The joys and pains of exploring Taipei’s coffee scene

When I was young, I hated the academic insistence on precise terminology. Heck, I hate it even today. It ruins everything – the fun is destroyed before it even began precisely because some fresh out of university professor in a tight shirt insists on teaching fancy words first (and examine students‘ knowledge of such words later on via test). Only way after numerous long and boresome explanations of word meanings, synonyms, antonyms and contexts “to set the framework”, he finally says “and now we may play”. Of course, by the time he gets there it‘s already holidays and every student is recovering somewhere in the countryside, pretending to be Robin Hood or Sleeping Beauty and the like. I hated all such professors. When we were kids, we did not need to name things properly in order to use them, we just used them. A wooden branch was a stick and also a sword, lightsaber, machine gun, telescope, pillar, bow, torch, javelin, baseball bat, barbell and at the end of the day, you baked a piece of bread on it over a campfire.

As the years passed and various people attempted (mostly in vain) to rub off some wisdom on me, I came to realize that precise terminology is not there to divide, but to unite. Not to blur, but to pinpoint. Not to curtail mutual understanding, but to allow it. Not to restrict, but to set free. I still hate it, but in some areas, one cannot do without it.

As I wander through streets and boulevards of Taipei and New Taipei city, searching for the best cafés, I am starting to understand that a lack of knowledge of precise terminology is what is keeping many promising cafés down. I, a coffee hobbyist (and a little junkie), who despite endless praises of espresso and seemingly high standards can get satisfied by a cup of instant black water (but only if it‘s accompanied by a good story told by an elderly person), could make money here as a “coffee consultant.” And the first step, to ruin all the fun and excitement of baristas, who are in over their heads because their dream of owning a café is coming true, would be to teach and clarify precise terminology.

There are many beautifully designed cafés all around the city with soul and the spirit of coffee lover‘s haven. One glance at Google Maps reveals a variety of choices, all with exciting names (mostly in Mandarin characters) and wonderful photos. The expectations, then, are high, and nothing deflates them faster than a bitchslap of blissfully ignorant dude running the place. To avoid such deflations, it is  v i t a l  to stick to the terminological standards.

What is internationally known as espresso and what one expects to hover +/- 5ml around the 30ml watermark, cannot and should not turn locally into 50ml pool. Un-fucking-acceptable.

Serve the espresso at the right temperature, that is 67 °C ± 3 °C in the cup. To drink an espresso is not a half-a-day event, two to three sips and off you go. This cannot be done if it is too hot. It burns the tongue, it burns the hopes of having a decent drink, and the crema is gone. That sweet crema, playful combination of shades ranging from dark brown through yellow to white-ish, is not there. It’s like a pizza without the tomato sauce – you feel cheated.

No beans are created equal and no beans are grinded in the same way.

Menus, which offer ristretto, but no espresso, are strange. They clog the computing capacity of my brain and make me stare at them with an open mouth in what seems to be an attack of stroke. Then the waitress comes in and faces the question of life, universe, and so forth: “I know you don‘t have espresso on the menu, but I wonder, would it be possible to make me a double espresso?” It is a well equipped café, which also roasts its own beans, after all. She rushes to send the crumbling universe into hellfire by saying: “Yes, we can make double shot out of ristretto.” I was baffled, and I hoped they operate on a terminology of their own, so I refrained from protesting and let the matter take care of itself. I couldn‘t therefore protest when she brought me a standard ristretto, somewhere around those 20 ml, just a sip or two too short and couple of degrees too cold. In a flash I knew: I will never come again.

After quite a few disappointments of espressos both too hot and cold, or not espresso-but-served-as-such, or called expressos, of pools of something dark and smelly, I dropped my anchor, weirdly, in a café that does not serve either espresso or ristretto at all. What they do, though, is serve delicious filtered coffee from various specialty beans and they do it well. Maybe it was me who approached the coffee business in Taipei from the wrong angle. Maybe I shall enter the café, smile, and say: bring me what you can do best, pretty please. And then, possibly, all will be fine.

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About Petr Klíma