Ice, Ice City: A Self-Guided Walk Through Historic Harbin by Thomas O'Malley

This is a version of a guided walk I wrote for the Lonely Planet 2019 Trans-Siberian Railway Guide (with pictures).

Start: Church of St Sophia
End: Stalin Park
Length: 3km; 2½ hours


The city of Harbin is a tourist hotspot in China’s far north thanks mostly to the Harbin Ice and Snow World, a neon-clad Narnia of frozen fairy-tale castles and ice slides that opens each winter. But the city is also famed for its early 20th century Russian architecture, marking the era when China permitted Russia to build a railway line through Manchuria to shorten journey times on the Trans-Siberian. Pockets of Harbin’s Russian heritage still endure, best enjoyed on foot during the city’s temperate summers, but wrap up warm and any season will do.

The sight of St Sophia, emerald domes soaring above malls and cookie-cutter sprawl, begs the question: What is a Russian church doing here? During the early 20th century, Harbin, a fishing community on the Songhua River, grew into a Russian city in all but name. Built in 1907 and expanded in 1932, St Sophia was the largest orthodox church in the far east, serving 100,000 Russian railway workers and settlers. By the 1980s, it was all but swallowed by encroaching buildings, and was used as a warehouse. Fortunately, private donations helped clear the the square and secure its protected status.


Inside, a secular photography exhibit introduces old Harbin. At its peak, Harbin was home to around 50 synagogues and churches, but most have been lost to development (and the rampaging Red Guards in the 1960s). Nowadays, gentrification is the latest threat, as this New York Times article attests.


Religious matter aside, old churches in China will always be popular with couples getting their wedding photos done. Here’s an idea – maybe the wedding photography industry can form an alliance with heritage conservationists?

From the front steps of the church, leave the square by its southwest corner and head west along Toulong Lu, crossing the old iron footbridge. Keep going until you hit the timeworn cobbles of Zhongyang Dajie, and turn right.


Zhongyang Dajie (Central Avenue), formerly known as Kitayskaya Street (Kitayskaya means Chinese in Russian), is Harbin’s most famous thoroughfare, running northwards for a mile to the Songhua River. But to march up it ant-fashion, as most tourists do, can be an anticlimactic experience. Especially since the surviving baroque, eclectic and art-deco buildings today mostly shelter the likes of Zara and KFC.


Time travel requires a bit of imagination, so picture the scene: fur-clad shoppers stepping out of department stores into waiting automobiles, clerks hurrying between banks and insurance offices, and literati lounging in establishments like 58, formerly a Jewish restaurant (it’s now a Uniqlo).


Jewish bakeries, too, would have been a fixture along Zhongyang Dajie. This local business at no.45 comes close – it has a pre-prepared bagel sandwich, not to mention proper coffee and a second-floor terrace with delightful views over the cobbles.


Leaving the main street for a while, turn right down Dongfeng Jie one block to Tongjiang Jie. You can’t miss the 7 Days Inn chain hotel - it’s the historic building dressed-up like a circus tent in the brand’s gaudy livery. From the front steps, you can gaze across Tongjiang Jie at the stately Jewish Main Synagogue and Middle School.


In the 1920s Harbin was home to around 20,000 Jews, and this street was the centre of Jewish life in the city. The synagogue here housed a youth hostel until recently, but was restored at considerable expense and converted into a delightful concert hall staging classical string performances. The Jewish Middle School next door is now a private music academy. The staff are happy for visitors to poke around inside.


If time permits, walk south 500m to another synagogue housing a fantastic exhibit on Jewish Harbin. Otherwise, continue north along Tongjiang Jie and soon you’ll pass the splendid Turkish Mosque. Sadly, it’s closed for visitors, but you can admire it from the outside.


From here, wheel around and take Hongzhuan Jie back towards the main street. The building at no. 45 is a former Jewish hospital. If the door’s open, you can go through to ogle the old red-brick courtyard in the back. Just inside the entrance is the excellent Luyu Coffee, worth a pit-stop for its original windows, lofty ceilings, and artistically crowned cappuccinos.


Heading back towards Zhongyang Dajie, you’ll see this novel attempt at heritage preservation at no.10. Inside is a swish Cantonese restaurant.


Back on Zhongyang Dajie, glance at the grand old Modern Hotel at no. 89 (dusty memorabilia is on display in the ground-floor bar), then skip across to no. 120, noting the bare-breasted statues topping the Romanesque entrance columns as you enter. This former Japanese company is now the Harbin Tourist Center. Climb the staircase and hurry through the awful digital exhibit, then sneak out through a side door into an antique stairway with slam-door elevator shaft.

The interiors here are joyously original, and home to a few shops and offices, so you’re free to wander about. Heading up to the third floor reveals a silk boutique with restored interior…


…And lovely views on to Zhongyang Dajie form a little balcony.


Back down on the street, next door to a shop selling Harbin sausages, is no. 129, a tiny Russian store – more of a hallway – with a preserved interior. It hawks Russian bread, knick-knacks and chocolate. Continue walking north until you cross Xitou Dajie. A little way east along this intersecting street is the delightful, not-to-be-missed Russia Coffee & Food.


A time warp of a place, this restaurant is decked out with the worldly effects of Nina, a Harbin resident from 1911 to her death in 2001. Everything from her piano to silverware, tea-sets and grandfather clock is on display, including a series of portraits and photographs. The café owner purchased her estate when she died, and elected to put them on display. And we can be thankful for it. Have a tea (or vodka) here by all means, but the Russian food, including borscht and piroshky, is underwhelming.

Leaving the restaurant and continuing north, take the underpass beneath Youyi Jie (pausing briefly to glance eastward at the old tram station topped by a clock tower). Continue on pass Harbin’s Flood Control Monument to the south bank of the Songhua River.


From here you can sink a Harbin beer or three at one of the tents either side of the Flood Control Monument, before promenading westward through Stalin Park, named in 1953 to celebrate Sino-Soviet camaraderie. Look out for a few old wooden restaurants from the Manchukuo period. If you’re got the energy, catch a ferry (or cable car) across the water to Sun Island.

And, after all that, if you still want snow and ice, grab a cab to the 2017’s Harbin Indoor Ski Resort, the world’s biggest, kept at a balmy -2 degrees’ Celsius year round.

Baijiu’s Journey to the West by Thomas O'Malley

This article first appeared in Discovery, the inflight mag of Cathay Pacific.


Is China’s firewater about to break into the global mainstream?

In the grey-brick alleyways of old Beijing, there’s a buzzing little joint that fuses Western bar culture with Chinese booze. Capital Spirits specializes in tasting flights of baijiu, the national spirit of China that’s as old as Kublai Khan with a kick like an angry camel.

Often described in the Western media as the world’s most-drunk spirit you’ve never heard of, baijiu is similar in potency to whisky, usually distilled from sorghum, a cereal grain, and a bottle costs from a few bucks to the price of an iPhone or three. Traditionally paired with food, baijiu is the toast of Chinese banquets and business dinners, knocked back neat in thimble-sized glasses. It tastes … well, tasting notes are nothing if not contradictory: pineapple, cheese, soy sauce, liquorice, anise, mushroom, gasoline, old socks. Confused?

It’s an understatement to say that complexity is written into the DNA of baijiu. Unlike most spirits which are distilled from liquid, crafting baijiu is a process more akin to making cheese or sourdough bread than booze. At baijiu distilleries, a solid ‘mash’ of grains and starter is left to ferment in pits – sometimes for many months – absorbing layers of flavor-packed bacteria before being distilled and then aged in terracotta jars. Some baijiu producers, notably Luzhou Laojiao from Southern Sichuan, have been using the same funky mud pits for centuries, while also recycling part of the old mash with every new batch (known, poetically, as “1000-year pit, 10,000-year mash”).

Luzhou Laojiao, it’s worth noting, is just one of four ‘aroma’ categories of baijiu, which can subdivide even further. The notion that there is a common baijiu flavor is a misconception that irks non-Chinese advocates like American Bill Isler. “Comparing two styles of baijiu isn’t like comparing bourbon to scotch, but rather comparing bourbon to mezcal,” says Isler, CEO of Ming River, a new brand targeted at the global bar market. Depending on whether it’s a ‘strong’, ‘light’, ‘sauce’ or ‘rice’ aroma baijiu, flavors can range from toasty rice to overripe tropical fruit to caramelized shitake mushrooms.


Isler’s journey as a professional baijiu pusher began in 2014 as the co-founder of the aforementioned Capital Spirits. Beneath the worn beams and flickering Edison bulbs of the ‘world’s first baijiu bar’, his cocktails and mixed-aroma tasting flights came with a side of schooling on the oft-misunderstood spirit. The bar earned a diverse clientele, from curious expats to hipster locals. What was more surprising, according to current manager (and Isler’s cousin) David Putney, was that bigwigs from major Chinese baijiu companies were also dropping in to see how this upstart bar was successfully promoting their antiquated booze to a young, global audience.

For a bit of context, this played out not long after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on lavish spending among officials, which meant that baijiu suddenly lost its best customer – the government. Prices plummeted, and baijiu brands were forced to tweak their lines and broaden their appeal. It worked – Guizhou province’s Moutai, the official baijiu of state banquets, became the world’s most valuable spirits brand in 2017. (Out of the top five the only non-baijiu is Johnnie Walker whisky at four, one spot above Luzhou Laojiao.) Meanwhile, young Chinese drinkers, for whom baijiu had been the uncool tipple of officialdom, started getting turned on to new brands like Chongqing’s Jiangxiaobai, which sponsors rock festivals, has savvy styling, and is lower in alcohol (and cost) than traditional varieties. 

But the question of whether China’s favorite tipple can become more than an exotic curiosity in bars overseas is a tricky one. In “Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits”, American author Derek Sandhaus suggests that, “a good cocktail may be the perfect delivery system for taking baijiu from Chinese restaurants into the bars and clubs of the world.” The rise in the West of other once ‘alien’ spirits backs up this theory. Vodka was Commie rotgut until the Moscow Mule, and later, James Bond’s vodka martini (shaken, not stirred). Tequila, likewise, was propelled to stardom via the Margarita - but let’s not mention those tequila shots.

One barrier to concocting baijiu’s ‘Moutai Mule’, as one article neatly put it, might well be its variety. Since each style of baijiu is so different, there can be no one-size-fits-all cocktail, although new brands like Isler’s Ming River have been blended under the tutelage of New York bartenders for increased cocktail compatibility. But there’s still baijiu’s inherent umami complexity to deal with, so only the most ambitious mixologists need apply. Mixologists like Phoebe Ling, a bartender from China’s Shanxi province who opened Shanghai’s Healer Bar in 2016, pouring joyfully experimental cocktails that celebrate baijiu, Chinese huangjiu (a sake-like rice wine) and traditional liquor infused with medicinal herbs. Unsurprisingly, big brands are lining up to work with Ling, who has performed at events across the country. “Baijiu can make good cocktails if we understand its aroma like we do the botanicals in gin and the esters in rum,” says Ling, “but I think more time is needed for bartenders to really get to know its unique qualities”.

So when can you expect to see a bottle of baijiu on the back shelf of your local bar? “Within five years, baijiu will reach the sort of level where mezcal is now,” reckons Putney of Capital Spirits, referring to tequila’s smokier cousin currently having its time in the sun. But whether that growth can stick around for the long term, he is less sure. “Will baijiu be accepted as a spirit of the world in the same way as whisky and tequila, or will it mostly be consumed in restaurants, like sake? That’s the question.”

By some measures, though, the revolution is already underway. “Baijiu-focused bars have opened in places as far away as New York, Liverpool, Stockholm, and Buenos Aires,” notes Isler, who reckons that baijiu is a natural fit for this new era of craft appreciation and connoisseurship. “Bartenders around the world are always looking for something new and different in flavor and aroma that has a compelling cultural heritage along with a handcrafted production method,” says Isler. “Baijiu delivers on all fronts.”

 3 Baijiu cocktails

 Name: Mandarin
Where: Healer, Shanghai
Chinese kumiss (fermented mare’s milk), baijiu, Campari, rice wine.

 Name: The Paper Crane
Where: Capital Spirits, Beijing
Mix equal parts Luzhou LaoJiao baijiu, Amaro Montenegro, Aperol and lemon juice. Shake well over ice and double strain over a large ice cube.

 Name: Monkey Writes a Poem
Where: Kings Co Imperial, New York
1.5 oz Ming River Baijiu, 0.75 oz Giffard Banane du Bresil, 0.5 oz Mattei Quinquina Blanc, and Orange Bitters. Stir; serve on large ice cube with star anise & orange twist.

Bill Isler’s baijiu aroma cocktail guide

 Light aroma Can play like a gin mixing with a broad array of brighter flavors like citrus. Includes Beijing’s famously potent Erguotou brand.

 Strong aroma Strong aroma baijius are more like a high ester rum and lend themselves to tiki-style drinks. Includes Luzhou Laojiao and Ming River.

 Rice aroma Made from rice rather than sorghum, these have a vodka quality but their delicate flavor is easily overpowered. Includes Guilin Sanhua.

 Sauce aroma With its umami saltiness, sauce aroma baijius have nothing analogous in the western tradition. They add an interesting savory edge to a Bloody Mary. Includes Moutai.

Hotel review: Shanghai EDITION by Thomas O'Malley

A short review of the new Shanghai EDITION hotel for Lonely Planet.

The new Shanghai heritage hotel that rocks its own nightclub


When a luxury hotel comes along with its own nightclub pre-installed, take it as evidence of Shanghai’s re-emergence as Asia’s glam party capital. In the decadent 1930s there were up to 200 ballrooms and clubs dancing until dawn in Shanghai, many in hotels. Paul French, author of Shanghai true crime novel City of Devils notes that, “Most famous perhaps was the Tower Nightclub, in the tower of the Cathay Hotel – a very cool, swank spot indeed.”

Several decades and revolutions later, The Shanghai EDITION arrives, appropriately, in its own Art Deco 1930s building, formerly the Shanghai Power Company, a few doors up from the Cathay (today the Fairmont Peace Hotel) on central Nanjing Lu. The hotel is the seventh to open under the new EDITION hotel brand, an ultra-luxe cooperation with Marriott. The Shanghai EDITION has 145 rooms, on-trend restaurants, rooftop bars, pool, spa and gym, and the aforementioned nightclub, Electric Circus. Unlike Shanghai in the 1930s, however, this club has an extra swagger straight out of midtown Manhattan, circa 1977.

Namely, the stamp of celebrity hotelier Ian Schrager, EDITION’s founder and the person generally associated with creating the boutique hotel concept in the 1980s. But Schrager is perhaps more famous as the founder of New York’s now legendary A-list nightclub, Studio 54, one-time disco-driven haunt of Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and even a youthful Donald Trump.

View from the rooftop bar.

View from the rooftop bar.

“A hotel should fit into and reflect its surroundings,” said Schrager at the hotel’s opening in October 2018, “and so that's what we’ve done with The Shanghai EDITION, by making it a place to party with great nightlife and great dining – a reflection of what Shanghai itself is known for.”

The hotel’s dining is championed by Michelin-starred British chef Jason Atherton, who puts his name to Shanghai Tavern, a brasserie inspired by his own Berners Tavern in the London EDITION, serving luxe takes on comfort food like mac and cheese and retro ‘Flaming Alaska’ for dessert. Above, HIYA is Atherton’s 27th floor Japanese izakaya with a fusion twist, highball cocktails and views over the top of the historic Bund to the space-age Pudong skyline beyond. 

Meanwhile, Canton Disco (not a nightclub) serves playful Cantonese fare lifted from the menu of the much-lauded Ho Lee Fook restaurant in Hong Kong’s Central district - dishes like their ‘prawn toast’ tower that riffs on Japanese okonomiyaki, and wagyu beef short ribs. And there’s not one but four bars, the pick of which, ROOF, has live DJs and some of the best open-air views in the city.

EDITION’s drinking, dining and dancing takes place in the original six-floor Art Deco building, designed by an American architect in 1931. Guest rooms, however, are located out of earshot in an attached high-rise, built in the 1980s and renovated for the hotel. White and black marble bathrooms boast tubs with a view, while the guestroom TVs default to a channel that plays surreal visual art animations.

2018 looks to be a landmark year for EDITION, a brand that has over a dozen more openings in the pipeline, to bolster its repertoire of hotels that includes New York, London, Miami, Sanya, Barcelona and Bodrum.


A stroll along Wudaoying Hutong by Thomas O'Malley


A quick piece I wrote for the Ritz-Carlton’s JOURNEY magazine, part of their ‘Great Streets’ series. View original here.

A stroll along this gentrifying Beijing lane reveals the many faces of China’s historic yet swiftly modernising capital.

‘Hutong’, the grey-brick lanes that pattern central Beijing, were once home to Imperial elites living it up in quadrangle mansions designed according to feng shui. Today, after decades of decline, these chequerboard alleys are in the push and pull of gentrification. Wudaoying, bookended between the magnificent Lama Temple and the now vanished Andingmen, a gate in Beijing’s Ming-era city wall, is the city’s most enticing example of a revived commercial hutong.

Yi Zhuo (84 Wudaoying Hutong), a purveyor of delicate porcelain tea ware and ornaments, has a tranquil, white-walled teahouse attached. If coffee is your preferred caffeine-hit, Metal Hands (65 Wudaoying Hutong), founded on the alley, is one of Beijing’s finest third wave coffee roasters, with perfect pour-overs and dreamy cheesecake. Or for a more potent pick-me-up, Panda Brew (61 Wudaoying Hutong), an all-Chinese craft brewer, entices with its locally-inspired ales paired with pizza.

Plastered 8 (60 Wudaoying Hutong) is famed for clothing designs that subvert Beijing iconography – everything from retro road signs to Peking opera. Playful souvenirs abound here, including cans of ‘Beijing Air’ to take home. A more refined apparel experience, Na Qu Boutique (59 Wudaoying Hutong), crafts womenswear that, while contemporary, draws upon the golden age of Shanghai style using elements of the qipao, a one-piece Chinese dress dating back to the 17th century. If it’s actual vintage you’re seeking, Wudaoying is known for its many retro clothing and objects d’art emporiums. Delia (52 Wudaoying Hutong) is a treasure trove of 1970s Chinese clocks, Chairman Mao busts and pictures alongside used Gucci dresses and handbags.

There are many spots to eat along the lane, but one of the most atmospheric is Sixi Xiaopang (29 Wudaoying Hutong) which opens into a leafy courtyard serving traditional Beijing hot pot, a meal where diners scald wafer-thin sliced mutton and beef, together with raw vegetables and tofu, into cauldrons of bubbling soup. Vegetarians, on the other hand, won’t want to miss King’s Joy (2 Wudaoying Hutong), serving beautifully presented dishes in a plant-strewn, light-filled space. The food, inspired by Buddhism, imitates meat using mushrooms, wheat gluten and other healthful fare. From the restaurant you can observe the graceful arched roofs of the Lama Temple (12 Yonghegong Dajie), Beijing’s most resplendent religious site, beckoning you into its incense-infused folds.

Taipei's Best Craft Beer by Thomas O'Malley

Zhangmen beer taipei

The Taps Run in Taipei

Writer Tom O’Malley travels to Taipei to drink in the city’s emerging craft beer trends.

This article on the craft beer scene in Taipei appeared in the April 2018 edition of Hong Airlines mag. Read the original (with much nicer photos) here. 

The word ‘revolution’ often gets misused by journalists, but I’m going to risk it anyway: there’s a beer revolution in Taipei. I’m in Zhangmen, a brewpub that sits just off touristy Yongkang Street, scratching my head at a chalkboard scrawled with over 20 beers, including hammer-blow styles like Imperials and barley wines. I sample their latest, ‘Zhangmen Peated Beer’ – a smoked beer made with peated malts that proves a little too out there for my tastes, instead settling on ‘Good Kumquat’, a mouth-watering, delicately sour fruit beer made with local kumquats.

One of Taipei’s new wave of craft breweries, Zhangmen opened in 2015 and already claims ten locations around town. Last year they expanded to Hong Kong. It’s a remarkable story of growth, and one shared by other trailblazing Taipei beer brands like Taihu, which started in 2013 and now has six outlets, including a vintage airstream trailer. Their latest downtown taproom is Driftwood, a place so high-concept it barely registers as a brewpub. I drink a crisp Taihu IPA watching millennials under straw canopies at raw wood bench tables, one of which is as big as a boat and has an open flame dancing from it. It’s all absurdly stylish, looking something like a Great Gatsby shindig on Treasure Island.

Next on the list (OK, let’s say crawl) is Sunmai, a gleaming brewpub barely two months old. It’s another impeccably designed Taipei joint, rocking a sort of Scandi minimalist vibe, but unlike Zhangmen and Taihu, Sunmai are old hands. The company has been in the beer game since the Taiwan government first liberalised brewing laws around 2002, the year Taiwan joined the WTO and was required to break-up its industry monopolies. Private breweries were legal in Taipei for the very first time.

“We started life in 2004 as Le Ble D’or, back when there was only Taiwan Beer and Heineken, so we were something new,” explains founder Quentin Yeh, recalling Taiwan’s beer awakening, its first wave. Yeh has the bulky build and cropped hair of hired muscle, but he’s as sweet as the Taiwanese Longan honey in their flagship (and World Beer Cup winning) Honey Lager. Le Ble D’or, I’d discovered on a previous visit, is one of the most sensationally bizarre going-out experiences you can imagine. Essentially a hybridised American Brauhaus restaurant (with a daft French name) that brews its own German-style beers, they have several gargantuan locations in Taipei and mainland China, the largest of which can seat a staggering 900 customers at a time.

“The drinking culture in Taipei was always drinking with food,” says Yeh. “Traditionally people would go to a re chao – a kind of diner where all the dishes are the same price – after work to eat and drink beer. So when we opened our first Le Ble D’or location, we figured that we needed to make it a restaurant as the best way to promote our beer. People came to eat, and then secondly, they would try our beer.”

Sunmei, Quentin reveals, is the natural next step after Le Ble D’or, a more stylish, global craft beer brand for a rapidly maturing, more internationally-minded market. “Unlike Le Ble D’or, Sunmai is focusing more on the beer, on deep beer culture,” says Quentin. “Now we want to do local ingredients, local culture, and promote Taiwan to Asia.”

On Yeh’s recommendation, I go for a Burning Temple Smoke Beer from their ‘Asian Creation Series’, a range where they try to seek out new, locally-inspired ingredients and recipes. “People think we add smoke, but actually we use a kind of Taiwanese smoked plum called longyang, or ‘dragon-eye’.” This time the smoke notes are muted and it works delightfully.

Sunmai beer

“Now we want to do local ingredients, local culture, and promote Taiwan to Asia.”

Quentin Yeh, Sunmai.

The place, too, is packed with drinkers. Gone are the days when you needed to be a restaurant to get people to drink beer. Vive le revolution. One person who’s been watching the development of the scene closer than most is Mark Popplewell, a British national living in Taipei, craft beer expert and owner of the popular BeerGeek Micropub.

“Taiwan’s craft beer scene really started to get noticed a little over three years ago,” says Popplewell. “Many people got involved in craft beer because it was the latest trend, and quite a few entrepreneurs with small to huge budgets started to invest in beer-only bars, and from that started to offer their own unique beers.”

All this activity begs the question: is this revolution sustainable? “In my time in the industry I’ve have seen big ups, and some downs,” admits Popplewell. “Brands came and went, bars opened and closed within months, but now I feel we’ve got some stability and calmness in the market.” Popplewell reckons that genuine passion for beer culture is key if you want to succeed in Taipei. “There’s a lot to be said for experience and passion within an industry, and these people continue to stick around. Everyone is still learning, adapting and improving – it’s an evolving industry. 

Passion is exemplified by another local brand doing things a little differently – Jim & Dad’s, based not in Taipei but in Yilan County, a couple of hours southeast by car, through a series of seemingly never-ending mountain tunnels. The longest, the snow mountain tunnel, so named for the Hsuehshan range it passes beneath, is a whopping 13km of hypnotic darkness.

But emerging through the other side I’m greeted with jade rice terraces, low-rise development and a snoozy vibe a world away from the Taipei buzz. The old name of Yilan is Kavalan, which also happens to be the name of Taiwan’s much decorated whisky brand with its behemoth of a distillery here. But I’m heading just across the highway to another drinking pilgrimage site, the brewery of Jim & Dad’s. It being a few minutes after 11am, I order a tasting flight, kicking off with a hangover-busting Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Red Ale, clocking in at around 12% abv. Next up is the beer I probably should have started with – Cold-brewed Coffee Amber, a coffee-infused brew made using a cold drip coffee machine. Does this count as breakfast?

“Most breweries build in Taipei or close by, but I wanted to be outside the city,” says Jim Sung, the brewery’s softly-spoken, youthful founder (along with his dad, hence the name). “People come here, they’re not working but on vacation, so when you show them something they’ve never had before, they want to learn more about it.”

Another new-wave craft beer newcomer like Zhangmen and Taihu, Jim & Dad’s opened in 2015 on what was formally an abandoned gravel plant. It’s now a tourist brewery kitted out with comfortable tasting room, garden and three-storey watchtower, offering brewery tours and a huge range of beers to drink in or take away. 

Although born and raised in Taiwan, Jim spent time in the U.S., including the Bay Area where he discovered Napa Valley, the inspiration for Jim & Dad’s. “I was really impressed with how you could drive to this scenic area that also had restaurants and drinking places where you can just chill for the day. Taiwan didn’t have anything like that.”

Beer number three (the last one, honest), is their Kumquat Wheat Ale, the fruit grown on Yilan farms a short distance from the brewery, claims Jim. “I guess we are probably the only brewery in Taiwan, or at least north Taiwan, that tries to identify very strongly with our brewery location.”

This connection with place and use of local ingredients has been vital in getting Taiwanese people to try craft beer in the first place, according to beer expert Popplewell. “For locals who may have never had a craft beer before, a familiar local ingredient on the bottle might just be the pull to get them to taste it.”

Breakfast is now long overdue, so Jim tips me off on a killer chicken joint nearby, something of a food pilgrimage for day-trippers. Thumbs Up Chicken is a raucous family restaurant where hundreds of birds are roasted daily in giant clay ovens, torn apart by gloves and gobbled up alongside mouth-watering stir-fries. The place is heaving with diners, and I notice that most people are supping down bottles of Taiwan Beer, Taipei’s crisp, flavourless state-owned brew. A reminder that, despite all this talk of revolution, craft beer still commands a tiny share of the overall market (less than 2%, according to a study by Euromonitor International). But, as Popplewell says, the typical Taiwan consumer knows a great deal more about craft beer than they did a few years ago.

“More and more Taiwanese are prepared to try new styles of beer, and their knowledge of what they like is increasing all the time,” says Popplewell. Likewise, when Taiwanese travel, according to Sung, it’s traditional to buy the products – be it fruit, meat or snacks – that a place is famous for. “We’re hoping that’s the same with our beers,” says Sung, “so when people come to Yilan they won’t go back to Taipei without a couple of Jim & Dad’s six packs in the car to share with friends.”

I’m not the only one, then. But who said anything about sharing?


 Extra bit… about Kavalan Whisky

It’s not all about the beer in Taiwan. The country’s first home grown whisky brand, Kavalan, has been a huge success since it was established in 2005. Its cavernous distillery opened to the public in 2008, and has become a mandatory stop for anyone passing through Yilan County. The self-guided tour (free) takes visitors through the site, explaining the distilling process before finishing in the gift shop, where you can pick up a discounted bottle of Solist Amontillado Sherry Single Cask Strength for about 90 USD, named ‘World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt Whisky’ at the 2016 World Whiskies Awards. If you’re lucky you might catch workers scorching oak barrels. But the highlight is the epic barrel warehouse itself, with towering stacks of booze stretching off into the distance.