Taiwan for Coffee Drinkers
Taipei: 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 Mr Brown. The price of a cup of coffee ranges from 35 Taiwan dollars ($1) at Dante to 50 Taiwan dollars ($1.5) at Starbucks.
The largest coffee chain - Starbucks - entered Taiwan in 1998 and now has 156 outlets across the island.
Starbucks' confidence in the Taiwan market is not groundless. Figures by the Taiwan Chain Store and Franchise Association show that the people are increasingly switching from drinking tea - the traditional Chinese brew - to coffee.
In the past five years, the number of Taiwan franchise coffee shops has doubled from 712 in 2000 to 1,606 in 2004, while the number of franchise tea shops has increased by only 37, according to the association.
Besides franchise coffee shops, there are some 12,000 individual shops in Taiwan, some doubling as a cafe and restaurant.
Taiwan's coffee imports have almost doubled from 7,459 tonnes in 2000 to 14,270 tonnes in 2004, while tea imports have marked an increase of just over 1,000 tonnes (to 21,412 tonnes) in the same period, according to the Taiwan Coffee Association (TCA).
TCA expects Taiwan's coffee market to maintain its steady growth in the coming years.
TCA not only promotes drinking coffee but also conducts training classes for those who want to open cafes and takes coffee importers on inspection tours to coffee-growing countries.
Of Taiwan's coffee import, 22 percent comes from Vietnam, 15 percent from Brazil and six percent from Colombia.