Coffee catches up in Taipei, a city of teahouses

By Jermyn Chow
Taiwan Correspondent In Taipei

An island famous for its teahouses, Taiwan is fast becoming, if not already, a haven for coffee lovers. The capital Taipei is one of the world's most popular coffee cities, known for its booming coffee culture.

There are about 2,000 coffee shops and roasters in Taiwan, with most of them in Taipei. USA Today called Taipei one of the top 10 cities worldwide for coffee in 2012, while the BBC in 2014 recognised the city as one of the six best worldwide for coffee drinkers.

Taiwan's coffee culture dates back to the colonial days, when Japan occupied it from 1895 to 1945. Many Japanese colonialists planted coffee farms in Taiwan. But it was only after 2007, when Taiwan held its own Barista Championships, that cafes started paying attention to their brews and roasting their own beans. In fact, Taiwan's most recent claim to fame as a coffee capital was when Berg Wu was crowned champion in the World Barista Championship in Dublin in June 2016. 

Today, Taipei is teeming with many swish cafes -  from indie joints tucked away in small alleys to rustic speciality coffee bars - where people can get their caffeine fix.

Here are my top picks.

1. AMP Cafe Independent Roaster

Open since 2014, this hole in the wall near the city's shopping district is one of the pioneers in Taipei that started bottling its own cold brews. It also claims to have one of the best cold brews in town. 

Owner Marco Son, 31, tells me he got his inspiration from the coffee bars in London and New York, where he studied. After working as a lawyer for two to three years, he came back to Taipei to start his own coffee bar. Since then, he has collaborated with prominent fashion and hotel brands such as Chanel, Tiffany, Club Monaco and W Hotel. His series of cold brews was also featured in GQ magazine.

From his workshop in New Taipei, Mr Son roasts beans imported from Panama, Brazil and Ethiopia. The choice of cold brews changes every two to three weeks, depending on how fast he and his team experiment with "what blends work best". 

My favourites include the Summer Coco, a crisp blend of Guatemalan and Brazilian beans. For a pricier, but yummier and smoother finish, you can opt for the limited-edition Geisha Cold Brew, made from Kotowa Estate Geisha coffee from Panama. You can also go for the usual espressos, lattes and cold or hot drip coffees.

2. The Lobby of Simple Kaffa

You might be hard-pressed to find the cafe, which is tucked away in the basement lobby of boutique hotel V.

Surrounded by several premium fashion boutiques, the cafe also looks out of place. When you step in, it reminds you of the kitchen of someone's house. But you will be rewarded once you settle down for a cuppa.

This cafe and coffee roaster is set up and run by 2016's world barista champion Berg Wu. He is the first Taiwanese and the second Asian to bag top honours since the competition started in 2000. His trophy sits prominently and proudly in the cafe.

That said, the brews live up to the hype. I recommend the strong and earthy finish of the Panama Morgan Geisha Washed blend, which won top honours in the Taiwan Barista Championship from 2012 to 2015. The milder but lip-smacking Panama Juruntungo Geisha Natural blend was placed second in the similar competition in 2016. Unlike me, you might be lucky enough to run into Mr Wu, who apparently brews coffee almost every day in the afternoon.

If you have a sweet tooth and need a little alcohol fix, order the intoxicating Tiramisu, with ladyfingers soaked in not only coffee, but also whiskey, rum and brandy.

3. All Day Roasting Company

As you enter the cafe, you will be greeted by the sight of an air-conditioned patio with a sun-roof over a wide airy space and industrial decor. Definitely an Instagram-friendly place. Cafe lovers will find this a great all-day hangout place that boasts electrical outlets and free Wi-Fi. A bonus is there is no time limit to your seating.

The cafe has some of the finest beans, such as the Ethiopia Agaro Biftu Gudina Co-operative Mix Heirloom G1 Washed and the Panama Santa Clara Finca Hartmann Geisha SHB Washed. All beans are also roasted on-site, so the aroma from freshly roasted beans is a draw. Coffee connoisseurs will also appreciate a little corner for them to sniff the different coffee beans. It is one of the few cafes in Taipei that offer soya milk.  

4. Fujin Tree 353 Cafe by Simple Kaffa

This hipster cafe is a perennial favourite among many youth and Instagram fans from all around the world, including Singaporeans. True to its name, the chic cafe is like a garden littered with plants and flower pots. With a large patio in front, you can also watch the world go by along a tree-lined street with the same name.

You  will not go wrong with the brews here because, yes, it is curated by none other than World Barista Champion Berg Wu.  

There are also interesting concoctions, such as a banana-flavoured latte with crushed almond nuts, and Valrhona chocolate beverages. Those who are hungry can also choose from a menu featuring sandwiches, salads and desserts such as a matcha roll cake and lemon cake. 

5. Milkglider

As its name suggests, this coffee bar specialises in latte or, in this case, latte art. Opened 2½ years ago, its co-owner Shawn Chen is a renowned latte artist in Taiwan and the region.

The cafe has produced two champions at latte art competitions in Taiwan and the Tokyo Coffee Festival in 2015.

Mr Chen also flies down to Singapore at least twice a year to conduct latte art classes at the Singapore Coffee Association. When in Taipei, you can also sign up for Mr Chen's twice or thrice weekly classes that last three hours a session. The package costs between NT$10,000 (S$450) and NT$18,000. You will also get the cafe's customised bag of Fruity or Latte Art beans from Colombia, Brazil and Ethiopia.

Otherwise, you, like me, will just want to slowly sip the sweet and rich creamy latte while waiting for the cafe's resident cat to come over to rub against your legs.

6. GaBee.

Considered one of the pioneers of artisanal coffee, GABEE. has become an institution for coffee connoisseurs.

Opened in 2004, GaBee., which means coffee in Hoklo, was the brainchild of owner Van Lin. He was the first Taiwanese to compete in the World Barista Championship in 2007. In subsequent years, he won many accolades in regional competitions and trained many proteges.  

The cafe boasts a wide array of classic coffees as well as interesting coffee beverages, including a few boozy ones. 

One of the popular hits is the Sweet Potatoes Coffee, which is a dessert in a glass. The drink not only looks good, but also tastes better. Bite into the caramelised slice of sweet potato before mixing the espresso with the sweet potato mash at the bottom of the glass and slowly sipping the combination. You will not rue that moment on your lips, even if it may be a lifetime on the hips.  

One of the boozy options is the War Of Empire Rome, which includes grappa, an Italian grape-based pomace brandy, mixed with a shot of espresso. On the top of the shot glass is a sugar-laced slice of lemon. The server tells me that the clash of flavours in the drink - the sweet and sour lemon, the bitterness of the coffee and the piquant grappa -  is aimed at replicating the war fought by the ancient Roman kingdom.

Those who want a more traditional kick in their cuppa Joe can go for the coffee with Islay whiskey.