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Taiwan Panorama / Editors' Choices / Article:Something Brewing: Taiwan's Artisan Beer Movement in Ferment
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Editors' Choices
 
 
2010/8/p.030
Something Brewing: Taiwan's Artisan Beer Movement in Ferment
(Chen Hsin-yi/photos by Chuang Kung-ju/tr. by Josh Aguiar)
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Everyone may think they know what beer tastes like, but they probably don't realize that there are more than 70 types of beers in existence, covering a wide and diverse spectrum of taste, fragrance, and color. In most convenience stores in Taiwan you're likely to see a cornucopia of libations-domestically brewed or imported, canned or bottled-but despite this veneer of diversity the fact persists that most of these beers taste the same because they are all lagers, and nearly each one of them has been filtered and pasteurized to the point of homogeneity.

On the other hand, Taiwan's accession to the WTO broke the government's monopoly on beer sales, and that has paved the way for the rise of independent breweries focusing on artisan brews that emphasize limited quantity, diversity, and superior taste. Although these breweries make up less than 1% of the total market share, they have nevertheless managed to shake up people's preconceptions and infuse new creativity and vitality into Taiwan's culinary culture.

NTU economics professor Kenneth S. Lin is an avid beer lover who has been making his own brews for more than 20 years. He compares the average drinker's propensity to take a condescending view of beer to classical music fans who belittle the work of the famous family of waltz composers, the Strausses:

Even despite the fact that Johann Strauss Jr. was lionized by his celebrated contemporaries Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner, people in subsequent generations have come to regard his waltzes as droll but unsophisticated music better suited to plebian tastes. "What this misinformed viewpoint really shows is that these people have no understanding of the creative process or the content of the music itself; by the same token, your average person isn't aware of beer's expansive palette of flavors, or the fact that brewing it is as challenging and demanding a discipline as making wine."

Lin explains that three factors govern a beer's quality: the sweetness or dryness of the wort, the degree of bitterness of the hops (the seed cones from the hop species Humulus lupulus), and finally the fruity or floral overtones released by the fermentation that occurs after contact with the yeast. Being able to envision how a particular combination of elements will yield a specific taste and color and knowing how to make minute adjustments in temperature and humidity to achieve the desired effect are, in Lin's words, "the essence of the brewer's craft."

A revolution fermenting

Lin first became appreciative of beer's aesthetic dimensions while pursuing a doctorate in the US in the 1980s, a time which gave rise to a trend in home brewing. Before long, that appreciation turned to eager participation.

Several years after returning to Taiwan, he convinced a friend returning from abroad to bring some ingredients fundamental to beer-making-malt wort and hops-and using two gasoline vats he made his first batches of home brew. "Part of it was just for fun, but another part was my own little rebellion against government alcohol control," he recalls.

The Taiwanese government's complete domination of beer sales harks all the way back to the Japanese occupation. Private breweries were forbidden, and beer sales were only possible through government-issued permits. Although this system furnished an inexhaustible stream of tax revenue and also laid the foundation for the development of beer drinking culture in Taiwan, at the same time it stymied the creativity of would-be brewers in the private sector and for years caused Taiwanese to take a rather narrow view of beer and its aesthetic potential.

Simply stated, Taiwan Beer, Taiwan's iconic mainstay, has been bottling up the same taste since time immemorial: lagers in the pilsner vein with Ponlai rice added to the malt in order to dilute the production costs as well as to impart a refreshing smoothness. With the exception of the addition of the rice, this parallels the strategy and taste favored by all the world's large-scale beer manufacturers, who, like Taiwan Beer, also filter and pasteurize the beer to prepare it for wide distribution and long-term storage at room temperature. But while these two processes ensure greater stability, they preclude the freshness and complexity that a superior beer is capable of attaining.

Beer renaissance

Beginning in the 1970s, a renewed interest in artisan beer began to emerge in countries in Europe and North America, with Britain leading the charge. This trend, which has not slackened over the ensuing years, was a direct response to the streamlined production, generic taste, and market hegemony of Big Beer.

Then in January of 2002, bowing to outside pressure to liberalize after accession to the WTO, the Taiwanese government announced the removal of the ban on private alcohol manufacture, and a new era of beer production and culture was begun.

In the first two-and-a-half years after this breakthrough in 2002, nearly 10 small breweries received the necessary operating permits from the Ministry of Finance's National Treasury Agency and opened shop. A few years later, however, and the invisible hand had plucked half the startups from the playing field. Great Reliance Food and Beverage, North Taiwan Brewing, and Le ble d'or are three of Taiwan's original brands, and, though each lays claim to a distinct founding history, they share a common enthusiasm and willingness to lay it all on the line.

From hubs to hops

Forty-two-year-old Wen Liguo is the proprietor of Taiwan's smallest independent beer manufacturer, North Taiwan Brewing, which opened its doors in June of 2003. Originally in the business of auto body repair and customization, Wen saw opportunity in independent brewing 11 years ago; finding the technical expertise and resources in Taiwan, a country barren of any longstanding beer traditions, required more than just earnestness, but rather the intervention of fate.

In 1995, the late former chairman of the Tatung Company, Lin Tingsheng, correctly assessed that the Taiwanese government's alcohol and tobacco monopoly was entering its swansong, so he recruited Professor Duan Kow-jen of the Department of Bioengineering at Tatung University to look into beer production. Duan, an expert on fermentation but a novice at the beer game, began reading up on the subject, gathering data, and visiting beer facilities abroad. He also obtained simple brewing equipment suitable for conducting repeated experiments.

A Tatung beer plant never materialized, but Duan pressed on, offering a general studies course (it has since become a graduate-level course) on beer production and culture at Tatung in two different semesters. Wen enrolled in the class and eventually the two became a teacher-student brewing team.

Duan explains that because in the beginning they couldn't afford expensive counter-pressure filling equipment, they turned instead to the rather more labor-intensive hand bottling method of allowing the beer to ferment inside of the bottle. After depositing the already fermented malt into the bottles, they would then add fermentable sugar before sealing, initiating a second round of fermentation. This extended the beer's expiration date, and over time the yeast would settle to the bottom of the bottle.

Faced with a tight budget, Wen called upon the skills he picked up in the auto body shop to design the specifications on stainless steel tanks and other equipment, outsourcing the physical production to others. His frugality enabled him to limit his investment in machinery to a relatively economical NT$2 million. Without the means to hire additional help, he sat atop a mountain of responsibilities-brewing, bottling, labeling, and sales-while Prof. Duan tweaked the formula of hops, yeast and other ingredients towards perfection.

Unfortunately, the duo's virgin attempts, Abbey Beer and White Beer, sold poorly despite achieving critical success. For about two years they weathered on, racking up more and more debt all the while.

Recognizing the inability of a small beer maker to go head to head with the beer barons, Wen and Duan began experimenting with novelty beers made with natural fruit juices, giving preference to lychees, cantaloupes, pineapples and other indigenous fruits offering distinctive fragrances.

Endless experimentation eventually yielded a winning formula. After its release in 2006, Lychee Beer won over consumers with its elegant bouquet and drinkability, allowing other beers in North Taiwan Brewing's catalogue to piggyback on its success. Then, Tapas House in Guandu asked them to produce a beer for their exclusive use, Formosa Bird Beer. Only then were their dreams were finally vindicated and their fortunes reversed-they even found themselves able to hire two additional employees.

Challenging misconceptions

Unlike North Taiwan Brewing and a few other pioneering companies that have focused exclusively on beer production, Eddie Chang, president of Great Reliance Food and Beverage Co., Ltd. intended from the start to operate a restaurant that sold home-brewed beer.

Chang, now 44 years old, initially studied food and beverage management. He recalls that in 2000 when he chanced to overhear that the government was planning to lift the ban on private brewing, his immediate reaction was: "Now I can finally open a completely self-sufficient restaurant that prepares its own food and beverages!" Twenty years ago while studying in the US, he was blown away by the sight of a restaurant that served its own in-house brew-"Man, that was cool!" With the ability to realize his dream now an honest-to-goodness possibility, he bade a gleeful farewell to his gig as a restaurant manager, and with a little bit of financial support from his family, headed abroad again, this time to learn the brewer's art. Returning to Taiwan a year later with a professional brewer's certificate in hand (incidentally, he was the first Taiwanese so credentialed), he poured NT$10 million into purchasing brewing equipment necessary to launch his brewery and restaurant.

Chang opened the Jolly Brewery and Restaurant in September 2003 featuring three of his own signature beers to complement the Thai cuisine. He's since opened a second restaurant and expanded his beer repertoire to six unique-tasting drafts. His restaurants even stage daily beer drinking contests.

Chang explains that the certificate program teachers emphasized understanding the principles of control and balance of elements rather than delivering dry recitations of specific formulae for various types of beer to be memorized and then slavishly copied. The advantage of a more intuitive approach was that it equipped students with the knowhow to read about a beer or taste it at a brewery and be able to extrapolate the method used to create a classic taste, and to take things a step further by enriching it with their own creative flourishes.

For example, the beer formally termed "stout" is a dark barley beer of British origin that highlights the interplay between bitterness and sweetness. The reason for this is that the two principal ingredients, black malt and caramel malt, after undergoing roasting impart a coffee-like bitterness and chocolatey sweetness respectively. But Chang supplied a personal twist, adding cane sugar to heighten the sweetness, thus creating a fragrant beer with a distinctly local tinge that has delighted more than a few gourmands.

Chang sighs sympathetically when discussing the travails of others in the industry. The challenge facing all small-scale artisan breweries is that "for years consumers have only had access to only one basic flavor." Moreover, regardless of whether it is Taiwan Beer or popular imports, the big companies have succeeded in brainwashing consumers into "accepting the image of beer as a smooth, refreshing, thirst-quenching party drink." They lack the resources to explore beer's subtler side, which is why he decided to open up a restaurant: that way he could interact directly with customers. Over time he's been pleased to note a growing number of his patrons taking a decidedly epicurean pleasure in beer drinking that differs entirely from the gaudy revelry invoked by advertisers.

Looking down the road, he hopes that the government will relax some of the existing regulations a bit so that a "restaurant and brewery" can be just what the name suggests: a restaurant that brews its own beer onsite. Current law requires that beer be prepared in industrial zones, away from the commercial districts where restaurants are located; foreign countries, on the other hand, include brewing equipment in the culinary category. Chang's "wish list" right now as he prepares to release his most recent concoction, a Belgian-style "Witbier" (extremely difficult to brew since it uses 40% raw wheat, producing a viscous wort that is hard to filter), is to operate four different restaurants, so that he can have eight different beers to work with.

Study globally, drink locally

Restaurants that regale patrons with fine food and draft beer are multiplying with each passing year. A lot of these restaurants are foreign franchises, but not Le ble d'or, a Taiwanese-owned, Taiwanese-run restaurant brand that boasts the most outlets. They also are the only Taiwanese brewery to invest in the prohibitive equipment required to bottle draft beer.

In 2002, Quentin Yeh, aged only 23 at the time, returned to Taiwan after completing a degree in vocal music at a Canadian university, forfeiting his Canadian immigration status as a result. He was excited by the economic possibilities of post-alcohol-monopoly Taiwan: "Beer drinking overseas is a pleasurable pastime, but also one that retains elements of art and refinement. I saw no reason why the same thing couldn't be accomplished here in Taiwan," he says.

Fortunately for Yeh, his benefactors were close at hand: his father, Yeh Rongfa, and his mother, Lin Shunrui, a clothing designer. Although he had grown up overseas independently-a "parachute kid"-today his parents are actively involved in his business success, helping him develop market strategy, craft a brand image, design his office-his father even periodically engages in teleconferences with company officials. So great is their involvement that Yeh jokes that he and his parents have never been closer.

Yeh has invested himself wholly into his role as brewer-in-chief, making numerous short-term enrollments at brewing academies in Canada and visiting beer-making facilities around the world. After extensive research and experimentation he has produced three beers of which he is immensely proud.

Bottling freshness

However, those seeking to retail "draft" beer face challenges in both quality control and bottling that are far stiffer than those faced by beer restaurants.

In bottling and preparing their draft beer, which is both unfiltered and non-pasteurized, Le ble d'or has to master a raft of technical considerations. The brewing facilities and equipment have to be meticulously sterilized to prevent the contamination of the liquid, and the beer itself has to be maintained at 5oC throughout delivery. They commissioned Taiwan Glass Co. to custom-design a bottle for them with a German-style ceramic cap and a special insulative carrying sleeve. At the beginning of this year, they spent a small fortune to update their testing instruments to allow them to improve both the quality and the speed of production in one stroke. When all was said and done, these modifications extended the "best by" date from seven all the way to 18 days.

Le ble d'or has gone from being a four-man operation producing five metric tons monthly to a medium-sized enterprise with more than 20 employees whose output now tips the scales at 25 metric tons, growth by a factor of five. Of all the domestic breweries, it now ranks behind only Taiwan Beer and Tsingtao Beer in operational scale.

Quentin Yeh has set his sights on establishing a brewery 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 lends weight and credibility to his plans to start brewing in Japan someday.

In terms of the propagation of beer culture, these intrepid small breweries resemble less competitors in a free market than fellow proponents of the same gospel.

For example, they constantly strive to elevate consumers' appreciation and understanding of artisan beer; their catalogues typically contain extensive information on the history of beer making as an art. North Taiwan Brewing's Wen Liguo has published a blog for years in which he presides over a discussion forum for his fellow beer enthusiasts. In 2008 at the behest of a Danish arts organization, he hosted an "open beer" event at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum Biennial modeled on the software industry's open source code movement, in which participants were encouraged to copy or make improvements upon brewing methods made available to them. Similarly, Le ble d'or has invited wine guru Wang Peng to host a "crossover" beer event scheduled later this year in September, in which he will instruct participants in the finer points of everything from pouring, viewing, smelling, and tasting, helping them to grasp beer's defining characteristics and even illuminating the vocabulary of techniques used to craft the different flavors.

Though not professionally involved in the trade, economics professor and beer lover Kenneth S. Lin has long observed the relevant trends and developments. He notes that in the last 10 years the number of students who flock overseas to study in Europe and the UK has swelled, allowing many to be smitten by the allure of traditional European craft beers. Upon returning home, it is only natural that they take an interest in imported European beers and support the creation of freshly brewed beers.

"Only an affluent, liberal society can nurture forth the creativity and adventurous spirit required of both the master brewer and the individuals who derive pleasure from his work," comments Lin.

Next time you have a hankering for beer, remember that with today's flourishing craft beer industry, you can afford to take your time and avail yourself of all the options!

 
 
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