Chinese people like to eat foods that Westerners consider unusual, things like pig-blood cake and chicken-butt kebab, to name just a few popular snacks. So the introduction of salty coffee shouldn't be such a shocker. What difference, after all, can a few sprinkles of salt make to your morning cup of joe? The chefs at Taiwan's top coffeehouse, 85C Bakery Cafe, pondered that question for six months before they started serving sea-salt coffee, which became their best-selling drink following its December debut.
That's no small feat considering that 85°C (which is named for the ideal temperature at which to brew coffee) has surpassed Starbucks to become the biggest coffee chain in Taiwan. Founded five years ago by tea-shop owner Wu Cheng-hsueh, 85°C now has 325 stores in Taiwan and is expanding into China, Australia and the U.S. Wu first built the business by finding good beans: in 2004, he went to the source of Starbucks' most popular beans and persuaded the Guatemalan supplier to sell him virtually all its arabicas (sorry, megachain). Then he hired five-star hotel chefs to concoct fancy drinks and desserts that sell for about half the price of Starbucks'. (See the top 10 food trends of 2008.)
What inspired those chefs to come up with sea-salt coffee? According to spokeswoman Kathy Chung, it was the Taiwanese habit of sprinkling salt on fruits like pineapple and watermelon to bring out their sweetness. Salty coffee also makes sense in a place where shaved-ice desserts are topped with corn kernels and breads get slathered with sugary frosting and bits of pork. "Taiwanese are greedy," explains graphic designer Xena Wang, one of six friends who recently tried the drink for the first time. "We like to get all the tastes we can in one bite."
A striking palette of tastes and textures has long been a hallmark of Chinese cuisine (think sweet-and-sour soup), and this affinity for taste-bud workouts has carried over to trendy drinks. The countless drink stands that line Taiwanese streets flood the thirsty soul with endless variations of bubble teas, a.k.a. hot or cold teas with chewy tapioca balls and tropical juice blends. One popular combo, green tea with passion fruit, tapioca pearls and chewy coconut cubes, helps explain why 85°C's next coffee innovations will use panna cotta and fresh fruit.
Salty coffee may sound strange, but it isn't so much an acquired taste as it is sequential tasting. You're supposed to lick the salty foam to arouse your senses, then savor the sweet, creamy coffee. "Through the contrast of textures, you experience the saltiness and coffee at different times," says architect Jeff Lu of his first encounter with the drink. "It's a multisensual experience that works."
After sea-salt coffee spent two weeks as the best-selling drink at 85°C outlets in Taiwan, the company is sending the flavor combo to its China branches. If it's a hit there, Chung says, this cup of Taiwanese sophistication may be exported to the West too. Could salty Frappuccinos be far behind?