee bean farm 1,200m up Alishan (阿里山), Chiayi County, was trying to process his coffee beans by drying them in the sun.
When part of the last batch of sun-dried beans was ground and brewed by Simon Hsieh (謝博戎), founder of Soaring Phoenix Trading, the store was filled with the aroma of brandy, Hsieh said, adding that Fang’s natural way of drying beans was the secret recipe that propeled the nation’s coffee onto the international stage.
“Natural coffee” consists of beans that are dried inside the fruit, rather than after the fruit is removed, as is the case with “washed” (or wet-processed) coffee.
Fang said that like their neighbors, his parents had initially made a living by producing high mountain tea. After his discharge from the military, Fang returned home to help with the tea picking, to find that his father had planted a small patch of coffee plants as an experiment.
Fang tried to give the coffee beans different flavors through different processing methods, such as washing or sun drying.
It was mainly because of his hard work that his coffee won a special award in the Taiwan Specialty Coffee Evaluation in 2007, as well as earning a place in the top 50 in the second round of the SCAA evaluation last year.
Fang said two other Taiwanese coffee businesses also placed in the top 50 for specialty coffee beans — Kuo Chang-sheng’s (郭章盛) Sung Yueh Coffee House in Yunlin and the coffee made by Lee Sung-yuan (李松源) in Pingtung.
The outstanding performance of the nation’s coffee industry surprised foreign coffee farms and businesses, Fang said, adding that in recent years several foreign coffee farmers, businessmen and experts visited Alishan to tour his coffee farm.
“There are a lot of people planting coffee trees now and some are very hard working, so there’s a lot of future competition and there’s reason for worry,” Fang said.
An introduction to Taiwanese coffee on the Chiayi Agricultural Research Center Web site shows that Tait Marketing and Distribution Co imported 100 pots of coffee seedlings from Manila to plant in Taiwan and imported more seeds the following year to plant in Sanxia (三峽), near Taipei, in 1884.
In 1901, with Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule, Yasusada Tashiro, a biologist for the Japanese governor of Taiwan, imported Java coffee plants and planted them in Pingtung.
In 1919, the center collected samples from Hengchun (恆春) and Pingtung to plant at the center for research. After evaluating all the species, they found that the Arabica species was best suited for local conditions.
Arabica coffee trees were widely planted across the nation in 1927 and by 1942 — the peak coffee-planting period — more than 1,000 hectares of coffee were planted nation-wide.
However, when the US joined World War II, agricultural concerns became food-centric, causing most of the coffee farms to change their produce to grain. By 1953, there were only 4.9 hectares of coffee trees planted nationwide.