Sometimes you hear people talk about "all the tea in China." But what of coffee? And what of Free China, as Taiwan (official name: The Republic of China) is sometimes known? Like the UK, Taiwan is an island inhabited by people who've traditionally consumed a lot of tea, but who, over the past few decades, have wholeheartedly embraced coffee culture. Between 1999 and 2010, coffee consumption in Taiwan rose from 21 cups per person per year to 78 cups. And it's not just young people quaffing java: Many senior citizens enjoy a daily dose of caffeine.

Canned coffeeCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Well-known international coffeeshop chains have established themselves in Taipei, Taichung and other major cities, just as they have in London and Leeds. As in North America, a large amount of the coffee drunk outside Taiwanese homes is served in fast-food restaurants. Convenience store chains like 7-Eleven and Family Mart do a roaring trade in freshly-made hot coffee, and also sell a range of canned and bottled coffees. During the winter, many customers pick up hot cans of Mr. Brown, Taiwan's leading packaged coffee brand. In the summer, when urban temperatures sometimes touch 38 degrees Celsius, supermarket refrigerators are stacked with canned coffees of various strength and sweetness.

Serious Coffee

Taiwanese who take their coffee very seriously won't be found in any of these places, but rather in small coffeeshops hidden in backstreets. In such places you'll see owner-baristas grinding beans by hand, working espresso machines, or vacuum brewing. These establishments usually sell beans for home coffeemaking as well as ready-to-drink cups of the beverage. Good coffee isn't cheap in Taipei - expect to pay NT$150 (around US$6) for a decent cup - but it is good.

Many tourists visit Taiwan's coffee-growing regions, not least because they're set in the island's stunningly mountainous interior, usually between 500 and 1000 meters above sea level. The first coffee trees were planted by a British trading company in 1884. But like many Western-owned businesses, they were forced out when Taiwan became a Japanese colony in 1895. Japanese entrepreneurs established coffee farms in various locations; the one at Dewen in Pingtung County - now hard to reach because the road is often damaged by typhoons - was said to produce the best arabica in the Japanese Empire (which until 1945 included Korea as well as Taiwan). More recent reviews of Taiwan-grown coffees have described them as "costly, rare and fine." Rare they are, too: Local coffee meets just 3% of domestic demand.

During World War II, almost all of Taiwan's coffee plantations were replaced with vegetable gardens or fields of millet. It wasn't until the late 1950s - when US aid officials concluded coffee was a cash crop which could help Taiwan's impoverished hill farmers - ripening coffee beans could once again be seen in places like Gukeng in Yunlin County and Dongshan in Tainan City. The famous high-altitude resort of Alishan is another coffee-producing area of importance. To cater to the busloads of visitors who pour into these districts on weekends and during vacation periods, numerous coffeeshops have sprung up. With both indoor and outdoor seating, the best of these offer an enticing combination of excellent lattes and cappuccinos plus gorgeous alpine scenery.

Coffee Life in Japan
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This superb book describes coffee culture in a land similar to, and which often leads, Taiwan.