West of Taipei’s Songshan Cultural and Creative Park lies the office of Taiwanese entrepreneur Oscar Chang. Inside, the 26-year-old crouches in a corner, rummaging through a crowded mini fridge. His office space is akin to his fridge: every inch of the space is crowded with loose papers, open boxes and broken bits of hardware. I even spy a sleeping bag underneath the table. Moments later, the man whose face has graced the pages of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia produces two glass bottles from the fridge.One was an old swing bottle, the other, a former wine bottle. In each, a fizzy concoction swirls with life. “This is a strawberry and honey cider,” Chang says as he pours some out for me to sample.
The drink is alive; it sizzles across my palate, sparkling like the end of a lit firecracker. The taste of alcohol is very much there, but it’s classy and mature, dressed up in button-down bitterness, tailored acidity, and a subtle hint of barky astringency. It’s like Angry Orchard’s more worldly cousin. However, the amazing thing about this cider is not its taste (while it is amazing), but rather, how it was made.
Chang’s company, Alchema, makes fermenting tasty, fruit-based alcohols surprisingly easy and accessible for enthusiasts of all levels. The company’s product is a pod-like device (about the size of a hardy toddler) that allows users to control and oversee the fermentation of their own alcoholic concoctions — anything from complex ciders to zippy beers to even crisp wines. All you need to do is pour fresh fruit, water and a packet of yeast into the pitcher housed within the device, and you’ll have 2.4 liters (equivalent to about three bottles of wine) of fruity booze by the end of a couple weeks. The rest of the work is left to Alchema’s app, which monitors and informs users what stage of fermentation their fizzing pitcher of fruit juice is at.
Last fall, Alchema garnered the explosive support of almost 900 backers, who have since contributed over US$300,000 to Alchema’s Kickstarter campaign — a definite success for the young Taiwanese startup. When asked what it was like to watch the numbers climb on Kickstarter, Chang laughs and admits, “We pulled a lot of all nighters.”
At this year’s CiderCon 2016 (the largest annual conference for cider brewers), there was a total of 18 million cider drinkers in the United States in 2015, a five million increase from just four years ago. In that year, these 18 million consumers generated $1 billion in revenue. In other words, if all hard cider sales were grouped together and compared to beer, they would be the second-most successful beer category between IPAs and seasonals.
This is good news for Alchema. It’s exactly why over 80 percent of its Kickstarter backers are hip and wealthier Americans located in coastal cities. “America already has the home-brewing and DIY culture. It is also the second largest country for cider sales,” says Chang.
Current cider offerings can also get pretty boring: according to a study done by the Department of Agricultural & Applied Economics at Virginia Tech, apples are the core ingredient of an overwhelming 94 percent of the hard cider market. Alchema capitalizes on the homogeneity in the hard-cider market, dazzling consumers with its device’s capability of endless customization. It’s app boasts a library of pre-made recipes that incorporate a wide variety of fruity ingredients like raspberry, pomegranate, pineapple, strawberry, peach and cherry.
Now, despite the success of Alchema’s Kickstarter campaign, appealing to and communicating with the American market has been anything but easy. Chang says understanding the American demographic and navigating its culture proved to be one of his most challenging tasks. “Because I’m from Taiwan, there is a cultural barrier,” he says. “I needed to understand the culture, learn how to speak English and figure out how they use English to have conversations for work. There were tons of feedback that we had to reply to.”
A crucial turning point for Chang was when Alchema joined the American hardware accelerator, HAX. They not only helped Chang develop a better, more marketable product, but also provided guidance in bridging wide cultural gaps. As a result, Chang and his team were well equipped to engage with the American press, customers and big name retailers when they attended crucial trade shows.
“HAX helped us bring the product into the American market,” says Chang.“We invited a lot of press to our booth at trade shows and introduced our product for their stories. We also asked buyers [retailers] to meet us at our booth so they could feel and touch the product, and see whether they liked our products enough to bring it into their channel. Even our backers would travel to attend our trade shows.”
With the information gathered from these trade shows and their backers, Chang was able to improve upon three prototypes before arriving at its fourth and final model (the very first looks akin to a archaic coffee maker).
When asked what Taiwan looks like in the eyes of Americans, Chang says potential customers have a limited scope of what the country he calls his home entails. Nevertheless, he says most are well aware of its manufacturing rigor. “People think Taiwan is capable of building high-quality hardware products compared to China.”
Chang goes on to say that Taiwan is an important asset — and a partner even — to the American tech and startup community.“Most of the startups in the U.S. build software, but people still need something to touch and feel, he says. “Hardware is this interface. Because Taiwan is very good at building hardware, people can go to Taiwan to look for hardware stuff and bring it to the U.S. market.”
Chang and his team are currently finalizing production plans with local Taiwanese manufacturers, and are excited to deliver their first batch of shipments this upcoming July.
This journey to understand a different culture and demographics is a two-way street that takes time and patience to develop — kind of like Chang’s strawberry and honey cider. Hopefully, over time, exchanges like the ones Alchema is facilitating will help Taiwan rebrand and redefine itself in the eyes of consumers overseas, ultimately allowing Taiwan to make a name for itself in the world of startups.
(Feature illustration by 王語蓉)
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