There are over 70 types of beers in the world, but in Taiwan – no matter domestically brewed or imported – most beers taste the same because they are all lagers. And nearly all have been filtered and pasteurized to the point of homogeneity, Taiwan Panorama magazine reported.
After Taiwan’s admission to the World Trade Organization, the government’s monopoly on beer sales was lifted, paving the way for independent brewers to enter the market. These artisan brewers emphasize limited quantity, diversity, and superior taste. Although they make up less than one percent of Taiwan’s total beer market, they have nevertheless managed to shake up people’s preconceptions and infuse new creativity into Taiwan’s limited beer culture.
Kenneth S. Lin, an economics professor at National Taiwan University and an avid beer lover, has been brewing his own beer for over 20 years. He told Taiwan Panorama that most people in Taiwan have no experience of beer’s expansive palette of flavors, or an understanding of how challenging it is to brew beer. On brewing beer, three factors determine the quality: the sweetness of the wort, the degree of bitterness of the hops, and the fruity overtones released by the fermentation that occurs after contact with the yeast.
The essence of the brewer’s craft is to envision a combination of elements that will yield a specific taste and color. This requires making minute adjustments in temperature and humidity to achieve the desired effect.
History of Taiwan beer
The government’s monopoly on beer sales dates back to the Japanese occupation. Private breweries were forbidden and sales were only possible with government permits. Although this system helped to secure government tax revenues, it stymied the creativity of the private sector and curtailed variety.
In the 1970s, a renewed interest in artisan beer began in Europe and North America. In 2002, after Taiwan was admitted into the WTO, the government was forced to lift the ban on manufacturing alcohol, allowing breweries to open up.
According to Taiwan Panorama, after the lifting of the ban there were about ten small breweries, but only half of them now survive. Great Reliance Food and Beverage, North Taiwan Brewing and Le blé d’or are three of the original start-ups.
Major challenges face artisan breweries
North Taiwan Brewing (NTB) was set up in 2003. Faced with a tight budget, NTB owner Wen Li-guo did everything in-house, from brewing to bottling, labeling and sales, while his partner Professor Duan Kow-jen, an expert on fermentation, worked on tweaking the formula of hops, yeast, and other factors.
The duo’s early attempts, Abbey Beer and White Beer sold poorly. Later they changed their strategy by experimenting with novelty beers made with natural fruit juices, giving preference to lychee, cantaloupe, pineapple and other locally-grown fruit offering distinctive tastes. Repeated experimentation eventually yielded a winning formula, in the Lychee Beer.
After its release in 2006, Lychee Beer won over consumers with its elegant bouquet and taste, allowing other beers in NTB’s catalog to piggyback on its success. Then Tapas House in Taipei asked them to produce a beer for their exclusive use. This was the turning point for NTB, enabling them to hire two more employees.
Educating consumers to exploring beer’s subtle side
Unlike NTB and other companies that have focused exclusively on beer production, Eddie Chang, president of the Great Reliance Food and Beverage Co., Ltd. intended his home-brewed beer to complement his restaurant.
Chang, 44, studied food and beverage management in Taiwan and in the United States. As the first Taiwanese person to have a professional brewer’s certificate, Chang spent NT$10 million (US$312,000) to buy brewing equipment to launch his brewery and restaurant. Chang told Taiwan Panorama the certificate program helped him better understand the principles of control and balance, rather than just memorizing formulas. It equipped him with the skill to develop a classic taste and to add his own creative flourishes.
In 2003, he opened the Jolly Brewery and Restaurant featuring three of his own signature beers to complement the Thai cuisine. He has since opened another restaurant, expanded his beer selection to six unique tasting drafts and offers daily beer drinking contests.
According to Chang, the challenge facing all small artisan breweries in Taiwan is that consumers have had access to only one basic flavor and they lack the background to explore beer’s subtle side. By opening a restaurant, he hopes to interact directly with his customers and share his knowledge.
Le blé d’or on the international stage
Although Taipei has many restaurants that serve fine food and draft beer, most of them are owned by foreign franchises. Le blé d’or is owned by a Taiwanese businessman who studied in Canada. Quentin Yeh was only 23 when he decided to invest himself fully as a brewer-in-chief. With his parents’ support, he continued to experiment and learn from other beer makers before coming up with three beers.
Since 2002, Le blé d’or has grown from a four-man operation producing five metric tons monthly to more than 20 employees producing 25 metric tons. Of all the domestic breweries, Le blé d’or now ranks behind only Taiwan Beer and Tsingtao Beer in operational scale.
Yeh plans to set up branches overseas to take the flavor of Taiwan’s craft beer onto the international stage. The fact that his Honey Beer won two major awards in Japan last year has him considering opening a brewery in Japan someday.
Small breweries in Taiwan strive to educate consumers about artisan beer. Their catalogs usually contain information on the history of beer making as an art. NTB has a blog for beer lovers to discuss how to improve brewing techniques. Le blé d’or invites wine gurus to teach consumers everything from pouring, viewing, smelling and tasting beers.
Though not professionally involved in the beer industry, Lin has watched the Taiwanese people develop a taste for artisan beer. He notes only an affluent and liberal society can nurture the creative and adventurous spirit required of both the master brewer and the average consumer. Taiwan, he feels, has both.