Taiwanese tempted by New Zealand beer

Taiwan is in the midst of a craft beer revolution. The industry is growing by leaps and bounds every year. In the thick of it are some tasty New Zealand brews.

When I first arrived in Taiwan in 2000, there was still a government-controlled monopoly on alcohol production. Drinking local beer meant drinking Taiwan Beer. The state-owned brewer’s low-flavour domestic lager, made from Formosa rice, was ubiquitous.

But two years later, the monopoly ended after Taiwan joined the WTO. Independent brewers began entering the market. In the last few years, the Taiwanese craft beer industry has exploded.

Much of the craft beer revolution is focused around Taiwan’s biggest city Taipei. But in Taichung City, where I live, one of the chief drivers of the movement is the taproom, bottle shop, and restaurant ChangeX Beer.

ChangeX in Taichung City. Image: Supplied/ChangeX Beer

Five years ago, I had a personal revelation when I first entered ChangeX and found New Zealand craft beers Tuatara and Yeastie Boys on the shelf. Taichung had entered a new era!

ChangeX was started by Weng Yu-Chun and his wife Zi-Ya in 2010 after Weng returned from studying in San Diego, arguably the global epicenter of craft beer culture. Weng says ChangeX was the first store to sell bottles of craft beer in Taichung, and it still has the city’s biggest selection.

This year, Weng launched the ChangeX Craft Beer Festival, showcasing more than 50 local and international beer labels and holding lectures by brewers and craft beer experts. The festival was held in ChangeX’s new location, a historic building in Taichung’s downtown area, which is currently being revitalized.

The historic building which now houses ChangeX. Image: Supplied/Qiuhui Library

Built over 100 years ago, the building originally housed the first western restaurants to open in Taichung. It later became an export office for the Japanese during the period of Japanese colonial rule over Taiwan (1895-1945). ChangeX took over the building in 2018.

Upon entering the festival in early August, I made a beeline for the table run by Ugly Half Beer. The brewery, co-founded in 2019 by New Zealander Max Gilbert and his American wife Harn Sun, has become one of the most fashionable craft beer labels in Taiwan. Whereas Taiwanese craft breweries here typically use American hops, Ugly Half sources most of its hops from New Zealand.

Pouring a glass of Ugly Half Brewery's Double IPA made with New Zealand hops. Image: Mark Hanson.

“New Zealand hops are great quality and delicious,” Gilbert says. “They are often described as having standout tropical and citrus characteristics. This makes them highly prized in modern IPAs and Hazy IPAs, which are the current darlings of the craft beer world.

“The New Zealand industry is much smaller than some of the other hop producers, which makes our hops sometimes hard to get and desirable for that reason.”

Ugly Half Beer founders New Zealander Max Gilbert (right) and his American wife Harn Sun. Image: Supplied/Ugly Half Beer

Weng Yu-Chun tells me that Ugly Half’s beers are not only delicious, but the brewery has also succeeded in connecting with popular culture to expand its customer base and develop a subculture. “I believe it could create a new dimension of craft beer in Taiwan,” he says.

I also met Gavin Chen at the festival, whose company Kuang Hung is the only distributor of New Zealand craft beer in Taiwan. Chen distributes Tuatara, 8 Wired, Urbanaut, Yeastie Boys, as well as Peckham’s Cider.

Chen says that his Taiwanese customers are impressed by the quality of New Zealand craft beer but that these beverages don’t yet have the name recognition of imported labels from the US, Belgium, Germany, and the UK. He also says that the price of New Zealand craft beers is relatively high.

Beer importer Gavin Chen pouring a glass of New Zealand beer from 8 Wired brewery at Change X Beer Festival. Image: Mark Hanson

At the festival, Chen was showcasing New Zealand brewery 8 Wired. I contacted 8 Wired brewer and owner Søren Eriksen via email and asked about his experience of the Taiwan market.

Eriksen told me that 8 Wired first sold its beers in Taiwan in 2011 but took a break for a few years before resuming with its new distributor in 2019. He visited Taiwan that year and was impressed by the number of exciting breweries popping up making high-quality beer.

8 Wired's offering at the Change X Beer festival in Taiwan, the Lamponi Raspberry Sour. Image: Supplied

8 Wired is active throughout the region. It also exports to Hong Kong, China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand. Eriksen says Asia is a good export market for New Zealand beers because of the growing interest in craft beer here and the relatively close proximity to New Zealand. Shipping is much faster than to northern hemisphere markets.

As an observer, and more than occasional imbiber, the explosion of Taiwan’s craft beer culture in recent years has been dizzying. But those I spoke to consider the scene here as still being in its infancy with ample room to grow. For New Zealand brewers and craft beer aficionados, Taiwan’s craft beer market is one to watch.

Banner image: Some of Ugly Half Beer's products, founded by New Zealander Max Gilbert and his wife Harn Sun. Image Supplied/Ugly Half Beer

 - Asia Media Centre