TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- Most people in the world probably don't think of Taiwan when it comes to craft brewing or micro-breweries. But those with their ear to the wire will tell you that the craft brewing scene in Taiwan has been steadily gaining steam over the past decade. And if the past few years are any indication, the popularity of high quality, local brews is set for some serious growth.
The year 2002 was a starting point in Taiwan's foray into the world of small batch micro-brewing. That year Taiwan joined the WTO, and in order to adhere to WTO member policy, it was forced to break up most industry monopolies. The Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Company (TTL), who had been the only government sanctioned alcohol producer on the island with its Taiwan Beer, had to make way for competition.
But even after opening alcohol market in Taiwan the law didn't necessarily reflect the situation in practice. While a business could theoretically start brewing operations, the reality was that the TTL was nearly sealed in from competition, and only the most committed or affluent investors would be able to make a dent in the market.
However, several first generation brewers were committed to the task, and make a dent they did. The earliest competitor Taiwan Micro Brewing Company (TMBC) began brewing monthly volumes that were less than 1 percent of what TTL was producing in the first years after the monopoly was broken. Other companies like Deluxe Beer, and the North Taiwan Brewery appeared shortly thereafter. These early companies, despite their commitment to creating quality beverages faced the problem of distribution. There just wasn't an affordable price at which the beers could be distributed and sold in the average retail setting, like convenient stores or re-chao eateries.
Varieties of beer from the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Co. (Wikimedia Commons image)
One company, Long Sun Brewing took to the task of solving the distribution problem by doubling their business as a western themed restaurant, L'e Ble D'or with their three original local brews available on-site. This model would prove instructive for several small brewers that started up in the mid-to-late 2000s. With this model, brewers could do what they love brewing craft beers, but also potentially turn a profit with food sales, which would have been very difficult for selling beverages alone.
The Jolly brewery and restaurant in Taipei (locations in Songshan, Neihu, and Zhongzheng districts) is a great example of one of the first generation small restaurant/ brewers from the first generation of craft brewers on the island. Likewise, Long Sun Brewing has since greatly expanded, and can be found all over the island with their Sunmai line of beers.
With the niche established over course of the 2000s, home-brewers, aficionados, gastronauts, and young folks with a curiosity for international flavors have all steadily grown in number. Various beer clubs, and ex-pat cliques formed in the aftermath of the first generation of micro-brewers have since engendered a second wave of local handcraft brewing on the island. Jim and Dad's in Yilan (the first local brewery with a tap-room onsite), and 23 Brewing Company (established by 3 expats, and steadily gaining recognition since 2013) are some great representatives of the second wave starters.
But if 2013 was splash in the local brewing market then the years following have been nothing short of a deluge. And you local denizens of Taiwan, have the honor of being witness to what may be a golden age of craft brew, not only for Taiwan, but maybe across all of Asia.
The Sunmai Cube in Taipei's Commune A7. (Photo by Duncan DeAeth)
Some brands like 55th Street Brewing, and Redpoint Lager are successfully focusing their efforts at increasing distribution, and joining with local event organizers to promote their brand as well as music and art throughout Taiwan. Other companies are also doing big things in an attempt to shape a new culture of beer appreciation on the island. Companies like Zhangmen Brewing and Taihu Brewing are gaining a lot of positive buzz for their modern spartan style tap rooms, that draw regular crowds for their superb collection of craft brews, with an average of 20 different selections available at any one location. Zhangmen Brewing has been growing particularly fast, with 9 taprooms in Taiwan, and one across the waters in Hong Kong.
Taihu Brewing was introduced in a VICE article in 2015 for their evangelical approach to promoting the culture of craft brewing. Their aim is nothing less than making “Taiwan” synonymous with “trademark quality” among beer-aficionados throughout the world. And with their new top of the line brewery in full operation, the mission is set to kick into high gear. The spirit and commitment of companies like Taihu to increase local variety, expand distribution, and to cultivate an educational space for future generations of brewers, typifies the climate of the craft beer industry in Taiwan right now.
But despite the enthusiasm of brewers and beer lovers for the future of the industry, there are still some hurdles to be overcome. For one, the TTL and Taiwan Beer still hold the lion's share of the market in Taiwan (about 63% at the end of 2015), and big brand importers take up most of the remainder. For now, the primary population consuming the new local craft drinks are relegated mostly to the young and affluent in metropolitan areas. However, the upward trend of craft beer sales, and the spirit of cooperation among small brewers in Taiwan provides plenty of room for optimism.
Interior of Zhangmen Brewing's Dongmen tap room. (Photo by Duncan DeAeth)
To help acclimate Taiwanese people to higher-quality beers, one company, Taiwan Head Brewers is taking an interesting approach, and a cue from Taiwan's tea industry. They are crafting a unique series of beers using familiar flavors of Taiwan and Asia, like their Tea Ales, as part of a localization strategy. It is hoped they can introduce craft beers to Taiwanese with more traditional tastes, while also emphasizing that beer can be a culturally representative beverage in the same manner as tea or coffee, with a comparable gradation of price and quality.
Other companies are also introducing localization strategies starting from the ground up. One company, Alchemist, is looking beyond the brewing and distribution to the agricultural products that make great brewing possible in the first place. Although various regions of Taiwan can support wheat and barley most beer producers import them from abroad. Alchemist hopes to change that, by brewing completely organic drinks with entirely local ingredients while promoting agricultural self-sufficiency. If their products and model catch on, it may be a game changer for encouraging diversification of agricultural products on the island, while also spreading an awareness of quality brewing from the city to the countryside.
From the outside looking in at the craft brew industry in Taiwan, it is abundantly clear that innovation and enthusiasm are in the air. You can even taste it in the ales and the lagers. European, American, and Japanese brewing traditions are all coalescing here in Taiwan, and a new kind of culture for beer appreciation is emerging just as fast as the brewers can treat and bottle their brews. The penchant for art and design that many young Taiwanese display also has room to shine, with new chic taprooms and pubs opening almost as quickly as new labels appear.
It's anyone's guess how long the trend will keep its pace, or just how much of the market local brewers can snag from corporate giants. But with the growing popularity of craft beer in metro areas, Taiwan may be on the verge of something truly remarkable. Something good is brewing, and there's plenty of taps all over the island just waiting for your glass.
Taihu Brewing at Taipei's Commune A7. (Photo by Duncan DeAeth)