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TAIPEI, March 29 — I love Taipei, a greyish city with dreary, grey buildings but so full of life and colour in its people, food and streets! Whether it’s a typical breakfast of youtiao (fried crullers) dipped in hot, frothy doujiang (soymilk) or getting lost in the maze of endless shelves at the 24-hour Eslite Bookstore, there is never a dull moment in the Taiwanese capital.
No surprise then even the coffee experience here is one step above the rest. There are cafés everywhere — serving dainty desserts or for your pets to socialize with other furry friends — but quite a number are specialty coffee bars with passionate baristas dedicated to their craft.
A “rusty” brew worth sipping
Rufous Coffee is one of the favourite coffee haunts for the city’s café-hoppers. The café is typically packed with students given its proximity to the National Taiwan University but the wait is softened by a few chairs outside.
Some customers choose to have their espressos outside before dashing off to their next appointment. The locals here seem to be in a perpetual rush, which makes the opportunity to linger over one’s coffee a luxury I’m grateful for.
The café’s name comes from the colour “rufous” which is reddish-brown or rust-like. According to the owner, Xiao Yang, this is the true colour of coffee. Once inside, many scramble for a bar seat in order to watch him brew their coffee.
You could also opt for more comfortable seats at a table. Space is limited but it adds to the cosy, eclectic atmosphere, not unlike a shop selling curios, what with the dark corners, odd paraphernalia, an assortment of toys and postcards from customers from all over the globe.
A former chef in Italian cuisine, Xiao Yang is in charge of every step of the process from sourcing the beans to roasting and brewing. You’re assured that your coffee, when it arrives, is made with much care and craft. Nothing’s better than sipping a slow brew while the rain — another indispensable feature of Taipei — continues outside.
A Taiwanese “monsoon”
With four outlets spread around Taipei, Zhanlu Coffee could almost be considered a coffee shop chain if it weren’t for their earnestness in roasting their own beans and conducting workshops for coffee geeks. Founded in 2003, it’s considered a veteran in the specialty coffee scene here, with many a café disappearing every year with passing fads.
Head to their main café at Daan District, where even the desserts are made fresh every day. Try their signature crème caramel — smooth, custardy and not too sweet. The baristas may look like typical hipsters until they approach your table and take your order.
That is when the difference between a Taiwanese café and others of its ilk around the world becomes clear: the quality of service. A barista at Zhanlu Coffee will take the time to describe the profiles of different beans that are available, and make recommendations according to your individual palate. Take your time to decide, for they will take the time to explain.
During my visit, I chose a Monsoon Malabar. Its name comes from the process whereby the harvested beans are left exposed to the monsoon rains for about 3-4 months. As a result, the beans become swollen and less acidic. A cup of Monsoon Malabar will taste smooth and chocolaty with spicy notes — very apt considering it originates from the Malabar Coast of India.
A single sip tells me I’ve made the right choice in listening to my barista’s recommendation. You should have similar luck here too.
Comics meet coffee
Just a stone’s throw away from Liuzhangli Station on the Taipei Metro, PEG Coffee doesn’t look like a specialty coffee bar at first glance. The profusion of manga-related paraphernalia, especially from the popular One Piece pirate series, makes this café a Japanese comic fan’s dream come true. Posters, dolls, figurines; there’s even a One Piece-decorated espresso machine! Behind the colourful façade is some serious coffee street cred though. Founded in 2008, PEG Coffee has won numerous coffee awards and is known as the place where the average Joe goes for specialty coffee thanks to their affordable prices.
Owner Li Zi personally selects and roasts all the coffee (usually to a medium roast), having worked as a coffee roaster for over six years before opening PEG Coffee. Walk in and expect a sensory overload — from the kaleidoscopic décor to the stunning aroma of fresh beans being roasted or coffee being brewed.
As with other Taipei cafés, Li Zi will be more than happy to explain the origins of the beans and their flavour profiles. There are the usual beans from Africa and South America, but look out for native Wujia coffee from mountainous Alishan. Sweet and bright, this Taiwanese coffee has surprising floral notes and an apple tartness that delight the palate.
Adding to the palette of contrasts, coffee arrives in custom-made porcelain mugs, each one as unique as the brew you’ve ordered. Look out for the Chopper Man figurines (again, from the One Piece manga); there’s a different one on every table.
It’s an intimate space: not many seats, but that’s not uncommon in Taiwanese cafés. What’s less common is the opportunity to allow your inner comic geek to play with the caffeine addict in you — and very happily at that.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes
Located in Dadaocheng, once a major trading port in Taiwan, is the historic A.S. Watson & Co building. Named after the first Watson’s pharmacy on the island that it used to house, the old structure is all that remains of a bygone era. Yongle Market nearby is famous for fabric stalls while Dihua Street’s busy shops offer Chinese medicinal herbs, incense and Taiwanese tea.
What the neighbourhood is not known for, however, is coffee. When this century-old colonial-era building was gutted by fire in 1998, it stood empty for almost a decade. Eventually the building was revived as ArtYard, a cultural collective that binds the old and new with small, local businesses including ceramics maker Hakka Blue, fabric designers inBloom, and the artisanal café Luguo.
The café is discreetly located on the second floor, so customers may sip their coffee away from the bustle of the busy streets below. The ambience is neither cutesy (typical of the fashionable cafés young Taiwanese girls adore) nor hipster-ish (typical of the industrial chic young Taiwanese bohemians favour).
Instead Luguo Café is more like a classy slice of the past served in the form of antique lamps, worn typewriters, vinyl records and comfortable rattan chairs. You can savour its very “vintage” atmosphere in the air and its serenity.
Coffee is carefully brewed here; the origin and flavours of the beans explained with precision and pleasure. Other customers leave you alone to your own space; they are in a world of their own too. Taiwanese grandmothers and Japanese ladies who lunch and café-hoppers from other lands — everyone has found their own private sanctuary in Luguo Café.
Here a fresh brew rises like a phoenix from the ashes of history. And what an excellent brew it is too.
No. 339, Section 2, Fuxing South Road, Daan District, Taipei City, Taiwan
Open Fri-Wed 1pm-11pm; Thu closed
No. 2-1, Lane 161, Xinsheng South Road Section 1, Daan District, Taipei City, Taiwan
Open daily 12pm-10pm
No. 309, Jiaxing St, Xinyi District, Taipei City, Taiwan
Open Mon-Sat 2pm-8pm; Sun 2pm-6pm
Luguo Café @ ArtYard
1, Ln 32, Dihua St Sec 1, Taipei City, Taiwan
Open Tue-Sun 11am-7pm; Mon closed