I love beer, and I’m not the only one in Taiwan who does! There are now close to 30 private breweries in Taiwan. How did beer come about in Taiwan and what does the scene look like in Taiwan today?
For most of the 20th century, beer was a beloved beverage in Taiwan. It was also a government-regulated product, as the Monopoly Bureau of the Japanese colonial government controlled tobacco and liquor production. There were no private beer companies, let alone creative craft beer and home brews.
After World War II, the Bureau continued its existence under the Republic of China regime; Beloved brands like Taiwan Beer, Kinmen Kaoliang and Longlife Cigarettes were produced by the Bureau. On February 27, 1947, an enforcement officer from the Bureau scuffled with a vendor selling contraband cigarettes, triggering the tragic 228 Massacre.
When Taiwan became a WTO member economy in 2002, it was required to deregulate the liquor and tobacco markets to private companies. The Monopoly Bureau was privatized and renamed the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation (TTL). For the first time, private wineries, breweries and distilleries were legal in Taiwan.
The craft beer boom
Craft beer has recently become a buzzword in the beverage world. In 2016, US overall beer consumption growth remained stagnant, while craft beer consumption grew at 6.8 percent.
As evidence of this boom, the Japanese beverage giant Sapporo purchased the renowned Anchor Brewery in the summer of 2017. And just several years previously, Kirin, another Japanese firm, acquired 30 percent of Yo-Ho Brewing Company, extending its reach into the craft beer market. Besides acquiring craft beer brands, Japanese commercial beer firms such as Suntory and Kirin are releasing new craft beer product lines to compete with Japanese as well as international craft beer breweries.
Meanwhile in Taiwan, TTL’s iconic Taiwan Beer still holds a dominating 70 percent of the market share. Even so, TTL introduced craft beer products like “Taiwan Beer Premium” and “Taiwan Beer Weissbier,” a sign of the growing popularity of craft beer in Taiwan too.
After the brewing ban was lifted in 2002, several private brewing companies began distributing their own beers to the public. But due to poor marketing and lack of demand, several breweries exited the field fairly quickly. One success story, though, was SUNMAI. In 2004, the current owner of SUNMAI, Mr. Yeh, purchased an unprofitable brewery from a friend and turned it into one of the most reputable craft beer brands in Taiwan.
In the early days, due to its short shelf life of seven days, SUNMAI had a hard time distributing its beer through regular channels. Yeh then decided to establish a microbrewery restaurant as an outlet for his beer. He created a German brauhaus atmosphere in the center of Taipei.
The restaurant gradually gained popularity in Taiwan and slowly grew into a restaurant empire. There are currently three restaurants in China and 12 restaurants in Taiwan, including a 500-seat, brauhaus-style restaurant in the Dazhi Miramar mall. There are also two SUNMAI bars in Taiwan serving both bottle and draft beers. One is located in Xinyi District’s popular hangout Commune A7, and the other is in Taoyuan Airport Terminal One, where travelers can enjoy a cold honey lager while waiting for their next flight.
SUNMAI is best known for its honey lager, which was developed and released in 2009. But it also produces classic-style beers such as Hefeweizen and dark lager. In addition, SUNMAI regularly introduces new flavors using local ingredients that are in season. A few notable examples include a strawberry ale, the Gankou pale ale using the Gankou tea; the Bandoh pilsner, which has a hint of Taiwanese basil; a smoked longan beer called “Burning Temple;” and a raspberry and dragonfruit beer called “Mosina.”
Another major Taiwanese craft beer player who has entered the market with a boom is Taihu Brewing. This past July, Taihu held a weekend product launch event at the Four Four South Village in Taipei. Taihu collaborated with artist Juichung Yao on labels, and created a theme based on an ancient Chinese myth that a paradise could be found inside gourds. The four labels are styled after Chinese natural landscape brush paintings.
Before releasing its canned beer, Taihu had already established five taprooms in Taipei, all serving Taihu’s own creations on draft, as well as imported craft beer. In addition, Taihu can be seen all over Taiwan with its popup stands in various festivals and exhibitions, including the 2017 Summer Jazz Outdoor Party and Art Taipei. Besides being known as a major craft brewery in Taiwan, Taihu is also one of the major craft beer importers in the country. They import my personal favorite, Ballast Point. This allows Taiwanese craft beer fanatics to purchase American favorites right around the corner.
Home brewers rise up
One of the major contributions to the boom in the global craft beer industry is the increasing number of home brewers, and Taiwan is no exception. This year marks the sixth year of the Taiwan’s Annual Homebrewer Competition, showcasing the rising number of craft beer breweries.
Zhang Men, a major craft brewery in Taiwan, was founded by a group of engineers, who stumbled into the world of home brewing. They built their first brewery in a suburb of Taipei and then began penetrating craft beer market through its own taprooms.
The first taproom was opened in Taipei’s popular Dongmen Station area. The brewery has since blossomed into ten taprooms, including one in Hong Kong since April of 2017. In Zhang Men’s taprooms you can experience more than 60 types of English, German, American and Belgian beers,. You can also drink Zhang Men’s own Imperial Stout, which was awarded the gold medal in the Australian International Beer Awards (AIBA).
Another craft brewery that has made a significant impact on Taiwan’s craft beer scene in recent year is Taiwan Head Brewers. Taiwan Head’s three founders are avid homebrewers who met each other through homebrewing forums. The brewery started out, and remains, a side business for the three founders. Their beers are wittingly named after the 24 solar terms, or “seasons,” from the traditional farmer’s’ calendar.
The one beer that impressed me was the Qingming (清明) beer, which is a Rauchbier (German-style smoke beer) that added burned wormwood during the brewing process giving the smoky flavor, and it also symbolizing life’s end and reincarnation that follows.
Taiwan Head is very creative in utilizing Taiwanese ingredients such as plum, lychee, burned wormwood, winter melon tea sugar and especially known for utilizing different type of teas into their brews like tieguanyin, oriental beauty, jasmine, and oolong.
Diversity and experimentation in Taiwan
I believe Taiwan is a perfect place for creative and quirky spins on tradition, whether we are talking about craft cocktails, liquors, or beers. Taiwan has long been a place where different diasporas mingled.
In 1900, Taiwan was put on the world trading routes when Tua-tiu-tiann (Dadaocheng, 大稻埕) tea merchant Ngoo Bun-siu (吳文秀) brought Formosa Oolong to Paris’s Exposition Universelle and elevated its popularity in the world. More than 100 years later, Taiwan’s entrance to World Trade Organization expanded its trading tentacles to more parts of the globe, and in the meantime, opened the doors for creativity and experimentation with beers, among many other things. Perhaps fittingly, the same Formosa Oolong that put Taiwan on the world’s map of drinks is now also the flavor of a popular ale, the Guyu (“Grain Rain”) Tea Ale.
(Feature image of Taiwan Head Brewers’ line of beers)
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