Over the past decade, people in Taiwan have developed a new taste for coffee, with their perception of the drink changing from “a bitter beverage” to “a fruity treat.” As specialty coffee gradually starts to find its way into people’s lives, an increasing number of Taiwanese people make it a habit to visit cafes for delicious coffee. Taipei-based roastery and coffee shop Coffee Underwater is one such place. The co-founders Eric and Chris are bringing a new style to the scene, broadening the possibilities of coffee with non-alcoholic cocktails, or mocktails.
Taipei’s Zhongshan district is a place of constant evolution. The streets are brimming with avant-garde hotels, museums and shops, attracting people with sophisticated cultural sensibilities. Coffee Underwater occupies a corner of this district, a blue sign bearing the symbol of a harpoon beckoning over passers-by.
The store name reflects the two co-founders’ wish for customers to enjoy delicious coffee in an underwater-like tranquility. The walls are painted blue to give the place the feel of an ocean, the menu board adorned with a drawing of waves, the glass-fronted, spacious section furnished with cozy sofas. Every corner of this shop is an expression of the two co-founders’ aesthetics. “This place makes me feel as if I’m underwater,” “It’s very relaxing to be here” are common feedback from customers.
Coffee world isn’t simple
One of Coffee Underwater’s defining characteristics is a diverse menu of coffee drinks. Its offerings, including teas and seasonal options, exceed way over 40, ranging from espressos, lattes and single-origins made with high-quality specialty coffee to non-alcoholic mocktails.
“I find it boring when the menu is limited and the question is merely whether something is delicious or not,” says Eric, one of the co-founders. “We wanted to bring more entertaining elements.”
“The coffee market has matured globally. It’s been trending toward a mixture of various genres, such as food and alcohol. Such a style remains rare in Taiwan. But we hope that by making coffee’s flavors and appearance more appealing, we want to make coffee more approachable. Coffees can’t be a dichotomy between ‘black’ and ‘with milk.’ It’s not that simple.”
While working as a barista, Eric also develops new drinks at Coffee Underwater. He entered the coffee world in 2014 after quitting as a bartender.
“My previous job was satisfying as well. But after becoming a father, keeping the odd hours started to conflict with my lifestyle. No matter how much I love my work, it’s pointless if my personal life isn’t fulfilling.”
Upon starting out in the coffee industry, Eric noticed many similarities between barista and bartender.
“Both jobs require similar skills, including precise movements at the counter, keeping an eye out for everything in the entire place, and quickly figuring out what customers want. The only differences are that making drinks can be more complex for bartenders, and that they face customers at a closer distance than baristas do.”
Having learned about cocktails as a bartender, Eric parlays that knowledge into his work in coffee.
“When I develop a new menu item, I think about whether I can make coffee more delicious by incorporating something entirely different, like fruits, syrup, and cream. I feel exhilarated when I can produce a nice cup of drink through that process and customers actually like it.”
Eric’s unique twists on coffee are most vividly showcased in his signature mocktails. In addition to 10 regular offerings, six other kinds of mocktails are on offer at Coffee Underwater, some featuring seasonal ingredients and others based on certain themes. “Mì yuè,” for instance, is a mixture of an espresso of honey-processed Costa Rica – known as “Honeymoon” – maple syrup, lemon, and soda. This mocktail both tastes and smells sweet. “Hǔ pò,” meanwhile, is a concoction of Earl Grey tea, washed Ethiopian espresso, and milk. It has refreshing, citrusy flavors, with the ingredients forming four colorful, eye-pleasing layers.
Bringing out uniqueness through roasting
“My recipes are not possible without his roasting,” says Eric of Chris, the other co-founder. Chris started his career in coffee around 2014, sourcing green coffee at a trading firm.
Initially, Chris focused on mass-produced, mass-consumed commercial coffee. But as he started to learn more about different terroirs, varieties, and processing methods, he gravitated toward higher-grade green coffee. At the same time, the ideas of fair trade for producers and sustainability came to take on greater importance for Chris. This shift in his attitude has led him to value traceability.
“I strongly felt green coffee’s potential around 2018 when I tasted a coffee of the Maker Series from a company called Ninety Plus. Many people said the coffee has the flavors of tropical fruits. And the moment I sipped it, it clearly tasted like banana and pineapple. I was shocked that such a coffee existed.”
Chris soon delved deeper into roasting, driven by a desire to bring out unique flavors that good green coffee clearly possesses.
“In specialty coffee, there is a concept called “From Seed to Cup.” It means various experts are involved until a single cup of coffee is made. I’ve experienced different roles, such as barista and cupping. But I felt that dealing with green coffee, or roasting, was the most suitable for me. I feel the greatest sense of accomplishment when I manage to express green coffee’s inherent taste through my roasting.”
During roasting, Chris particularly pays attention to caramelization, a process when sugar content in green coffee caramelizes.
“Coffees with refreshing flavors are trending in Taiwan. But I roast coffees a bit darker to bring out more sweetness. When Eric develops new drinks, he often layers multiple flavors. So the coffee has to have vivid flavors that won’t be obscured by fresh fruits.”
Chris’s roasted coffees are highly reputable among fellow coffee professionals. Coffee Underwater currently supplies roasted coffees to nine cafes in Taiwan. Many of them became wholesale clients after drinking coffee at Coffee Underwater.
“One cafe owner told me that when he uses my roasted coffees, he finds it easy to express the taste he aims for, be it for espresso or drip. Often, people drink a delicious coffee at a cafe but can’t replicate the same taste at home. I try to make sure that our customers are able to reproduce my way of thinking and style of expression when they brew at home.”
Eric and Chris crossed paths at an event in 2014, when they both had just entered the industry. The two found a kindred spirit in the other, and soon became good friends. They went on to spend a lot of time together, going on trips and talking about things.
In 2015, Eric seized on a good opportunity to open a cafe in Taoyuan. Later on, he started to itch to start a shop in Taipei, where he lived, and decided to found a business with Chris, who was working at another store at the time.
“I was confident that I could succeed if I worked with Chris. We both believed passionately in coffee’s potential. And we shared the fundamental desire to deliver clean, high-quality coffee to consumers, in a more approachable way.”
Their business got off to a smooth start, thanks in large part to their years of industry experience and existing bases of clients and fans. As Coffee Underwater won over more and more regular patrons and wholesale clients, its earnings steadily grew.
However, in the spring of 2020, about a year into its opening, the Covid-19 pandemic struck the world. Just like much of the rest of the world, Taiwan imposed a long period of restrictions on non-essential outings, which all but decimated customer traffic for Coffee Underwater. Facing the dire circumstances, Eric and Chris began the search for a way out of the crisis.
“Our answer was to try and make our offerings a part of people’s daily lives, wherever they are. Today, many people opt to drink coffee at home or in a park. So we started making a set of items that lets them play the role of a barista at home as well as portable coffee bags, and sold the goods on our e-commerce site. We will continue to do that.”
Though the pandemic brought the economy to a near halt, Taipei remains a city of fierce competition for cafes. Many people dream of starting their own business, but that’s not easy, says Eric.
“People say they envy me. But I always advise them not to open a cafe without much consideration because it’s probably not what they imagine. In reality, there is no time to relax and chat or to mull things over at your cafe. Even when there are few customers, you are often busy doing things like making cakes and new drinks and cleaning up the store. We are more passionate than others about coffee. Without passion, you can’t stay in this industry for seven to eight years.”
Eric and Chris have a goal: to communicate everything about coffee to consumers. They describe their roles as something of coffee evangelists.
“A while ago, the mainstream coffee in Taiwan tasted bitter and burnt,” Eric says. “Nowadays, more and more people have started to enjoy coffee and care about origins, much as wine drinkers do. Now, they are more interested in the delicate nuances of different coffees. I want to open more shops so that people are more familiarized with coffee. I also want to make coffee more accessible by opening a takeout-only shop, for instance. Our vision is to make coffee a part of everyone’s daily lives.”
Far from being satisfied with their regular menu, Eric and Chris have developed their brand of mixed drinks, opening a new horizon in the world of coffee. Their coffee is at once eye-opening and well-balanced. This is made possible perhaps thanks to chemistry between the two. In fact, Chris says he can often anticipate what Eric is about to say.
“People often say friends end up falling out when they start a business together,” says Eric. “But we disagree. We are always frank and honest with each other. So even when a problem arises, we can constructively discuss how to solve it. What’s more, the coffee business requires many different specialist skills. There is only so much you can do by yourself. If we can focus on our own area of expertise, we can create something better together.
That said, we did have our concerns. So we discussed what we should do when we couldn’t come to an agreement. Eventually, we decided that either I would convince Chris, or Chris would persuade me. If that didn’t work, we would decide by rock-paper-scissors. It’s a half-joke, but that’s how we roll.”
Originally written in Japanese by Yoshino Numata
Edited by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photos by 王晨熙 hellohenryboy
Eric: The most delicious coffee is one that I drink with my loved ones, looking at beautiful scenery together. There is a famous saying from Meng Zi, which reads “tiān hí de lì rén hé.” It means harmony between humans is more important than good timing and favorable geographic conditions. I agree with that.
Chris: Same as Eric. It’s boring to drink coffee alone. If I have company, we can talk about coffee.