Crafting Beer in Taiwan's Emerging Market

Taipei City, Taiwan

An interview with Winnie Hsu, Head Brewer of Taiwan's Taihu Brewery

Interviewed July 27, 2017
At Taihu Brewery - Taipei City

As the major metropolis of Taiwan, Taipei City is the cultural capital of the country. Quality, gourmet coffee shops are bountiful. Hip galleries showcasing modern and contemporary art are well curated. Boutique shops specializing in trendy products are stylish. And, the food scene, whether streetside or sit-in, is top-notch. The only misgiving is Taipei’s skyline has only one signature architectural highlight: the Taipei 101 building. But, that’s a minor complaint and compliment when the rest of Taipei is fascinating to visit.

Amongst all these modern and hip amenities that most Westerners can easily adapt to and are already familiar with, Taipei City is the place to be if searching for Taiwanese craft beer. Craft breweries are popping up throughout Taipei — albeit slowly — some by expats, some by locals, some professionally, some grassroots. But, there’s only a small handful of breweries that are brewing exceptionally well-made, quality beer in Taiwan. One of which is Taihu Brewing. We at THR spoke with Winnie Hsu, Head Brewer at Taihu Brewing about making beer that accommodates Taiwanese tastes and how working at a TGIF kickstarted her brewing career.

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What's the backstory on Taihu? How’d the brewery start?

We have five founders and they all met in Taiwan. Some of them are Taiwanese and Peter [Huang] and Rob [Babbage] are from the US. They all met in Taiwan and loved craft beer. Before they started Taihu, they were from different backgrounds and industries. So, when they formed the brewery, they realized craft beer in Taiwan was a new market and thought they could do something new and different here. But, before Taihu started brewing our own beer, we imported beer from Japan, the US, from different places to start serving at our bar.

And, what about this place? It looks like Taihu also has other locations?

The law in Taipei is we can't brew in the city. We have to brew somewhere else outside of the city limits. It has to be in the industrial area since Taipei has limited space. So this place is our brewery. We were lucky, when I was first searching for a place, this was our first find. Because we have to focus on loading, operations, etc., this place was perfect. It’s a well-organized industrial park. We've been here for two years but we opened this tasting room about a year ago. But we’re only open on Saturdays for the public and it’s more of a showroom and private event space. We also have three taprooms located in Taipei City and one in Taichung.

What craft beers were available in Taiwan when you started brewing?

Not much... there were maybe three breweries. I used to work at Gordon Biersch and when we first opened in Taipei, we had to teach customers that you don’t put ice in the beer [laughs]. But now in Taipei, it’s changing these past two years. It’s growing and people are having better taste experiences. They’re becoming more sensitive to good beer.

Before I joined Taihu, I was a customer. It was my favorite place. It was a small, standing-room only bar and they served International craft beers.

I always base recipes on the proper beer styles... that’s my brewing philosophy.

Tell us about the beer. How do you build beer recipes for Taihu?

Our brewing style focuses on proper beer styles from BJCP guidelines. But, normally, people ask me, “You brew in Taiwan, so do you brew with local ingredients?” And I tell them, yes. We've played with fruits and dried spices but I always base recipes on the proper beer styles because all the base beers are already excellent. We just build upon it. That's my brewing philosophy.

With the industry being so new here, getting your hands on certain ingredients has to be a challenge. Where are you sourcing from?

We use all imported yeast. I usually use yeast from White Labs and we also get special yeast from Germany and France. We have a full lab so we can propagate too.

For our malts, we use all common malts like most breweries have such as Briess and Bamberg. But we also use local barley from Taiwan. It’s a secret ingredient I use for our Bright Ale — it’s unmalted barley but it has a taste like cereal or a granola bar. In Taiwan, Barley Tea is a local drink, it’s everywhere and most of the barley comes from Central Taiwan. For Taiwanese locals, it’s a very familiar taste and smell. We moreso use this malt for aroma since its unmalted.

Our hops mostly come from Yakima Valley. We also distribute brands from the US: Coronado, Stone, Ballast Point, Modern Times, Founders, Sierra Nevada, etc. We have good relationships with these people so they sometimes help us purchase some goods — some items that can be expensive or hard to get.

We also have a barrel-aging program right now. We imported barrels from Kentucky because one of our owners is from there. They’re all Imperial Stouts and we just released 400 bottles for our anniversary.

So drinking a heavy, rich, imperial stout in hot, humid weather in Taiwan. How do you convince drinkers to drink it?

We make it taste really, really good [laughs]. We've won medals, one from a New York international beer competition and one from a Japanese international beer competition too.

In Taiwan, as you may know, it’s always hot. It might get a little cooler in January but it’s still very hot. But we do seasonals as well. Last year, I brewed a spiced Amber Ale with Christmas spices as well an Orange Porter. But, yeah, we make our beers taste really good.

What about your core beers?

We just got a new canning line installed. Our four core beers are being canned and starting to go into the market.

Our Kumquat Kolsch, I brewed with fresh whole Kumquats — not Kumquat juice. We froze the fruit first to prevent any wild unknowns and also I just wanted aroma from the peel not the juice. The juice is too sour. But you can still taste the sweetness from the base malt.

Our Bright Ale is something I'd like to introduce to the non-beer drinker. It smells just like Barley Tea which locals already know the smell and taste. We use just 10% of the local Barley in the recipe and the aroma is there. This is a very easy drinking beer and highlights the local Barley flavor. This is a good starter beer for some people because they don’t like intense bitterness, so this is a very friendly beer for non-beer drinkers. It's also good in combination with food; in Taiwan, people typically eat food and drink Barley Tea so it's a familiar pairing.

Our IPA is 6%, easy drinking, and is one of my favorites. But, our four core beers are easy drinking and approachable. It's a good intro to the Taihu brand. The other core is a traditional Hefeweizen, Southern German style.

How about those labels? They're certainly eye catching.

We had a local artist design our labels and each one shows a different area of Taiwan. Our IPA has a view of Taipei where you can see the 101 building. The Hefeweizen is of Taitung, from the east coast of Taiwan. For our Bright Ale, it has Taichung, Central Taiwan. The Kolsch features Tainan in Southern Taiwan. Again, very focused on Taiwan on the labels.

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So cans do OK out here? We were in Hong Kong talking to Moonzen and they said cans are seen as cheap in HK. What do people think of craft beer in cans here in Taiwan?

It’s ok here in Taiwan. HK is a different market with different tastes. So cans are no problem for us.

Do you brew beers for the beer fans/geeks here in Taiwan?

We don't focus our beer on the beer geeks. We only focus our beers towards the public. Y’know, beer is a drink, it's not something that's out of reach for everyone, it's approachable. And, that's how we choose to brew.

We brewed a Chenpi Gose. Gose style normally has sea salt and coriander and we added Taiwanese Chenpi, which is a preserved orange peel. This is what I did when we were in Copenhagen. We were invited by Mikkeller for their beer festival. So, I brought a lot of different local ingredients for people to try. The first time I brewed a Gose, I just thought the mixture of sweet and salty would go really well together. It’s a super easy drinking beer and it’s good especially for this weather.

Another one of my favorite beers is a beer we brewed with smoked plum. Smoked plum is a popular snack in Taiwan and the flavor is very intense. The base style is a Lichtenhainer. Again it's another German style but is a smoked sour beer. It’s a very old traditional style. I brewed this with cherry wood smoked malt. When you drink a traditional Lichtenhainer, it's very tart and astringent from the aftertaste. Plus, I think this goes really well with hot pot [laughs].

That actually sounds like a good idea.

Again, I always base recipes on existing beer styles. I don't try to just make a Taiwanese ingredient beer. I will usually figure out a recipe once I've tasted it.

So, after tasting these beers, do you think these beers are designed by a female brewer? Because a lot of people tell me, Winnie, your beers are so girly!

I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if I was blindfolded. They’re brewed really well. What’s your background? How’d you get into brewing?

Back in 2007, I used to work at TGIF bartending while I was in College in Taiwan. Then I was recruited by a company which was opening a Gordon Biersch franchise. So, I joined them and they sent me to the US for six months for training as a brewer. I also had other colleagues joining me, training as chefs, store managers, etc. We were part of the first team sent for training. I was sent to Atlanta, Georgia and it was hard because for me, I didn't really drink beer. I had no idea why they hired me in the first place [laughs].

Between jobs, I went to VLB Berlin to get training and got an International Certificate for Brewmaster.

So, how'd you even go from TGIF to Gordon Biersch?

Well I knew the boss. We had ten people — eight of us were from TGIF. We had food and beverage experience and worked together for a long time. So, when we all joined Gordon Biersch, we had no idea or experience with brewing. So the owners decided we needed to know and learn about brewing, so I said, “Why not?”

So, they sent you to Atlanta for six months?

No, I spent three months in Atlanta and another three in Phoenix, Arizona. In my first week there, all I did was clean! So much cleaning. For the first three months in Atlanta, I focused on piping, connecting all the tanks, all the fundamentals of brewing. Then, I came back to Taiwan for a month to relax and visit home.

Then I went back to the Phoenix because the franchise in Taiwan had the same facility, so I went to focus on production. The first trip was focused on building my skills and the second trip was focused on on-site brewery management. It was a long time ago, I was so lucky.

After you came back from training, you stayed with Gordon Biersch?

Yes, I worked there for four years. But then I quit because I wanted to learn more about brewing. I was excited about it and wanted to get a brewing license but Gordon Biersch didn’t really support it. They didn’t think it was necessary. So I quit and I met some friends from Sunmai Brewery. The boss from Sunmai is one of my best friend’s. I talked to him and he supported me on a trip to Germany. So between jobs, I went to VLB Berlin to get training and got an International Certificate for Brewmaster.

That's quite the journey.

Every step was a challenge.

Most brewer's we've talked to started out as former homebrewers. What’s it like starting out with professional brewing experience?

Yes, it’s very rare but I have a different background experience. I don't homebrew since I have a different experience, a different foundation. When I train my staff or I train the public who want to learn homebrewing, I will help them with it. But if you give me one day, I can teach you how to brew commercially. But me, I'm spoiled. Lots of brewers started with nothing but two pots and they are successful.

But, I started from really high-standards and Gordon Biersch gave me that experience. At first, they didn’t really trust me “they were like you’re female and don’t even like beer.” (laughs) But over time, I earned their trust. I'm still very close with the people over there.

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What drew you to beer? Before Gordon Biersch you didn't even like beer!

Yes, before I worked in this industry, I never liked beer because the beer that we had in Taiwan were all the same. So, after I learned more about it working at Gordon Biersch, I realized you can make better beer!

Seeing how your brewing foundation is rooted in German brewing techniques and commercial brewery standards, what sort of curriculum do you have for your staff?

Since you're from Chicago, y'know the Cicerone Certification Program? Everyone from our staff has to pass the 1st-level of the Beer Server program. Now, we have about 60-70 servers that are Certified Cicerone. For us, we require if you want to work with Taihu, you have to pass this test. It's tough but we have to properly prepare people. Of course, we can hire experienced people from outside Taiwan, but right now, we're trying to focus on training Taiwanese locals. The first criteria for us is you have to love beer. The other thing is you have to push yourself. I have ten people working under me. It’s hard to find experienced brewers in Taiwan. We don’t have any schools or places for proper training here. But, I can teach them how to brew.

Any other future projects for Taihu?

We do some collaborations based on relationships or events. I'm pretty easy to get along with. In November, we'll be doing the 8x8 Beer Festival in Beijing. I'll be brewing a beer with Commons Brewery in Portland. I have no clue how things will turn out but this is all new to us! Also, we're quite popular in Japan because we have a good cooperation with Yoho Brewery, so some of those Yoho beer fans will find us out through them.

Beer is a drink, it’s not something that’s out of reach for everyone. It’s approachable.

How'd that relationship come about?

Before we had our brewery and when we were a bar, we imported beers from the US but we imported only one brand from Asia which was Yoho Brewery. We knew them from the very beginning of Taihu and then we participated in their beer fests over the years. This year, their brewmaster came over to co-brew with me. So, yeah we have a good relationship with Yoho.

We brewed a special beer that we're planning to release soon. We tried brewing a beer with ingredients from both of our countries, Taiwan and Japan. We used hops from Japan that are owned by Kirin Brewery’s farm; we added Taiwanese local Orange peels and Japanese Yuzu peels, so the smell is a unique aroma. We also used some Japanese spice called Sansho, it's like a fresh Green Pepper. It's a twist on Japanese and Chinese ideas, but the base beer is a bit like a Belgian/American Wheat since we added 40% malted wheat. The aroma is very intense because the Green Pepper smell is ripe. This is a special Taiwan-only beer and it's super easy to drink too.

I’ll be looking forward to that beer. Any other special beers you’re brewing?

Well, we’re making beers with Starbucks Coffee. They'll only be available at their Starbucks Reserve location in Shanghai. But this is the first time they're having a brewery brew them a custom beer. We made a Columbia Vanilla Cream Ale. Most people imagine coffee beer to be dark colored so we played with it and made some magic happen for the blonde color.

That beer sounds delicious!

Yay, thank you! When I brew, I follow the rulebook and then I'll play with something crazy [laughs]. At Taihu, I have a lot of fun and freedom to brew the beers I like.

 

-THR-

 

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Photography by Meng & Tiffany Yang.

Thanks to Francis Kuo for arranging our interview with Winnie Hsu at Taihu Brewing. Authored by Meng Yang, collaborator for The Hop Review. Meng is a designer and illustrator from Detroit, Michigan. He and his wife, Tiffany Yang, are also the creators of THR's ‘DETOURS’ series.