Taipei's Thriving Craft Beer Scene – A Sit-Down With the Creators of 23 Brewing Company
Article Rick Charette
Photos Shi Chuntai
Brett Tieman and Matt Frazar are co-founders of Taipei’s 23 Brewing Company (23號啤酒), founded in 2014. The fellow Americans have a passion for craft beer, and met through the local home-brewing community. Taiwan’s craft-brewing scene has flourished over the past decade-plus, and 23 Brewing is part of the second wave of craft-brew enterprises to launch, along with other successful names such as Redpoint Brewing (紅點手工鮮釀啤酒) and 55th Street Craft Brewery (五十五街精釀啤酒), some also run by beer-passionate expatriates. The local microbrewing market was thrown open in 2002, with Taiwan’s WTO entry.
23 Brewing’s creations are sold at points all around Taiwan, and about a year-and-a-half back the decision was made to launch along a wholly new path – opening their own dedicated taproom, in south Taipei’s Gongguan (公館) area, conveniently a short walk from MRT Taipower Building Station (捷運台電大樓站). A second has since been opened in MRT Xinbeitou Station’s (捷運新北投站) BADOU Restaurant & Food Court (BADOU溫泉美食一條街), right beside Beitou’s famed hot-spring resort area, and a third is on tap for MAJI Square (MAJI集食行樂) in Taipei Expo Park (花博公園), beside MRT Yuanshan Station (捷運圓山站). On a recent sunny day, sunlight pouring in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, TAIPEI talked with the duo at the Gongguan flagship outlet – 23 Public.
Why Choose Taipei?
Their points of origin are night and day. Brett came to Taiwan via brash and boisterous New York, Matt via laid-back San Diego. Both have developed a keen affection for the city and its people, and a shared mission is to make each of their taprooms an intrinsic part of life in the communities they’re located in.
According to Matt, they spent much time discussing why there wasn’t a big craft-beer scene in Taipei, and wanted to bring American-style craft beer and culture to the city and Taiwan. “Taipei is really the place where things are happening,” he says, “and people here are more international, so this was the best spot to set up and sell our beer. If we’d set up in the south, for example (where local palates are perhaps not quite so ready), I can’t imagine the struggle.”
In Taiwan breweries must be in industrial zones, which as Matt says “are not very scenic, hindering people from visiting and learning about craft beer.” They liked the idea, as with many breweries and wineries in the West, of opening an attractive brewery showroom, but decided that in-city taprooms are the better path. They’re encouraged by the local population’s receptivity toward craft beer – “about 99% of the time those who try it love it, enjoying the experience.” Those who dare find that craft offerings are “really delicious-tasting beers.”
Your Friendly Neighborhood Craft-Brew Meeting Place
They want to bring “the beer culture at large to Taiwan – the taprooms, the whole environment, the style of drinking where everyone is around a big bar,” says Brett. “It’s communal, very neighborhood-oriented.”
“Much of Taiwan drinking revolves around food, and groups,” says Brett. “A lot of my early beer-drinking here was at spots like kuai chao (快炒) places, or stir-fried shops, which is really fun. But I missed the neighborhood bar where I would go by myself. That’s pretty common back home – hit your neighborhood bar, hanging out with your bartender, your neighbors. The bar is like an extension of your living room; you’re socializing with your community.”
They chose Gongguan for their first taproom because of its neighborhood feel, locating on a corner in what was a fruit store (the big windows already in place). This is an area of students and highly educated long-term residents, with two universities and, they say, no true bar in the community when they arrived. Now there are four or five, a hotspot for bar-hopping developing. There now have many regulars, and each is “rewarded” with their own personalized coaster.
They’ve worked hard to promote a “community pub” reputation by training managers and staff to interact with customers and create personal relationships. “We live our beer,” says Matt, and they love talking to visitors about them. They’ve created a unique ambience, and it’s common for managers to call neighbors by name as they stroll in. People come in to “experiment with beer first, and have a little bit of a snack and conversation – what you might call a ‘Western’ style of drinking.”
Generally, says Matt, when locals don’t have the best initial craft-beer experience, “it really comes down to the people serving. For example, we have our sour beers, which most locals haven’t tasted before. We train our staff and give people the full experience, explaining the beers. People love it – we convert people every day here.”
Adds Brett: “You know, a big part of this product is managing people’s expectations before they try it, so they’re prepared.” Joking, he says it’s akin to the “bad taste” left in a foreign visitor’s mouth if given stinky tofu to eat without any preparation. If one is surprised by unfamiliar taste, texture, and smell, whether beer or tofu, the chance of rejection is much heightened.
The Changing Taipei/Taiwan Beer Palate
“Our first beer, the No. 1 Pale Ale, was hugely popular when brought out four years ago, with 80-plus percent of buyers foreigners,” says Matt. “Now, with our taproom here, it’s about 80/20 local and foreign, with tourists about 10%.” Amongst locals, says Brett, “one of the most pleasant surprises has been the spread in age and gender – it’s not just students.” Seeing that most college kids cannot afford craft beer often, they offer Happy Hour specials. Brett describes two “shifts”: students and other younger people during Happy Hour, and a mixed-bag “evening shift,” with a heavy dose of local residents.
In-house, beyond the Happy Hour they also offer special-deal flights of beer that lets people sample many types. “Opening our taprooms has created brand awareness, and been a big boost for business,” says Matt. Their previous B2B business has not been affected, their customers not seeing the taprooms as a conflict of interest or direct competition. Everyone understands the craft-beer ‘pie’ is being made larger, and they say craft brewers themselves are beginning to cooperate.
Impact of the New
Michelin Guide Taipei
Earlier this year a new Michelin Guide focused on Taipei’s culinary scene was brought to market. “This will be great for Taiwan,” says Brett, “and it does reflect the palate sophistication that’s always been here. Taiwan has always been a bit of an underdog for tourism, and hopefully this will be bringing more tourists to Taipei looking for a high-quality food and drinking experience.”
Their own creations go great with classic American fare like pizza and BBQ, says Matt, and they’re experimenting with local snack foods like dumplings, guabao (刈包), and luwei (滷味). “The luwei (soy-braised dishes) goes great with our No. 1 Pale Ale, or really anything hoppy, like IPAs.” They also offer chocolate sticks from a local chocolatier, which go very well with their stout.
The Brett and Matt Taipei Lifestyle – Fave Foods and Leisure-Time Pursuits
Matt really enjoys frequenting certain restaurants and bars in town, notably those that offer good beer on tap for him to explore, calling himself a “craft-beer nerd.” He finds more and more “cool bars and other places” popping up in the city. Being from California, he also likes to get away to nearby Yilan County (宜蘭縣) on weekends to “hit the beach, do some surfing, and have fun” – good beer in hand, of course.
Brett states that “I enjoy my life right now. I have a lot of love for Taiwan for giving me this experience. I like to stick around this part of town, which is also a great entry point for tourists to discover Taiwan, filled with people who’ll be able to speak their language” and offer good local travel advice. He also specially enjoys MAJI Square in Taipei Expo Park, which has open space for kids (he’s now a dad) and a “nice little shop selling craft beer,” and the Beitou area around their other outlet, because of its strong community feel.
Both are big fans of kuai chao, local-style BBQ, and beef noodles. In truth, they say, they love pretty much all Taiwanese food, including stinky tofu. Brett finishes by saying, “To be honest, the food and the MRT system are two of my big reasons in deciding to move here,” calling the MRT system “one of the most comfortable and convenient city-transportation systems I’ve ever used, especially with kids.” Both enthusiastically encourage travelers to come explore the city’s neighborly hospitality.
Excessive alcohol consumption may be harmful to your health.
100, Sec. 1, Xinhai Rd., Daan Dist. (大安區辛亥路一段100號)