Tapping into Taipei’s Newfound Love of Draft Booze

BEERAMMO. Photo: Dinah Gardner

Warning: Do not serve alcohol to minors. When you drink, don’t drive.

A guide to some of the city’s busiest, best, and most unusual taprooms.

Taiwan’s ubiquitous convenience stores are consumers’ go-to places for snacks, cold and hot drinks, cigarettes, and even microwaved meals. But recently, they’ve expanded their inventory with a new item. Since late last year, select 7-Eleven and Family Mart stores have been serving up chilled, froth-filled glasses of draft beer, straight from the tap.

It’s about 9 p.m. on a Thursday evening in a 7-Eleven mega branch in Gongguan, Taipei’s university district, and I’m settling down to a freshly-poured, amber-colored glass of Buckskin Marzen. Buckskin, a series of new German-style beers, is brewed by Taiwan-owned King Car Group, better known for their Kavalan whisky brand. This particular 7-Eleven offers three different varieties of Buckskin on tap, available to shoppers 24/7.

It’s not the most relaxing environment to enjoy a drink, with the harsh strip lighting, constant chiming of the main doors, and a group of rowdy foreign students on my bench who have opted for ice cream and the cheaper tall-boy bottles of Taiwan Beer over the Buckskin draft. Nonetheless, NT$79 a glass (280 milliliters) for a pretty decent brew and the option of outdoor seating make this one of the cheapest ways to kick back and enjoy tap-poured beer with friends in the city.

While just a handful of convenience stores currently provide this service, the move reflects what can only be described as an explosion in outlets in Taipei offering draft beer. These include new dedicated taprooms, regular bars expanding their keg list, pop-up pubs on the street and in malls, one entrepreneurial vendor who peddles fresh brew from a tricycle (Beer Cargo), and a tiny hole-in-the-wall dive (Funky Fresh) in the Shilin Night Market, where the beer flows through taps installed into the nipples and belly buttons of shiny showroom dummies.

Such a diverse range of draft drinking options is surprising for Taiwan’s capital city, where just five years ago you’d be hard pressed to find more than a couple of taprooms. A quick internet search reveals that the number now stands at around 30 and is still climbing.

Local microbreweries – including Redpoint, Zhang Men, Taihu, 23 Public, Jim & Dad’s, Danish microbrewer Mikkeler, and Taiwanese big brewer Buckskin – now operate one or more taprooms throughout Taipei. Several, such as Jim & Dad’s, have opened new outlets in just the last six months.

BEERAMMO (“no war, just beer”), a small craft-beer bar on Nanjing West Road near the Ningxia Night Market, launched in 2016. Since then, the bar has seen business grow steadily, largely fueled by thirsty tourists, says its manager, Hung Yilin. On November 1, it opened a branch – on Roosevelt Road, opposite National Taiwan University and just down the street from the Gongguan Night Market.

The new space (160 Roosevelt Road, Sec. 4) is cozy and teal-colored. A row of fridges stacked with brightly labeled beers and eight taps slotted into two gleaming motorbike engines sit on top of the bar. The blackboard behind the bar lists what’s on tap – eight varieties from Dutch microbrewer Uiltje. On my visit, I chose the Dr. Raptor Imperial IPA, a strong, hoppy offering with a high ABV (alcohol by volume) of 9.2%.

“There’s young energy here with the university and the night market,” Hung says, explaining why BEERAMO fixed on this venue for its second location. “Roosevelt Road also has a lot of traffic, so people will see the sign and then come back another day.” And indeed, the unusual sight through the huge shop window of motorbike engines incongruously propped up on the bar attracted a lot of stares and phone snapshots from passersby.

While backpackers may have buoyed BEERAMMO’s fortunes, it’s clear that the abrupt rise of the rest of Taipei’s taprooms rests rather more on a surge in local interest in craft beers. Microbreweries view taprooms as a good way to offer customers a selection of tasters in order to familiarize them with the different styles and flavors.

According to market research provider Euromonitor International, craft-beer consumption in bars, hotels, and other catering establishments across Taiwan almost doubled from 3% (or 4.3 million liters) of total beer consumed in 2013 to 5% (or 8 million liters) by 2018. “One of the fastest developing areas of alcoholic drinks in Taiwan is craft beer,” its Beer in Taiwan Report 2019 states. 

The report notes that the demographic drawn to the craft-beer bars popping up around Taipei tends to be younger people more likely to “enjoy experimenting with the wide range of beer varieties on offer.”

The impact of craft beer

Redpoint Brewing Co. co-founder Douglas Pierce, who hails from the U.S., agrees. “What’s pushed draft into the forefront is craft. You don’t see these taprooms selling Taiwan Beer,” he says, referring to what is still the country’s best-selling brew, produced by the giant, state-owned Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Corp. “Taiwanese customers are starting to have a taste for more interesting beer flavors,” he notes. “The younger generation has traveled abroad, they’ve tasted different things, and they’re asking why they can’t get it back here.”

Photo: Redpoint

Pride in Taiwan’s own microbrewers might also have something to do with the Taiwanese affinity for craft beer. According to the Euromonitor report, “drinkers [are] drawn towards locally brewed products, as they like to support small local businesses.”

Redpoint is not only popular, it’s also the longest-running craft-beer brand in Taiwan. According to Pierce, it was the first to launch a domestically brewed IPA here back in March 2014, but didn’t open a taproom until more than four years later in August 2018. The taproom provided needed exposure, explains Pierce’s business partner, fellow American Spencer Jemelka.

“It was sort of a joke in the brewing industry that Redpoint was ‘the largest brewery that you’ve never heard of,’” Jemelka said. “We didn’t have a lot of brand presence and so we thought the best way to do that is to open up a taproom.”

And they’ve done a thorough job of it. The bar (132 Fuxing South Road, Sec. 2), near the Da’an MRT station, all but screams Redpoint. The ceiling is tube-lit with the maze-like Redpoint logo, while rows of colorfully labeled bottles of Redpoint beer cover one wall and posters of the label designs plaster the others. Rubbery Redpoint beer coasters are on sale, and at the bar the beer taps are tinged the company’s signature black and red. Even Jemelka and Pierce are clad in matching black-and-red Redpoint T-Shirts for this interview. “You’ve probably noticed we’re walking billboards for the brand,” Pierce quips.

An impressive 12 taps showing off Redpoint’s range of flavors and styles give visitors a lot to choose from. The orange-hued Das Pumpkin, a seasonal option, with its earthy, nutty layers was a treat, especially at the early evening price of NT$140 a pint. Customers rave about this establishment’s particularly generous happy hour, which puts its best-selling Long Dong lager at a mere NT$90 during Redpoint hour (5-6 p.m.) and NT$100 during Happy Hour (6-8 p.m.).

The place is buzzing, even mid-week. The dozen or so tables are full, mostly with locals enjoying food with their drinks. Redpoint serves hearty American dishes, some of which include their beer blends in the recipe, such as pork chops smothered in Redpoint Rock Monkey Stout Gravy. 

Offering food is the secret to having a successful bar in Taiwan, says Pierce. Before taprooms, he notes, the one place you’d definitely catch locals enjoying alcohol would be at a rechao, a type of rough-and-ready eatery that sells Taiwanese stir-fry dishes and where no meal is complete without a generous helping of affordable beer.

“Taiwanese combine drinking and eating, they don’t just go out for a pint like we do,” says Pierce. “For the Taiwan market, if you don’t pair your beer with food, you’ll fail or won’t be as successful.”

This gastropub model, though, doesn’t appear to have been widely copied by the island’s other budding microbrewery taprooms, who tend to focus on the drinks, at most offering some bar snacks or simple meals. The exceptions are the big commercial breweries, such as U.S. pub-restaurant Gordon Biersch and Buckskin Beerhouses. Buckskin matches its variety of German lagers – from the pale Munich Helles to the jet black Schwarzbier – with international fare that is heavy on seafood and meats. Even its pop-up stall in Taipei 101 has twinned the six taps with five alcohol-infused flavors of ice cream. The Schwarzbier with Oreo is said to be a particular favorite among customers.

Food or no food, what is certain is that when people are given the choice, they love to drink draft. Despite Redpoint’s wall of alluring bottles, “99.9999%” of their beer-drinking customers go for draft, according to Pierce.

That number is a bit lower at Beer Cat (No. 9, Lane 1, Chengde Road, Sec. 2), an eccentric craft-beer café near the Zhongshan MRT station that boasts nine taps (including Japanese lager Asahi) and a couple of photogenic felines. Co-founder Casey Chu says around 80% of the customers go for draft. He launched the space with two friends back in 2016 because “we love beer and we love cats.” Chu believes it’s the novelty that makes people choose draft. “You can only have the experience of drinking draft beer in a bar, since most people won’t have the equipment for it at home,” he says.

A beer and a cat at Beer Cat. Photo: Sergio Palma

Hung of BEERAMMO says the proportion of customers opting for draft beer there is closer to 60%. The bar’s nine taps are more than a little outmatched by the roughly 120 bottled and canned varieties on display. One of the patrons, Hong Kong student Chilli Law, is proof of the allure of the numerous non-draft options. While enjoying a few of these with a friend, she mentions that they were attracted by the “beautiful colors” on the labels.

Like many others, I’ve always preferred draft because not only do you tend to get a bigger serving, it usually also tastes fresher. That’s not necessarily true, however, especially in Taiwan.

Charles Bamforth, a professor at the University of California who has dedicated his life to the study of beer – he’s been nicknamed the “Pope of Foam” – explains in an email that if the beer’s been sitting for a long time in the keg, “it can also be vastly inferior to a bottled or canned beer.” 

That will often be the case if the weather is hot and the beer is not kept refrigerated, Redpoint’s Pierce points out.

“A lot of these bars and restaurants around the city have a warm keg, stick it out back in the middle of summer, and when they bring it in and put it on tap, they put it on a flash-chill,” he says. “The flash-chill makes the beer that’s going through it super-cold right at the point of sale, but that beer has been warm forever, which degrades it.”

All good taprooms keep their beer refrigerated. Redpoint stores its kegs in a cold room behind the bar.

“If there are too many beers ‘on tap,’ then there is an increased likelihood that at least some of them will be lingering too long and developing off flavors,” Bamforth writes. He advises asking the bartender which beer sells the best, because “that is an indicator that it is likely to be the freshest.”

Not just beer

Taipei’s love affair with draft has even expanded beyond the usual hops and barley.

On a lane just off Dunhua East Road is Draft Land (No. 2, Lane 248, Zhongxiao East Road, Sec. 4), Asia’s first dedicated cocktails-on-tap bar. Its bank of 18 taps – so stark and shiny they look like medical devices, an effect enhanced by the white lab-coat-wearing bar staff – are housed in an industrial-chic slip of a space, where seating is sparse.

Having a pre-mixed and pumped cocktail is a novel idea, and requires some time for people to get used to, says Victor Chung, Draft Land’s chief bartender. “Sometimes people come in and ask for beer because they see all our taps, so now we have some beer cocktails.” One of these is mixed with an IPA and another with stout.

Draft Land

Angus Zou, Draft Land’s founder, sought to create a less intimidating place for Taiwanese to drink cocktails than the upscale cocktail bars in town, says Chung. Zou would know; he opened Alchemy, one of Taipei’s first speakeasies several years back, but has since sold his share. Chung explains that his boss wanted to open a bar where the customer wouldn’t feel pressured to be knowledgeable about flavors, palates, ingredients, and garnishes, or fork out NT$400-500 for a drink that, in the end, they might not even like. In Draft Land, just like in the beer taprooms, you can ask to sample the options until you find one you like. Most glasses, albeit smaller at 90-150 milliliters, are priced at only around NT$200.

Draft Land’s cocktails are “mellower and smoother, the alcohol kick comes later,” says Chung, which may be a nice way of saying pre-mixed cocktails are not as strong as those crafted on demand.

I try the South Island Fizz, a tongue-gripping, sweet-and-sour gin-based concoction, followed by the Rum Cocktail, a blend of dark rum, pandan (an aromatic Asian leaf used in cooking), and stout. It proved less easy to drink, but the smell reminded me of Christmas.

The Draft Land formula seems to be working. At the beginning of 2019, Zou opened a branch in Hong Kong, and according to Draft Land’s website, pre-mixed cocktail taprooms will soon be serving customers in Tokyo and Seoul. A second Taipei location should also be ready for business early this year.

Taipei’s come a long way since the days when all you could get was Taiwan Beer. The fact that the city has been chosen to host this year’s Sea Brew, a huge gathering and trade fair in October for brewers in Southeast Asia, shows just how far the island has come. Indeed, there’s a lot to celebrate with this rapid expansion and enrichment in drinking options in the city, but it’s nice to know that bar owners are keeping it in perspective.

When I asked Beer Cat’s Chu which was more important, the beer or his cats, he laughed and after a lengthy pause, said: “That’s a tough one. I’d have to say the cats. You can drink beer anywhere.”

Warning: Do not serve alcohol to minors. When you drink, don’t drive.