Photo: Staff on EVA flight from Vancouver to Taipei display your beer options (note the Buckskin)
How far would you go to have a craft beer experience? How about a 12-hour flight traveling more than 10,000 kilometres through 15 time zones?
Let me introduce you to Taiwan, a 394-kilometre-long island that is home to more than 23 million people. This sub-tropical country has had a colourful history and a multitude of invaders, with the Portuguese and Japanese being the most influential. The overwhelming majority of today’s population is Chinese, but there are sixteen recognized indigenous groups.
Besides the spectacular beauty of the rugged coastline, rainforest and high mountains (it is the fourth-tallest island in the world), Taiwan is also deservedly famous for its culinary culture. Food and drink are described as a fusion of Japanese and Chinese, with delicious specialties found in small cafes and night markets. As I found out, it certainly is easy to gain weight in a very short time!
New culinary players recently joined the mix. Although there is no capacity to produce grain or hops on the island, craft beer is becoming increasingly available throughout the land. This became possible when Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2002 and the government was forced to allow private businesses to make beer and spirits. Before 2002, the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation made everything, including Taiwan Lager. They make adjunct lagers, in three styles, that have a unique flavour profile from Formosa rice, making them sweeter than similar American mainstream beers.
On a visit in spring 2019, I had the opportunity to meet many of the new players in the craft beer movement in and around Taipei. I was amazed how similar their story is to the early days of craft brewing in North America.
First visit was to Jim and Dad’s Brewery on the outskirts of Yuanshan Township, Yilan county (about an hour outside of Taipei on the northeast coast). This area is renowned for its hot springs, making it a popular weekend getaway for people living in Taipei. Jim Sung produces several styles, including a barrel program, and has twelve taps in his brewpub. He got his start making homebrew and ended up winning a top national award. His father, a chemical engineer, took note that brewing had taken over from computer gaming as his son’s passion. Building a brewery with lots of space for expansion was the result of father-son collaboration. With three full-time brewers, a bottling and cask program, and a full-time chef, Jim is quite comfortable in his development of the business. He encourages his serving staff to become familiar with all the beers on tap so they can answer customers’ questions with first-hand knowledge.
My next visit in the day was to Ka Va Lan Whiskey distillery, a massive company that produces award-winning quality. I had a wonderful opportunity to do a whiskey tasting and then blend my own bottle of whiskey to take home. From there we headed back to Taipei for a delicious dinner.
Originally from France, Cyril Momer of Formosa Brewing got involved in the consumption of craft beer at an early age. His palate gradually matured to appreciating craft beers made by local artisans. We met in a shared taphouse/bottle shop in the heart of Taipei. On the wall behind Cyril, from floor to 12-foot high ceiling, was every imaginable type of bottled craft beer from Europe.
Cyril is easy to talk to, and the hours flew by as endless knowledge and stories about craft beer flowed like an open tap of IPA. Of course, having pints of his famous Mountain Pepper Wheat, or Double IPA helped melt the time. There is a spoonful of humour in his beers, like in the Iron Maiden–themed The Number of The Yeast with a 6.66 ABV. The labels usually involve drawings of Cyril, the brewmaster, and staff enjoying drinking beer.
It was time for dinner. The must-experience food in Taipei can be found in one of many night markets. At the Ningxia Night Market, the specialty is oyster omelet. I have not seen it on any breakfast menu in Vancouver, but it is very sought-after in Taipei with the best venues having lineups more than half an hour long. So, what is the taste you ask? Definitely oyster—gooey and runny and full of flavour from the sea.
On we headed to New Taipei, the industrial zone. Breweries are not allowed in Taipei city, so you will only find craft beer bars, beer-themed restaurants, and taphouses. The morning started at Sunmai Brewery, one of the first craft breweries established in Taiwan (2004). The beers I tasted with the head brewer were spot on. Later in the day, I would visit their taphouse to find out more. In the meantime, I headed off to Taihu Taphouse to meet brewmaster Winnie Hsu.
Taihu Brewery is the largest craft brewery in Taiwan at present, with four outlets to enjoy their unique brews in and around Taipei. Winnie started in the industry as a cocktail bartender. Later, while studying in the USA, she was hired as a brewer for a planned American craft beer restaurant franchise in Taiwan. After training in Atlanta and Glendale for six months, she returned home as a brewer. Five years later, she moved on to Sunmai and was sent to Germany for six months to get her Brewmaster’s Certificate. A couple of years later, while taking a break, she discovered a small batch brewery in a local taphouse that made really good beer. Within a year, she had an opportunity to step in as brewmaster at Taihu Brewery. She has never looked back.
Winnie states, “my start as a cocktail bartender has carried through to my beer making. My beers are not the standard you would expect to find. One of my current favorites is a 1% IPA. It has all the characteristics of a true IPA without the alcohol.” Winnie’s first big assignment at Taihu was to make 60 barrels of special beers, all within a year. Their flagship craft beer is Black Bear Bourbon Barrel-Aged Stout (9% ABV, 600 ml). In China, it sells for CAD$76. Currently, they have 15 brewers working full-time, with Winnie as head of research and development and staff training.
On our way to the next interview, we stopped in at an elegant cake cafe. It was probably as good as the best cake shops in Paris. The cakes were small, but you could not have possibly put more into them. My choice was a chocolate layer cake infused with 12-year-old single malt scotch. Heavenly!
Next on the tour was the Sunmai Taphouse, for two flights of beer and a delicious assortment of matched appetizers (I have found in Taiwan (over three visits) that there is only good food, really good food). I met with Daniel Chen and Peggy Hsu, head of Sales and Marketing. They explained that the brewery has two sites across from each other with 60 employees, running two shifts. They make a wide variety of beers including a Coffee Stout, a Smoked Beer and a Spring Beer. Their seasonals include a Basil Lager and a Stone Fruit Beer. The styles of beer were spot on, and the variety was superb.
At 8:30 p.m., my guide and I headed to our fourth and last interview of the day, Taiwan Head Brewers Brewing Company, founded 2015. Head brewer and co-founder Leo Yeh says, “We brew up to 20 different beers a year, with over 30 different styles since we started. Our most famous is our Tea Beer with four kinds of tea.” Also on the list are coffee, jasmine, and chocolate brews. It would seem that there is no fear of giving beer consumers lots of variety to choose from.
Leo studied bioengineering at university. He used his knowledge to grow and market yeast cultures to homebrewers. Originally a baker, his passion for homebrewing got the better of him, and after six years of brewing as a hobby, he decided to make it business. He mentions that “Buying homebrew ingredients from the USA cost him up to ten times more than what homebrewers in North America pay. By the time the ingredients arrive, they are no longer fresh.”
Currently, three separate breweries are contract brewing their beer. (In Taiwan as here, the brewery making the beer must be identified on the bottle.) Next year they will open their own brewery. With 10 full-time staff currently, Leo sees that doubling with the start of the new brewhouse. He mentions that they plan on a canning line, which will be a challenge. For the brewers, cans are much better economically and preserve the beer for a longer time, but beer in bottles is a cultural thing.
This was the day to visit large macro breweries. The morning started off where it all began in Taiwan: at the Taipei Brewery. A team of 12 staff greeted us at the entrance. This is one of four government-run breweries, with the largest making three styles mentioned above: Taiwan Lager, Taiwan Gold Award Lager, and Amber. Also, a beer called Taiwan 18 Day Draft in 600 ml date-stamped green bottles, which must be consumed within 18 days of bottling or be dumped!
The site I visited was Taiwan’s first brewery, since 1919. After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the brewery’s name changed from Takasago (the Japanese name for Taiwan) to Monopoly, then in 1956 to Cheinko, and eventually become Taipei in 2002. At its peak in the 1950s, 600 people worked at the site. Currently, 63 people work in the brewery. With additional automation, this will be reduced to around 50. Taiwan Brewery had 100% percent of the market in 2002; in 2019 it is about 60%.
Taipei Brewing launched its new craft beer program is 2018 under the name of Baby. There are six offerings, including a Blonde Ale, American IPA, Osmanthus Herb Beer, Oatmeal Stout, German Wheat Beer and an Irish Red Ale.
Mr. Lu and assistant brewer Yu-Ying Chang hosted a wonderful lunch for me, my guide, and the whole Taipei crew, in their large beer hall. The pub food was delicious and accompanied by three-litre columns of lager. After lunch, I was given a tour of the original brewery. It was impressive. There are plans to turn it into a museum, and I would recommend all beer tourists go and see.
Mid-afternoon, as I headed towards the airport, there was one more brewery to visit. A late addition to my itinerary, I felt it could not be missed. Buckskin Brewery, which belongs to the King Car Group which owns the aforementioned Ka Va Lan distillery, is the newest on the scene. On my EVA Flight to Taipei, I experienced my first can of their beer (a hefeweizen). They guarantee it contains no preservatives or additives.
When I arrived, I was taken on a formal tour of the brewery, peering through the large glass windows at the production swirling away below. At the end of the tour, I asked if there was any chance to meet the brewer. My wish was granted! I got to sit down with Jonas Krebs, the 24-year-old Brewmaster. He had studied in Germany and went to South Africa to be an assistant brewer. When the opportunity came to step in as Brewmaster at Buckskin, he was ready.
Buckskin started as a macro brewery from day one, and the volume of beer produced here is second only to Taiwan Brewery. After just less than a year, they already command 5% of the Taiwan beer market. Due to the massive distribution network already in place with King Car Group, marketing the beer is quite easy.
Currently, their range includes Kölsch, altbier, hefeweizen, Märzen and rauchbier. All beers are made in the German style, with only four ingredients. Amazingly, in their first year, they won gold for the Kölsch, altbier, and rauchbier in the First Annual Asia International Beer Competition. I had the privilege of sitting with Jonas in the manager’s product tasting room and going through all the beers in the current portfolio. He shares, “We first do a test brew of 500 litres on our pilot to try new recipes to make sure everything works.” The Märzen and rauchbier were particularly delicious.
Time was running out; I had to go for dinner and get to the airport. I stopped at Starbucks and picked up two different coffee collaboration beers from Taihu to accompany my dinner. Ivy, my guide, somehow convinced the restaurant manager to allow me to drink these bottles with dinner. That was good because I certainly had no more room in my suitcase full of beer and whiskey for more beer. I got past the airport security re-scan when Ivy explained it was only beer in my bags, and back I went to Canada.
I asked all the brewers about the future of craft beer in Taiwan. Everyone admitted that last year’s expansion had stalled due to too many players jumping into the market. Things have stabilized now, and it looks like the market will see slow but continual growth. As far as the macro breweries go, micro craft breweries see them as a good addition. Buckskin is pushing the traditional breweries to make better quality. Also, the Taiwanese people are getting used to different flavours of beer.
I also asked about beer and tourism. Could an Ale Trail, similar to what we have in British Columbia, be possible in Taiwan? Everyone thought that would be a great addition to promotion of craft beer on the island.
I must thank Taiwan Tourism and my guide Ivy for making arrangements to meet all these great beer people. Taiwan is easy to travel; it could be your next beer tourism destination.