Bottoms Up!

Celebrating Taiwan’s Beer Centennial

2019 / November

Tina Xie /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

In 2019 a Taiwan Beer gift box was marketed to celebrate the centennial of the Taipei Brewery. The gift box featured three bottles of beer with distinctly different labels: a samurai-­themed Takasago Beer label from 100 years ago; a retro label from 60 years ago bearing the slogan “Revive China, build Taiwan”; and a “Baby” brand Taipei Blonde Ale label featuring a blob-like baby gremlin and Taipei’s North Gate. However different they are in design, the three bottles together convey the evolution of beer in Taiwan and the spirit and flavors of their respective eras.

Walking into the Taipei Brewery, one sees a large red-brick building standing opposite a large green-tiled one, along with a number of wood-frame buildings mixed in among the other structures on the site. The 100-year-old Japanese-era complex has been designated an historic site by the Taipei City Government. Modern automatic equipment operates inside the buildings, where a light scent of malt floats on the air.

The tracks of time

The Taipei Brewery, formerly known as the Takasago Brewery, was Taiwan’s first beer production facility when it was established in 1919. When Taiwan returned to Chinese rule in 1945, the Taiwan Provincial Monopoly Bureau took over its opera­tions. With the departure of Japanese brewers from Taiwan, skills were lost. Consequently, the government sent ­brewery ­employees to Germany to purchase brewer’s yeast and study brewing processes. Afterwards, German-style lager beers would become the mainstream of beer in Taiwan. In 1975, the complex was renamed the Jianguo Brewery.

The brewery still displays several traditional copper mash tuns (vessels used for the “mashing” stage of the brewing process), which stopped being used two or three years ago when the plant switched over to easier-­to-­clean stainless-steel mash tuns.

The old brewery buildings have now been designated an historic site, and the walls are hung with black-and-white photographs that bear witness to the site’s earlier eras of labor-intensive production.

It used to be that the brewing process required constant manual adjustments. After automated equipment was introduced, the need for labor dropped dramatic­ally. Now each batch only requires monitoring by three operators. They sit in a glass-fronted control room with a back wall covered with control panels. The high-tech ambiance contrasts sharply with the scenes captured in the old photos.

New challenges, new flavors

Over the course of 100 years, it’s not just the equipment and personnel that have changed: The taste of the beer has also been continually evolving.

“Classic” Taiwan Beer improved on Takasago by adding Taiwan’s penglai rice. On the one hand, the move was aimed at making the beer sweeter and less bitter. On the other, it was also meant to help local farmers by absorbing a surplus of domestically produced rice that was dragging down prices.

For 50 years, Classic Taiwan Beer, with its iconic can design of blue waves, was the beer with which Taiwanese were most familiar. In the 1990s, market liberalization opened Taiwan to European, American, Japanese and Southeast-Asian beers. In 2002, Taiwan entered the WTO and dismantled the government monopoly over tobacco and alcohol production. The Taiwan Tobacco and Wine Monopoly Bureau was turned into the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation, which in the face of new competi­tion began to introduce products with diverse flavors.

Back then there was a great demand for light, refreshing beers, so the company responded with its “Gold Medal” beer.

“Compared with Classic Taiwan Beer, Gold Medal has a higher maltose content, which gives it a smoother taste,” explains Aaron Lu, vice director of TTL’s beer division. “What’s more, it uses more peng­lai rice and aromatic hops, which makes for a fresh and clean aroma.” The new product won the favor of the public, replacing Classic Taiwan Beer as the com­pany’s best seller.

Following the success of Gold Medal Taiwan Beer, the unpasteurized “18 Days Draft Beer” was the next product the company launched. As opposed to pasteurized beer, unpasteurized beer dispenses with the final step of heating to kill the yeast. Consequently, the beer retains the yeast’s nutritional value and has a fresh taste. But it also loses its freshness much quicker, so it requires refrigerated transport and must be returned if unsold after 18 days.

When Draft Taiwan Beer was marketed, it too met with rave reviews. The inspiration behind it was a beautiful accident. During brewery tours, visitors would be given a sip of freshly brewed beer that had not yet been pasteurized. They discovered that its flavor and mouthfeel, along with its smoothness going down the throat, were quite appealing and distinctive. The positive reactions pushed the company to launch it as a new product.

Local is freshest

The phrase “local and fresh” originally captured the virtues of Taiwan Beer in the domestic market. When foreign brewers began building facilities in Taiwan, however, Taiwan Beer lost that advantage. Faced with new competition, TTL responded by highlighting “local spirit.” Draft beer with direct delivery on refrigerated trucks was a good first step, and the next was to launch products with “Taiwan flavors.”

Taiwan is a leading fruit producer. The pride and joy of its farmers, the island’s sweet and juicy fruits are well suited to adding to beer. Sweet and sour with captivating aromas, Irwin mangoes from Tainan’s Yujing District, Golden Diamond pineapples from Guanmiao, also in Tainan, and Black Queen grapes from Erlin in Changhua County were among those chosen for beers.

After hitting the market, these products not only attracted the notice of Taiwanese consumers, but they also became much appreciated by foreigners in Taiwan. Mango Beer has particularly appealed to Koreans, who love it even more than Taiwanese do.

A big behind-the-scenes hero in the launching of these fruit beers was the research group at TTL’s Wurih Brewery in Taichung.

Speaking of the research process involved in developing fruit beers, Chiang Hui-hsien, a member of the R&D team there, explains that at first the idea was to add some agricultural products characteristic of Taiwan. They hoped that these would lead to lighter, more refreshing beers that would attract more women consumers. When she later saw the many positive reviews of the resulting brews online, she felt that all the hard work and R&D they had put in was well worth it.

“Making fruit beer isn’t as simple as mixing fruit juice and beer,” Chiang says. “The pectin in the juice must be removed first, to avoid increasing the beer’s viscosity and speeding oxidation. Furthermore, enzymes in pineapple juice break down proteins, causing the beer’s head to collapse. Consequently, the juice has to be heated first.” They also experimented repeatedly with the temperature, humidity and pressure of ­subsequent processes before they arrived at the best methods to produce their fruit beers.

The beer, the land, and the people

“The driving spirit behind Taiwan Beer is about being close to the land and connecting with its people,” says Wu Huei-huang, a TTL vice president who has been with the company for more than three decades. Making beer isn’t just a matter of proper brewing technique—it also requires an understanding of how to appeal to the emotions of consumers and how to make connections to the stories behind the ingredients. 

The Tainan City Government has cooperated with TTL to launch “Cheng Gong Beer,” using images of Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), the Ming loyalist general who conquered Taiwan and ruled it from Tainan. The beer’s slogan, “You need Cheng Gong!” is a pun on Zheng Chenggong’s name and the everyday meaning of chenggong, “success.” It’s a product that highlights local history.

And the company’s local push hasn’t just been directed at Tainan. TTL has also launched Taipei Blonde Ale, whose label features an image of Taipei’s historic North Gate. Part of the company’s “Baby” craft beer line, it represents the first beer produced in Taiwan using a city’s name.

At important moments for Taiwan, Taiwan Beer has emerged with new looks to celebrate special events with the public. Whether for traditional festivals, or the 2017 Summer Universiade in Taipei, or the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan Beer has drawn the nation’s people close and demonstrated a local spirit.

For 100 years, Taiwan Beer has been produced in diverse flavors and packaging as it has evolved to meet the needs of different eras. What hasn’t changed is its inner spirit.

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