Craft Beer Tide Rising in Taiwan

The Taiwanese may not pass as great beer drinkers. After all, with the amount of tea that Taiwan produces you would imagine the sub tropical country would prefer a cup of Oolong tea, or a glass of Kaoliang sorghum liquor, to a cup of fermented starch sugar with yeast.

But the truth is beer is all over the numerous rechao (熱炒), the Taiwanese equivalent of a hole in the wall eatery, as bottle after bottle of the state owned Taiwan Beer is being chugged away with fried squid tentacles. The Taiwanese beer market generates around around US 2.7 billion (84 billion NT) of revenue annually.

So one would think that there is a big market for small breweries and brew pubs to take hold of that demand and continue the trend of providing the thirsty Taiwanese masses with freshly served beer, like it has done in Europe and the US.

Well, not exactly since most of that money ends up in the state’s bank account. Taiwan beer alone, a product of the state-owned Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp, holds 72% of the market consumption, with the rest composed of mainly imports. They even have their own basketball team, appropriately named The Brew Boys, although they don’t monopolise the local basketball league like they do in the beer market.

In fact up until 2002, when the WTO forced the Taiwan government to open it’s Tobacco and Alcohol market, the market share of Taiwan Beer was close to 100%, and even after that it still took around 10 to 12 years, before Taiwan started seeing new brewery companies popping up with their own craft beer.

Also, although taiwanese are very demanding regarding the freshness of their food ingredients, they are not yet that demanding when it comes to the beer they have drank their whole life.

In the last few years though, new craft beers are being created every year, some by local Taiwanese and others by foreigners who have decided to take barrels into their own hands. Brands like RedPoint, 23 Brewing Company, Alechemist and 55th Street Brewery have shown up to add to the local palates, proving beer doesn’t need to be a an homogenous monolith.

Even the almighty Taiwan Beer corp has started creating it’s own new products inspired by the new beer movement, such as 18 days, a draft beer bottled within that exact amount of time, a wheat beer and even some pineapple and mango flavoured varieties.

However, protectionist measures in the industry still limit the growth of a market that could vastly help the local economy during these hot Summer evenings.

  • The Future is Hoppy and Bitter

The founders of 23 Brewing Company specialise in hoppy beers, beers where hops were added during fermentation which giving them a characteristic fruity flavor and aroma, such as in the famous Indian Pale Ale.

The problem is, hop beers are best drank fresh, and since most IPA’s in Taiwan were imported, three guys from the US and Canada living in Taipei decided they should brew one closer to them. So after meeting in the FB group Homebrew Maniacs they founded 23 Brewing in 2014

“There was a need for good locally produced craft beer in Taiwan and we wanted to produce hoppy beers that could be drank fresh so that people here, including us, could enjoy them in their prime, said Matthew Frazar co-founder of 23 Brewing.

Matthew believes the world is getting a liking to hoppy beers and 23 Brewing wants to be at the forefront of that trend in Asia. So far it seems they seem to be on the right track, with the success of their Number #1 and Natural blonde American Pale Ales in local venues such as Eddys Cantina, one the first places to import craft beer in Taiwan.

“The craft beer scene in Taiwan is a rapidly evolving industry that seems to change week to week. People are importing new lines of craft beer from all over the world and introducing them every other week here, new brewing companies are opening up every month and new bars with more taps seem to pop up everywhere all the time.”

“It is a truly exciting time to be involved in the industry as a producer as well as a consumer here in Taipei. I think things are only going to get better and better for the consumer in the next few months to few years here.”

  • Reaching for the RedPoint

Craft breweries are usually small-size endeavours, normally with annual productions of 15,000 barrels of beer or less, that use traditional basic ingredients of water, malt, hops, and grain. However they are also also innovative, taking traditional recipes with twisting them with different flavours from different natural ingredients.

Just in the US, you have almost 3,000 beer makers satisfying the demands of people looking for more quality and variety when quenching their thirst, contributing to sales of US14.3 billion (446 billion NT) last year.

So it’s no surprise that two Americans created one of the most famous local brews in Taiwan. Spencer Jemelka and Doug Pierce have been in Taiwan for quite a while, Spencer studying diplomacy and Doug in a variety of jobs ranging from semiconductor companies to television.

After meeting each other at the Taipei Baboons rugby club, they reached the mutual conclusion that they missed more varieties of beer to help them ease those pains after their games at Shilin’s Bailing sports field.

“We love beer but the beer choices in Taiwan were very limited three years ago, so we started home brewing”, said Doug. “We taught ourselves through textbooks and Youtube, and loved it so much we started doing it three or four times a week. We moved from a 20 liters system to 100 liters, and it was so much to drink that we started giving it to the rest of the rugby team.

“They were our guinea pigs since they’ll drink anything.”

RedPoint is a climbing term, meaning to successfully complete a climb after multiple attempts, essentially the idea that practice makes perfect. So when they believed they reached the quality level they wanted, they founded the company in 2012, and started preparing to produce in big quantities

We were doing contract manufacturing for over a year in Hsinchu, and now we’ve built our own brewery in Taoyuan, and we have the equipment to produce about 50,000 liters a month starting in September.

They established a brewery in Hsinchu and started selling commercially in 2014, making now 2,000 liters in one brew.

“We buy our ingredients from Germany mostly, only the water comes from here. Taiwan doesn’t grow hops or have the right malts, yeast and grains I’m afraid.” said Spencer. “We produce in large scale now, so its more convenient to get 5 or 6 tons at a time from Germany. There isn’t a supply company here that can provide that amount of volume.

They created the Tai. P. A., an IPA (low end bitterness scale) that became their flagship beer ,and Longdong Lager (light low alcohol beer), named after the rock climbing in Northeast Taiwan. No pun intended. After they launched they quickly became accessible in the trendiest local pubs such as the Beer and Cheese and Brass Monkey.

  • Some Government Levees To The Beer Tide

However not all is gold, as an heavy tax of 26 NT per litre makes it hard for small brewers to make profitable batches, adding to the hurdles that still slow down what could be an explosive growth of new beer brands.

“When we initially began operations we were stunned to learn about the 26NT/L tax,” Matthew said. “It felt excessive and unfair. Almost as if the tax exists only to make it difficult for small startups to compete with the likes of Taiwan Beer.

“That said we’re lucky that market pricing and demand has stabilised in such a way that we can carry the weight of that tax and still sustain a business. If people comment that local made beer is expensive, we blame the tax.

Another issue is the reason why they had to brew so far from Taipei is due to a law that doesn’t allow the brewing of beer outside of industrial parks. So even famous brewpub restaurants like Gordon Biersch, a chain of from California, or local the local Le Ble d’ Or, which had his Longan Honey beer won a silver medal at the 2014 European Beer Star held in Germany, have to brew their beer outside of the city center.

“It’s ridiculous since the brewing industry is one of the cleanest industries you will come across. You have to be clean in order to make good beer,” said Doug.

They believe brewpubs should be able to brew on premises, showing people what they’re doing and allow them to taste your beer straight out of the fermenter after it was created weeks ago.

“If you see around Europe, Northern and South America this is such a common practice that it doesn’t make sense that in Taiwan you can’t have brewpubs, it’s an antiquated concept of making beer. It’s harming small businesses and it’s harming the local economy. Just imagine if every restaurant here was able to brew its own beer.”

Spencer and Doug hope that the situation will change with some lobbying. After all if the Taiwanese palate for beer has changed, why can’t the local laws change, too?

“We’re seeing the same trends in Taiwan that we saw in the States 10 or 15 years ago, and now all over Asia in Japan, Singapore, Korea and China,” said Spencer.

“People in Taiwan are tired of beer that tastes like water, and want different beers with more flavours. Everyone has their own taste. Some like stouts, some like ales, and you have to supply to the majority. In the end there is no perfect beer, just perfect beers.”

  • The Local Boys Have a Try with Beer Alchemy

While RedPoint imports most of it’s ingredients from abroad, a local beer startup has decided it’s brew would only be made with local ingredients. Its founder Robert was born in Taiwan, but has lived in San Jose, California since he was 13, growing a special connection with the local brewing scene.

He worked in the financial industry, but was looking to start his own brew, however he beliaved California just didn’t have many locally produced malts and relied to much on major producers.

He decided to move to his country of birth, and following his view of beer as an agriculture product that should have more link with the local agriculture, he gathered a group of crop science students from National Taiwan University, and started using the island’s great variety of crops and simple shipping logistics.

“Most of the malts are from major producers. It lacks of connection with the local producer. I believe beer is an agriculture product that should have more link with the local agriculture,” he says.

Most brewers use the enzymes from malt (germinated cereal grains that have been dried in a process known as “malting”) but unfortunately Taiwan doesn’t have a lot of malts, as previously noted . However, it’s full of common cereal grains like barley for tea, wheat, corn, buckwheat, oat and rice which contain starch that can be used, albeit with some limitations.

It was this path that the guys at Alechemist (禾餘麥酒) decided to follow, and started using local produce to create a local fully organic ale.

“What makes Alechemist special is that we are malting our own grains, we actually do a lot of farm work actually in Taichung and in our farm at NTU to find the different flavors in our beer,”said Robert.

In the beginning they gathered an initial capital of 1 million NT from their own money, and decided to produce an Ale, since it would be faster to do (most ales take 14 to 21 days to brew). Each crop cost them 6,000 US, but their scientific approach to study the number of enzymes on each seed allowed them to make the most of it.

  • Picking corn old school style
  • Or you can use the new school methods
  • Picking the best seeds
  • Milling the corn
  • Moving the sugar water from the malt to the boiling kettle to boil,
  • They add in hops to give bitterness and various aroma like citrus, piney, or earthy
  • Nice golden colour
  • The final Bottles

Even though they are locals, Alechemist also has the same complaints RedPoint has, with the laws that force them to do their brewing in Taoyuan and with the 26 Nt tax per litre.

“Surprisingly there areno barriers for imports to compete with locally produced beer. We are being taxed the same rate as the import beers,” said Robert

Notwithstanding, this year they officially launched the first 36,000 bottles of Alechemist Green Ale for great praise. After all it is the perfect mix of craft brewing and biological farming.

Sources: American Chamber of Commerce, Taipei Times

Photo Credit: Red Point, Alechemist, Taiwan Beer Photo by Jaako and Featured Photo by crystalluxmore.com

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Originally published at buzzorange.com on June 8, 2015.

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