An hour’s drive south-east from Taipei on Highway 7 – also known as the Northern Cross-Country Highway – transports you to sprawling rice terraces and thundering mountains dotted with conifers.
Rural Yuanshan Township in Yilan County is known as Taiwan’s “hometown of water” for the simple reason that it produces the freshest water on the subtropical island.
It’s also here that Jim Sung of Jim & Dad’s Brewing Company – which became Taiwan’s first destination brewery on opening in September 2015 – gets his supply of water to brew white ales and ginger porters.
I visit the tasting hall when it opens at 11am with two friends, after a hike to a nearby waterfall. A minimalist but cozy red-brick-wall setting, its large windows reveal kettles, mash tuns and fermentation tanks.
Jim, a bookish, bespectacled 28-year-old from Taipei, can be found chatting up customers, half-pint of craft beer in hand. “It’s quality control,” he explains.
We sit on the back patio surrounded by acres of untamed nature, cooling off and drinking kumquat ales brewed with local farm-grown fruit.
A growing industry
Craft beer, a nascent but growing industry in Taiwan, faces a peculiarly local set of challenges. For one, logistics: strict laws confine breweries to industrial districts, thus explaining the absence of brew pubs in Taipei.
The other key obstacle is changing the traditional mindset of drinkers. Taiwan Beer, the country’s unofficial national brew, enjoyed a monopoly when it was founded in 1946 – a year after the end of Japanese colonial rule and the start of the Chinese Civil War – that would last through 38 years of martial law.
Fast-forward to the 1990s democracy movement, a liberalization of markets and Taiwan’s eventual admission into the World Trade Organization in 2002.
Imported beer began trickling in. When the government legalized private breweries in that same year, a handful of brewers jumped on board, but the industry quickly tanked.
Hengchun 3000 in southern Taiwan closed down (it recently re-opened), and Le Blé d’Or and Jolly had to open restaurants to survive.
Disillusioned millennials lead the way
Changes over the next decade made craft beer’s re-emergence possible. As the GDP rose steadily, consumers had more disposable income to spend on niche markets.
The economy became more entrepreneurial. Millennials disillusioned with 9-to-5 office jobs opened coffee shops and surf hostels.
People like Jim, who had lived and traveled abroad, and tasted craft beer in North America and Europe, returned to Taiwan disappointed with the choices available to them. The alternative was to brew their own beer.
Since it is illegal in Taiwan to pay to learn how to make alcohol, many – including Jim – turned to online tutorials and books.
He asked a friend to bring him a homebrew kit from the US in 2013 and started experimenting with recipes, much to the concern of his mother, who felt that he needed a social life.
“I was hanging out with my best friend, the yeast,” says Jim. What started as a distraction from his desk job turned into a full-time business.
Jim was not alone in his pursuit
Frustrated by what he describes as a “cheap drinking culture”, Nickolas Chen, a hardcore rocker and freelance programmer, brewed his first batch of beer at home in 2011.
The following year, the Taipei native helped launch the Facebook group, Homebrew Maniacs. “Everyone drinks Taiwan Beer because it’s advertised in places that ordinary Taiwanese frequent, like 7-Eleven,” Nickolas tells me.
Though the initial intention of the Facebook group was to discuss home-brewing logistics like importing hops and malt, members eventually branched out and established their own microbreweries – Nickolas included.
When I visit his brewery in New Taipei City, a 40-minute metro ride from downtown Taipei, he is tidying the narrow, three-storey premises, a space that’s surrounded by mechanics and outlets selling used-car parts.
Nickolas, whose long hair is tied up in a ponytail in true rocker fashion, tells me he decided on the name Hardcore Brewery because he wished to infuse his brews with the spirit of hardcore punk.