Inside Taiwan’s Craft Beer Renaissance
Once a state-run industry, beer-making in Taiwan is blending globally-minded brewing with local flavors
On a formerly abandoned gravel field in the city of Yilan, along Taiwan's northeastern coast, a craft brewery thrives. Both Taiwanese locals and foreign visitors—many looking for a weekend escape from the nearby island capital of Taipei—flock to Jim & Dad's Brewing Company, joining each other at communal tables in front of large window panes, beyond which beers are fermenting and conditioning in stainless steel tanks. A small bar features a selection of rotating drafts: brews like Jim & Dad's Pomelo Pilelo Ale, a pale ale incorporating the fresh juices of South Asia's own citrusy, grapefruit-like pomelo; and the experimental Taiwanese Farmhouse Ale, which the brewers make with local wheat and fresh “ma,” or maqaw mountain peppercorn.
Independently made, small-batch craft beer—which has flourished around the U.S. and Europe since the 1980s—is only recently catching on in Taiwan. Beer has long been popular in Taiwan, but for years craft breweries didn't exist. The island's only domestic beer brand was the state-owned Tobacco and Liquor Corporation's “Taiwan Beer,” a low-flavor, domestic lager made with formosa rice—similar in taste to a domestic U.S. beer like Budweiser or Miller, but a bit sweeter. Then in 2002, Taiwan's government deregulated its alcohol laws, legalizing both homebrewing and independent microbreweries. This spurred a tiny, fledgling new industry. “People had been drinking mass-produced lagers for ages,” says Jim Sung, co-founder of Jim & Dad's, which opened in 2013. “Though most of them had barely a clue how beer is made.” Many of the breweries that started out in those initial years fizzled, partially due to the product's higher prices and more intense, experimental flavors that local palettes weren't yet ready to enjoy.
While a few of those original breweries, such as North Taiwan Brewing Company (founded in 2003), have survived, an entirely new wave of craft brewers has hit the local market over the last several years—and the industry is growing—spurred by passionate homebrewers who know what goes into making a good beer and are taking their hobby to another level. Today there are roughly 40-60 licensed brewers in Taiwan, with more than half of them calling themselves “craft.” “Before we started in 2013, there were mostly restaurant-style breweries in Taipei,” says Sung, referring to places like Le Ble d'Or, a German-themed brewpub that focuses its efforts on recreating traditional German beers. “Now you see craft beer everywhere, from outdoor events to retail shelves.”
Ray Sung (no relation to Jim Sung), one of the three co-founders of Taiwan Head Brewers in New Taipei City, agrees. “Since 2014, there have been many homebrewers who've walked out of their garage and onto the market...including us,” he says. Taiwan Head’s distinct Rain Water, a Scotch ale made with locally grown “Golden Daylily Oolong tea” that adds a mild milk flavor, won “World's Best Experimental Beer” at the 2016 World Beer Awards.
Like Jim & Dad's and Taiwan Head Brewers, most breweries in Taiwan are locally owned, though the industry is also popular among expats—many of whom tend to own their own beer brand and contract its production out to regional breweries, since the process of applying for a brewer’s license is somewhat prohibitive. “In Taiwan, it's illegal to operate a brewery in a non-commercially zoned space,” says Peter Huang, a managing partner of Taipei-based Taihu Brewing, one of the island's new-wave experimental breweries. “Residential areas…where shops and bars and people live, aren't zoned for industrial activity. Breweries, no matter the size, are an ‘industrial’ activity. Thus, all breweries are located quite a ways away from, well, people,” Huang said in an email. The law forces Taiwan’s new beer-industry torchbearers to make a risky jump in the typical progression of business development—without the opportunity to open a nanobrewery or receive commercial brewery training in city centers, they go from homebrewing straight to production brewing.
Some expat brewers have opted to take that leap as well, like expat-owned Redpoint Brewery which has its own facility—though one without tastings or tours. “It's difficult to have a vibrant, viable taproom when you are surrounded by factories, says co-owner Spencer Jemelka, who, along with his business partner Doug Pierce, hails from the U.S. “We're hoping to eventually change that.” In the meantime, their American-style beers, including the refreshing Long Dong Lager and the domestically produced Tai.P.A, are available at Taipei's On Tap, as well as other bars, restaurants and even coffee shops. Expats (or “lopats,” as Jemelka prefers, since he and his business partner are permanent Taiwan residents) contribute their own expertise to Taiwan’s expanding craft brew scene, opening up the island's beer culture to western palettes as well as local ones.
“I think it's great that expats are starting breweries in Taiwan,” says Jim Sung. “The real danger is when people who haven't a clue how to make good beer get in the market and exploit its growth, brewing bad—or even tainted—beers and spoiling the customers' image of craft beer. That's not a local versus expat issue, but a more attitude issue.” Sung points out that since many of Taiwan's brewers (both local and expat) also started out as homebrewers, “We've been friends longer than they've been in business”—and these friendships have created endless opportunities to work together as the industry expands. Right now, many of Taiwan's craft brewers are focusing their efforts on cross-industry collaboration projects.
In the case of Jim & Dad's, the idea for a destination brewery was one that had been fermenting for some time—when Sung was an expat himself. “I spent eight years in the U.S. for school,” says Sung. “That's where I developed a taste for craft beer.” When he returned to Taiwan, he says, nothing he found on the market could replicate the taste, so while working in an accounting firm by day, he spent his nights moonlighting as a homebrewer. In 2013, Sung won Taiwan's 2nd Annual Homebrew Competition. Then he approached his dad about starting a brewery. “My dad's a 30-year chemical engineer,” says Sung, “so we knew we would make a great combo.”
From Jim & Dad's inception, the father-son duo knew exactly what they wanted—a place where people would come to taste beers, snack on onion rings and smoked pulled pork sliders (the brewery also serves its own homemade ice cream), and quite simply—just chill. The brewers host tours of their 5,000-square-foot facility, which also features an outdoor gaming area where guests play games of cornhole and whiffle ball with rentable equipment. There's also a five-story viewing tower, with views overlooking the Lanyang River. The brewery itself is located beside a well-traversed highway—an added bonus, says Sung, because it attracts walk-ins. “We get a lot of travelers who happen to see a big brewery while they're driving and stop,” says Sung. “I love it because people are much more adventurous and open to new things when they are on the road.”
However, it's the brewery's changing selection of innovative brews—beers that embrace the local Taiwanese culture while highlighting new concepts and ideas—that draws repeat costumers. “With our own brewery,” says Sung, “we can brew whatever we want and not be limited by another brewery’s constraints.” For example, their seasonal kumquat beer always incorporates fresh kumquat from a farm just 10-minutes away, but the actual style of beer changes annually. One year it's an IPA, a wheat beer the next. The brewers also partner with coffee roasters around Taiwan to craft cold-brew coffee beers, using cold beer rather than cold water to extract the coffee. “Our most recent one uses a light-roasted Guatemalan bean,” says Sung, “giving this particular cold-brewed coffee beer a slightly sour, tropical fruit nose.”
Peter Huang of Taihu Brewing also seeks out quality local resources for Taihu’s beers. “Taiwan is known for its fruit,” hey says, “so we're traveling around the country gathering wild yeasts and bacteria from all sorts of farms and orchards and beaches, which we'll then incorporate into our beers.” Another major presence in Taiwan's 2.0 craft brewing scene, Taihu started rolling out its efforts in late 2013 and now hosts several individual tap rooms Taipei-wide, including one within a retrofitted and refurbished Airstream trailer, and another industrial space filled with communal picnic tables, surrounded by stacks of wooden barrels and perfectly lit under a series of bare-hanging bulbs. “Our next big step will be building out a robust sour program,” says Huang. “Taihu's brewmaster-slash-mad genius, Winnie, loves sours and has been dying to experiment with local cultures, foudres, and koelschips.”
Taiwan’s new generation of brewers believe the country’s craft beer market is changing quickly, and that the industry will continue to see huge growth over the next few years.
“It's going to be exciting to see where it goes,” says Sung.