Expat Hipsters Are Taking Over Taiwan’s Craft Beer Scene
I came to Taiwan to brew my craft beers with locals, but I was blown away by the amount of expat hipsters—the driving force behind Taipei’s craft beer scene.
Welcome back to our new column, Nomadic Brews, from gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin Brewery. Every month, we'll check in with Jeppe and publish his dispatches from his travels around the world, as he brews in places like Mexico, Taiwan, and Brazil.
There's that famous slogan, "Made in Taiwan," which was big in the 1980s and 1990s, when everything was manufactured in Taiwan. Today, the country doesn't produce as much of a global output like it used to. I work with a small craft beer importer in Taiwan called Bierwest, a company run by two Canadian guys, Shawn and Tristan. They also run a beer store and bar in Taipei, and were the first ones to put the young, emerging Taiwanese beer scene on my radar.
That's the thing, though: Expat hipsters are the driving force behind Taipei's craft beer scene. Picture a bunch of little coffee shops and boutiques scattered around up-and-coming neighborhoods, and it's like any other hipster hub in the world. You'll find Americans, Canadians, and Europeans at any local dive bars around here with smart haircuts and plaid shirts. I think they're all here because it's very easy to affordably live well. I haven't seen too many Taiwanese hipsters, though. It's a beautiful country, for one, and a promising place for entrepreneurs. Almost anyone can set up a business.
I'm here to brew beers and establish an Evil Twin Taiwan branch of my company.
My main goal: to create three different beers in five days. Sean and Tristan have access to a brewery about an hour and a half outside of Taipei, so I said yes without any hesitation. Taiwan is literally on the opposite side of the world. I left Brooklyn on Tuesday at noon and arrived Wednesday late at night. I was totally fucked. There's a 12-hour difference, but then you're also passing an entire time zone. Wait, did I arrive Thursday night? I don't know. I missed a whole day of my life. I even tried to stay awake on the 18-hour flight over here.
On my first night, I walked into a craft beer bar that was filled with foreigners, which felt strange. I couldn't help but wonder, Why hasn't the craft beer scene caught on with the Taiwanese people? I met a guy at the bar who had been on his way to visit Japan, and decided to stop in Taipei on a whim for a couple of days. He's been living here for 12 years now.
But I've very quickly fallen in love with this place; it's a perfect mixture between China and Japan. It's very clean and has a Japanese sensibility mixed with the edginess of China. And it doesn't hurt that Taipei has the bustling business of China and incredible street food, either. They don't just have one night market—it feels like there's billions.
Taiwanese people are obsessed with fresh beer, the kind you're drinking right after brewing. It's a signature part of Taiwanese drinking culture. Taiwan Beer, the biggest brand in the country, recently made a beer called 16 Days, because you have to drink it within that time frame. In any local bar here, you'll find cheap, refreshing lagers.
But I'm here to make something for the craft market, and the hipsters are the first group I have to win over.
I used to have a beer shop in Copenhagen that was located on the hippest street in all of Denmark. When I started my beer company, I wanted to offer something that was more accessible to a larger audience, but still well-brewed and flavorful, because we tend to make crazy flavors. Hipsters are known for drinking really shitty beers in cans, so I wanted to make fun of that whole thing while creating a trendy beer (in a can) that was easy to drink, but had lots of flavor. In making it, I understood that some hipsters would turn away from it because they couldn't see the irony, and some would find it fun, too. We first made it in Copenhagen four years ago, and then my international importers started calling. Now, we've got hipster brews for Södermalm (in Stockholm), Grünerløkka (in Oslo), El Raval (in Barcelona), Trastevere (in Rome), Shoreditch (in London), Williamsburg (in Brooklyn), and the Mission (in San Francisco). Now we make a global hipster ale for people worldwide.
Since I was visiting Taipei's hipster neighborhood, I figured, It's about time that Taiwan hipsters get their own beer.
I also quickly learned that Taiwanese people are very patriotic. My importer Shawn mentioned that if you label anything "Taiwan" it's a huge hit, so we also decided to create an IPA called "Made in Taiwan." The hipster beer needed company. I was told that people have started making IPAs around here, but no one's created a true American style yet. They tend to be really toned down, super malty, and that isn't what an IPA should be, if you ask me. I wanted to make something that was right in your face, challenging people to show that you can actually take the next step. So we made a very hoppy IPA, around 70 IBUs, which has never been done in Taiwan before. Or so I was told.
Shawn and Tristan had also been trying to obtain one of my beers, "The Cowboy," a smoked pilsner, but we didn't have it in stock, so why not make it in Taiwan? Szechuan peppercorns are just the thing to give it a unique Taiwanese twist to make it the Taiwanese Cowboy. Smoked pilsners are like a basic pilsner with smoked malt. The motherland of all smoked beers is Bamberg, a small village in Germany where they started the whole "smoked beer" thing. That's where I got the inspiration when I made The Cowboy. All you have to do is smoke malt over a fire, and then add it to your beer to give it subtle flavoring. It breaks up the sweetness.
Sounds simple enough.
There was just one problem: No one uses smoked malts in Taiwan. It's an island where you're far away from everything. It's difficult to get ingredients, especially fresh ones. So why import it? We needed about 85 kilos of smoked malt. Shawn had to call every brewer he knew across Taiwan, but he could only obtain 15 kilos for us. We ended up importing the rest from China. It's a challenge and a privilege that you take for granted in the States, where all the ingredients you need are right at your fingertips.
We're only brewing for three days, and all of the recipes have been communicated to the brewery workers over email before I got here. I've been impressed by their formal approach to working. They move like robots. When I tell them to do something, they do it to perfection. Shawn translated the recipes for them in advance, but they've had a really difficult time reading them. They didn't understand because they had never seen recipes like these before. How are they supposed to know what to do since they've never made, say, a Smoked Cowboy before?
We had a base malt that was around 80 percent of one of the beers, and they asked me, "Should we add one of the specialty malts, or one malt after the other, or as a blend?" They took it so seriously by bringing out a scale, weighing everything, and then taking this bag out and placing two spoons of the other malt in each bag. It showed me how inexperienced they are, and how much they wanted to please someone.
It's been challenging to work with a brewery that has a totally different alphabet, where the workers speak very little English, all the while operating on severe jetlag, hot conditions, and language barriers. But this is the kind of difficulty that I love, and the same reason why I continue to gypsy brew around the world. Every experience is never the same. And Shawn and Tristan were great helpers.
I've read about pepper buns, breaded buns that are stuffed with minced meat and a shitload of black pepper inside. They get baked inside traditional round ovens in Taipei's street markets. The buns are practically an institution here. There was one stall at the night market that had a really long line, so I knew that was the one I should visit. When I bit into the piping hot bun—it nearly seared my mouth off—and I finally understood the whole connection to our smoked pilsner, The Cowboy. The bun was incredibly peppery and spicy from baking that rustic stone oven. It gave it a lovely smoky, burnt flavor.
When I recovered from the initial burning sensation on my lips, I wished that The Taiwanese Cowboy was ready to drink right now.