Taiwan may be steeped in award-winning tea plantations, but a local brewery says it wants to make the island the craft beer capital of Asia.
Taihu Brewing, on the heels of its tenth month of infancy, is trying to evangelize craft beer in Taiwan—one temperature-controlled glass at a time.
"The goal for us was to fill a void," said Peter Huang, Taihu's president. "We all love craft beer. The problem is you can't find any here, and if you do it's either very expensive or mistreated—or both."
Craft brewers in Europe, Japan, and the US are usually not willing to send their beer to Asia because of challenges like cost and quality control, Huang added.
The Taiwanese craft brewing community is strong, but it's young, niche, and dominated by home brewers. After Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2002, the alcohol industry finally opened up to the public. The long-standing government monopoly meant that there was only one brand of lager: the Taiwan Beer. Produced by the Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Corporation, the blue striped aluminum cans are iconic. They're almost as representative as the famous lanbaituo —blue and white plastic slippers that have solidified themselves as a symbol of Taiwan's cultural identity.
Taiwanese people traditionally consume beer at stir-fry restaurants with a ganbei— bottoms up—mentality. Happy hour is usually spent with coworkers at these restaurants, where short glasses cloaked in condensation joyfully clink together in celebration. Bars for the sole purpose of drinking are few and far between for this food-obsessed nation.
To court its customers and grasp the preferences of the local market, Taihu made its first impression with a retail space.
Elevating beer in the customer's mind meant creating a place where beer is served at its best quality, Huang said.
Taihu's first retail location is unassumingly smack-dab in Taipei's popular Eastern District. Named Chuo Yin Shi, which directly translates to "sipping room," the taproom has no sign and intentionally no English name. With only a name in Chinese characters to entice the local market, Taihu has been very successful at introducing craft beer from all over the world to Taiwanese customers.
"When you do everything the right way, which isn't that much more expensive, people seem to connect with it," said Taihu CFO Robert Babbage.
Peering through the front glass entrance, the taproom is unmistakably manifested from a modern lumberjack's Pinterest board. Reclaimed wood, that was once onerous to find in Taiwan, wraps around the back wall.
Without a doubt, the focal point of the shop is the custom-built stainless steel tap wall that always has 20 beers on tap. The overhead chalkboard menu changes weekly.
Peppered with a few bar stools, Chuo Yin Shi's long wooden communal tables encourage patrons to stand while drinking, a foreign concept in Taiwan. Adjacent to the restroom, a wooden shelving unit catalogues a small craft-brewing library.
Taihu's bossy inclination guarantees that it is in control of how the beer is stored, shipped in, and served. Its "beermeliers" are subjected to beer class, with partners making workshops frequent and mandatory.
"We wanted to make sure we had a platform we could introduce the product to the customer in the way we wanted it to be presented," said Duke Wu, one of Taihu's partners.
Taihu's name can be broken down into two parts: "Tai" from Taiwan and "hu" from the Mandarin pronunciation of tiger. The brand's logo is a tiger under a canopy of hops, sauntering forward inside a gourd. It takes inspiration from the big cat in the Republic of Formosa's flag—a short-lived flag that was in use before the Japanese rule.
Retail, distribution, and brewing make up Taihu's three-tier business model. Even with a trident approach, Taihu's main focus is to create supply, with brewing being the core project.
And it's ready to open the floodgates of craft beer heaven to abundantly flood Asia's thirsty valleys.
With two breweries under construction, Taihu's blueprint for brewing is aggressive and methodical. Unlike brewpubs that lack distribution, Taihu wants all of Asia to be drinking Taihu beer.
"The brewery is an attempt to bring the best in quality production to Asia—all of Asia, outside of Japan," Huang said.
Japan has been a leader in the industry, setting the bar with its history of technically sophisticated craft brewing. Even so, Taihu's goal is to put Taiwan on the map as Asia's craft beer capital.
What Taihu coins as "the incubator for brewers" is its state-of-the-art facility that will serve as a production and educational center for regional brewers to transition to commercial brewing.
"Once the larger brewery is built, the entire landscape of craft brewing in Taiwan is going to change," said Wu. "We believe in it and that's why we're doing it."