Every November, Yunlin County is cast into the national spotlight with its Gukeng Coffee Festival, which showcases Gukeng Township’s (古坑) coffee industry, farming history and unique coffee culture. During weekends in every November since 2002, visitors have flocked to the hilly area for a taste of the smooth, mild brews made mostly from Arabica beans, and for a chance to explore the world of coffee in greater depth than ever before.
Now in its 10th year, the festival has this year added a “Taiwan Coffee University” program that will hold classes at Huashan Elementary School to help visitors learn more about coffee and the crop’s evolution in Taiwan, a Gukeng official said.
“We will teach people how to roast coffee beans and how to brew coffee from scratch,” said Sun Wang-tien, head of the agricultural economy department of the Gukeng Township Office.
The new program has three “schools” — the school of agriculture, the school of history and humanities and the school of music — that will give visitors free instruction on topics ranging from how to grow coffee trees to what music goes best with a leisurely cup of coffee, Sun said. Visitors to the festival, running every weekend from last Saturday through to Nov. 24, can also learn about the history of coffee’s development around the world and in Taiwan, and how it is an important part of people’s lives, he said.
“We have found that tour guides and education are the most effective ways to spread the value of a culture,” Sun said.
“Since 2003, quality has been our priority while deciding how to promote our coffee industry and how to highlight the quality of coffee grown by our farmers at the annual coffee festival,” he said.
Every year since then, the township has held contests during the festival to select the best fresh coffee beans produced by local farmers, as well as those from other parts of the country, the best coffee-roasting master and the top coffee-making experts. Through the competitions and the participation of foreign experts invited by the county to share their expertise with local farmers, “our skills and techniques in handling the crop have improved considerably,” said Sun, the man in charge of this year’s coffee festival.
Gukeng is recognized as the nation’s cradle of coffee cultivation. Coffee farming there goes back to the Japanese colonial era and reached its peak between the 1940s and 1960s, before falling off due to high production costs and high prices for the coffee, Sun said. When it was in vogue, Taiwan-grown coffee was mostly drunk at imperial residences in Japan and at homes of senior government officials in Taiwan, he said.
Though the industry went through a dry spell, coffee continued to be planted in the Gukeng area and the industry was revived on a wider scale during the past decade as coffee drinking became fashionable in Taiwan.
Coffee beans are currently planted on 50 hectares of land in Gukeng, a negligible size when compared with coffee farms in South America and Africa.
Therefore, local farmers have been encouraged to focus on growing the highest quality beans possible, Sun said.
That has meant high production costs, which is why Gukeng has eschewed marketing strategies aimed at mass-market coffee shops and instead geared them toward linking high-end coffee to the travel and fine dining sectors, hotels and even bookstores, Sun added.