When it’s time for a cold one, James Case, a bartender at Bierkraft in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is not without choices. Behind him at the bar are more than a dozen kegs filled with American craft beers that customers order in growlers to take home. In front of him are refrigerators packed with more than 800 bottles and cans from breweries the world over.
Still, for Case and kitchen manager Ryan Huntley, the beer they invariably reach for is the one in the funky blue can that, despite its straightforward name, just happened to be sold-out one late August afternoon — Taiwan Beer.
“We were just criticizing our beer manager for not buying it,” Case said jokingly. “Part of the culture of working here is that you drink the stuff. When my friends come in to town, I grab a six-pack of Taiwan Beer.”
While Asian imports like China’s Tsingtao and Thailand’s Singha have long been fixtures of New York’s drinking scene, Taiwan Beer in the last few years has muscled its way into the refrigerators of nearly two dozen restaurants, bars and craft-beer stores in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, spawning a small cult following among young discerning beer enthusiasts who say they enjoy the brew’s high drinkability and the can’s trippy, undulating design — even though they admit to knowing little about Taiwan itself.
Chan Hui-ming (詹慧敏), Taiwan Beer’s sales representative for Paleewong Trading Company, the exclusive East Coast distributor, said they began selling the island’s national brew in New York in 2010, mostly to Taiwanese restaurants and Chinese supermarkets. Soon after, they introduced the blue-and-silver cans to craft-beer shops like Bierkraft and Brouwerji Lane in hip Brooklyn neighborhoods that were looking to diversify their Asian beer stock, she said.
“Young people here are really attracted to the can,” Chan, a native of Sanchong (三重), said. “It’s kind of a ’60s or ’70s style, so they simply love the package.”
Despite making inroads in bohemian Brooklyn, Taiwan Beer still accounts for only 5 percent of total annual sales of Asian beers on the East Coast, said Nu Kumprakool, manager of Paleewong’s craft-beer division. Chan said that because many Chinese restaurants often prefer to showcase only one Chinese beer, which since 1972 traditionally has been Tsingtao, it is difficult to convince owners to also carry Taiwan Beer.
“A lot are from the mainland, and they have this funny thing about things from Taiwan, if you know what I mean,” Chan said. “Sometimes it can be a little political, sometimes economical, but it’s not easy for them to bring in another beer.”
One Chinese restaurant that has broken the mold, Chan said, is Vanessa’s Dumpling House in Williamsburg, which offers Taiwan Beer in a can for US$3, as well as South Korea’s Hite and several American draughts. When asked for an interview, however, the manager declined to comment and headed downstairs, saying through a worker that the owners, his relatives, were away in China and would not be back for three weeks.
For many non-Taiwanese, though, a big part of Taiwan Beer’s charm and mystique is the name itself, Chan said. While many have heard of Taiwan, she said, few know anything about its history or culture, or even where it is on a map, a knowledge gap Chan tries to fill when she visits customers.
“In many people’s minds, Taiwan is a fascinating place,” Chan said. “But it’s kind of a mystery.”
Case, Bierkraft’s bartender, agreed.
“I’ve never really thought about it, the politics and all between China and Taiwan,” he said. “Now you’ve got me thinking.”
What resonates loudly for Bierkraft’s employees, though, is that Taiwan Beer, coming from a small island nation that has produced what some consider a “craft” product for more than 90 years, is a dependable lager that is refreshing and will not break the bank.
“I think it’s a fine beer for what it is,” said Joe Tracy, Bierkraft’s beer manager, adding that his store goes through five cases at least every two weeks. “On a hot summer day after getting done from work, sometimes a Taiwan Beer is exactly what I want to drink.”
Some beer drinkers interviewed suggested that Taiwan Beer might become the next Pabst Blue Ribbon — the darling American adjunct lager among hipsters — but Elizabeth Zalarick, beer supervisor at the Lower East Side Whole Foods, was not ready to make that call.
“I don’t know about that,” Zalarick said, laughing. “When we first started carrying Taiwan Beer, it was pretty popular. People would buy two or three six-packs at a time. Now, it’s slowed down.”
Even though Taiwan Beer will likely never chase China’s Tsingtao out of the American market, Chan said that after selling it in New York for the last three years, she has developed a newfound respect for her country’s national beverage.
“It suddenly has a new life because of its surroundings,” she said. “When Americans drink it, they know they are drinking something that tastes of Taiwan.”