When most people think of Taiwan, they might hearken back to the “Made In...” labels on childhood toys, or perhaps envision a nation of factories pumping out semiconductors and other electronic components. But the small seabound country of 23 million is taking the first tentative steps toward an identity shift—a movement beyond the factory floor.
Among the emerging trends—away from the cheaper-is-better, underbid-the-competition mentality—is an upsurge in quality-driven craft brewing, with some 50 brands having popped up nationwide, most of them in the last five years. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, Taiwan was dominated by a single brand, state-run Taiwan Beer, which produces an amber lager, the flavor of which is augmented by ponlai rice added during fermentation. However, in the years following the dissolution of the Taiwan Beer monopoly in 2002, spurred by a small scene of dedicated craft brewery entrepreneurs both foreign and local in the early 2010s, the Taiwanese market has developed a taste for the bold, the experimental, and the upmarket when it comes to beer.
One of those brands that has been there since the beginning of Taiwan's craft brew boom is Taihu Brewing, a small but growing operation built on progressive business policies, a dynamic approach to brand development, and a pride in utilizing ingredients endemic to the land the Portuguese once dubbed Ilha Formosa—the beautiful island.
Peter Huang, 31, is one of five partners who started Taihu in 2013. The former born-and-bred New Yorker and recovering finance industry veteran gave up doing what he calls “the devil's work” and came to Taiwan, where an uncle still lives, to take his passion for craft beer to the next level.
"I wanted to do something that was more tangible,” he says of the motivation behind his rather dramatic career change. “I'd been a craft fan for years, just home-brewing. I saw this trend was taking off in Asia, or looked like it might, and said, 'I want to do something I like, and maybe I can make it work.'"
Critical to getting Taihu up and running and establishing the brand identity was bringing head brewer Winnie Hsu on board. Huang and his partners, he says, give her free rein at the company's main brewery in Xizhi, a district of New Taipei City, just across the Keelung River from Taipei City, and at their smaller R&D lab/tap room just a few minutes down the road. Huang met Hsu through mutual friends, catching her between jobs, and managed to convince her to join his fledgling company.
“She was deciding what to do, whether it be go to Europe and get involved in the brewing scene there, or she's really interested in some of the more experimental stuff that was going on in the States,” recalls Huang. “We said, ‘We're trying to do that really aggressive, experimental stuff here, and if you want to stay and do it with us, that would be awesome.’”
Hsu stayed, bringing with her ten years of commercial brewing experience, and immediately set to work putting her stamp on Taihu, pushing the brand as one that takes pride in sourcing local ingredients to produce bold, fruity flavors that have helped the brewery cement itself as a premiere outfit in Taiwan, and increasingly abroad as well.
“That's her jam,” Huang says of Hsu's penchant for finding new components to add to her formulas. “We do a ton of stuff with local ingredients. One of the things Winnie loves to do is she roams the markets over at Dihua Street,” he goes on, name-dropping a popular central Taipei City thoroughfare known for its sellers of traditional Taiwanese food products. “You know how they have those vendors with hundreds of spices and teas outside?” Huang continues, “She'll just walk that and kind of sample stuff and think about what styles it might work with or what variants and styles might fit in with Taiwanese ingredients.”
At the R&D lab, Hsu and her 14 other brewing colleagues (10 of whom are women, Huang points out) test 150 different brews per year, an average of three per week. Every month Taihu puts out a new IPA, in addition to 12 staple beers appearing at their four tap rooms in the Taipei area. It is through this wide-open policy of experimentation that Hsu and her team are able to come upon their successes, not all of them expected.
“As a shock to us,” says Huang of one of those pleasant surprises, “one of our most popular beers is the wumei Lichtenhainer. It's a smoked sour, so not what I'd expect introductory drinkers to like. For the smokiness Winnie uses local smoked plums, the Taiwanese wumei. She brews with those on both the hot and cold side and gets a really unusual smokiness you don't get off of wood-smoked malt.”
The smoked plum Lichtenhainer, says Huang, has proven a hit with consumers not just in Taiwan, but in the Big Apple as well at October’s own OctFest.
“People love that beer. When we were at the October beer festival in New York a couple weeks ago, people were lining up 40 minutes for that.”
Also central to the Taihu identity has been its alliance with progressive social causes and community aid groups. Every year for the Taiwanese PRIDE celebrations, the largest in Asia, the brewery produces a special Taiwanese lychee lager, a smooth, clean Japanese-style lager. The can design, done up by Taihu Creative Director A.A. Huang, this year features a plain white background and a broken image icon, along with the text “Love has no label.” This is one of many unique designs that have helped set Taihu apart in the domestic market, making the packaging stand out on increasingly crowded retailer shelves.
“She actually was a part-time brewer,” Huang says of how he came find yet another star recruit, Daa Huang, who was a homebrewer like himself. “She loved beer; was interested in just spending some time at the brewery, learning how to do it, learning what it looked like on the commercial side, and one day we were struggling over our first label, samples we were sending out to a competition, and she was like, 'Let me take a stab at it.' It turns out she has a background in graphic design and just started hitting it out of the park.”
In addition to continuing its support for various charities, Taihu is eyeing expansion. A few small, niche tap rooms in select American markets such as New York, San Francisco, and L.A. look to be in the cards for 2019, as does a Tokyo tap room and two more in China, where the brewery already holds a small retail foothold in Shanghai.
In the meantime, Taihu continues on its present path of trying new things. A stroll through the R&D lab reveals malts from the Netherlands, the United States, Germany, and Australia. Winnie Hsu recently got back from a trip to Yakima, Washington, where she procured a sample of an experimental hop she has parlayed into a new IPA with a pineapple/melon character she will debut at an upcoming craft beer conference in China. Taihu may still be small—smaller than a large American brew pub, for comparison, producing around a thousand hectoliters a month. But for Peter Huang, the domestic market is ripe, the world beyond Taiwan's shores seems keen on what the brewery has been doing so far, and more to the point, he's enjoying himself in a way he never did during his finance days.
“We want to have a lot of fun with it,” he says of the overall approach. That sense of playfulness and bravery among his young team (average age 35, he says), should help Taihu grow in the global craft beer scene in 2019 and beyond.