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?

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 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.