Sun, Jul 08, 2007 - Page 2 News List

Feature: Small brewers beat odds in search of perfect beer

EXACTING TASTE Hsieh Chin-fa, a stockbroker, calls light lagers on the market `tasteless' and devotes much of his spare time to developing his own beers

By Angelica Oung  /  STAFF REPORTER

A top-floor apartment in Taipei's swanky Da-an District might seem like an unlikely place to find a brewery, but stockbroker Hsieh Chin-fa (謝欽發) told the Taipei Times that he brews dozens of 15-liter batches of beer there every year.

"The problem is we can't keep up with how fast our family and friends are drinking it," Hsieh said. "As soon as they take a sip, they're hooked."

Hsieh was a student at a beer-brewing workshop held by Duan Kow-jen (段國仁), a food science professor at Tatung University.

"I've been researching beer brewing technology since 1993 in anticipation of Taiwan's entry into the World Trade Organization," Duan said.

"We knew when that happened the strict laws against private interests brewing and selling beer would be liberalized," Duan said.

Duan was right, but the regulation change took almost another decade.

In 2002, the Taiwan Tobacco & Wine Monopoly Bureau's monopoly on fermenting alcohol was broken, allowing businesses to apply for licenses to brew and sell beer and legalizing home-brewing for non-commercial purposes.

However, for beer brewers at least, legalization only removed one obstacle.

"Beer brewing is a highly specialized process and all the ingredients have to be imported," Duan said. "A lot of my students want to start their own breweries, but only a handful are still in business."

"It doesn't help that we have one of the highest taxes on beer in the world," he said. "There is a tax of NT $9 on every 330 milliliter bottle of beer."

For Hsieh, however, brewing beer is a labor of love. Pronouncing most light lagers on the market "tasteless," Hsieh devotes much of his spare time to the exacting hobby.

"I brew with malt, water, hops, yeast and nothing else," he said. "That's the way it is by law in Germany."

Hsieh first discovered that there's more to beer than lager in Ghana, where he worked as an accountant for a tissue paper factory after graduating from college.

"There were several German-owned breweries there," Hsieh said. "It was like nothing I had ever had in Taiwan."

Even after taking Duan's workshop, problems continued to dog Hsieh's quest to recreate the brews he remembered from his youthful stint abroad.

"We learned we had to swaddle the brewing container with a comforter in order to keep the yeast warm and active when it's cold in winter," Hsieh said. "And when it's hot in summer, we would wake up to the sound of exploding glass bottles when too much carbon dioxide had built up in the bottles."

"The challenge is part of the appeal," he said. "Every batch is a little different."

Not including his own labor or the cost of specialized equipment such as temperature-controlled brewing chambers converted from chest freezers, Duan estimates that his beer costs more than NT$30 for a 700 milliliter bottle.

"I don't brew to save money," Hsieh said. "I brew because I love beer."

Another student who attended Duan's workshop has started a commercial brewery. Wen Li-guo (溫立國) is the owner of North Taiwan Brewery, which produces four Belgian-style brews, including one that uses local lychees for a fruity flavor.

"It's a difficult business," said Wen, who estimates that there are only seven independent breweries in business nationwide, all of which are small operations.

"For most Taiwanese, `beer' still means `Taiwan beer,'" he said.

"They are so used to the product and the brand that even multinational companies like Tsingtao cannot dent their business," he said.

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