Building a Brewery from the Ground Up

Brothers Casper and Adriaan Willemse (left and middle) and their colleague Kevin Brennan (right) are the founders of 3 Giants Brewery in Taichung.

An epiphany while abroad, a drive to make a legitimate, high-quality product, and the ingenuity of a friend led to the creation and ultimate success of one of Taichung’s most distinctive foreign-owned businesses.

For many people, owning a brewery or brewpub is undoubtedly on their list of dream jobs. In Taiwan, making and selling beer is not an easy business, yet three enterprising Taichung-based expatriates have made it happen. The project, which was years in the making, surprisingly also paved the way for a robotics company.

For South African Casper Willemse, the idea to start such a company came to him during a cruise he and his brother Adriaan took with their parents in 2013 along the Pacific coast of Canada and Alaska. At each stop, they visited craft breweries, a new experience for the siblings.

“It was quite a revelation if you’ve been drinking just regular piss your whole life, and then to find out you can do so much better with beer,” says Casper. One night, while drinking with a Dutch man in his 70s, Casper told him, “You know what, I’m going to go back and start a brewery in Taiwan.” His brother was soon on board and once the pair returned to Taiwan, they were joined by a third, Kevin Brennan from Ireland. From there, 3 Giants Brewing Co. was born.

Casper explains that the moniker they chose for the brewery refers to the large stature of the three co-founders. He notes that in their previous jobs as English teachers, they had a lot of time on their hands, and so saved up their money and began buying the necessary equipment to start the brewery. For the first two years it was a small rooftop operation as they experimented and learned the trade. Finally, they were ready to make their dream a reality.

Turns out it was easier dreamed than done. The food and beverage industry, they found out, involves a lot of oversight. Finding a premises that had the right license was a major problem. Casper notes that this is why there are no breweries in downtown Taichung – the zoning laws don’t permit it. He says that for the same reason, beer brewers in Taipei have been unable to set up Western-style on-site breweries.

The process of getting established was frustrating. They found that many landlords would have been happy to rent to them but were told by the land office that the locations were designated as farmland or for other uses. Eventually they were able to download a government-issued app with a zoning map and drove all around Taichung’s outskirts scouting for a suitable home. It took about a year to find their location in Fengyuan District, on the fringes of what used to be downtown Fengyuan City before it was merged into greater Taichung.

The headaches, frustrations, and capital outlays didn’t end there. In order to get a license to produce the beer, they had to procure the necessary equipment from overseas and hire a government consultant to advise them on the proper setup – even dictating which doors could be used for what purposes. After about six months of work, the government performed a comprehensive inspection, which Casper says took “forever” and is “probably why we don’t have too many competitors in this business.” Nevertheless, their application for a license was approved and although such inspections continue to be performed annually, they now proceed smoothly.

Initially, the location they chose served only as a factory. However, they later realized they needed an area for people to taste the beer, which Casper notes is very important for securing clients, as well as for diversifying their business. Their venue grew over time to become a pub-restaurant that now hosts live bands and events. Today, the brewpub side is attractively done up in dark wood tones, wooden tables, and a large viewing window that allows guests to see where the beer is made.

The menu at 3 Giants is beer-friendly, featuring hearty meat and fried-food platters, nachos, and pizzas at prices that Taipei-dwellers would envy. They currently have 10 different beers on offer, ranging in alcohol content from the 4.6% Lager and Lager Radler to their 6.1% Chops IPA. In terms of bitterness, the beers range from an IBU rating of 5 to a high of 70 for their Red X IPA. The beers are available to restaurants and pubs all over Taiwan in both bottles and kegs. The company also sells non-alcoholic kombucha.

Photo: Shaun Armstrong

The long time it took to get set up did provide one benefit: foreigners working on a brewery in Fengyuan aroused curiosity among the local population, and they opened to considerable fanfare and a decent customer base. They began joining music festivals to spread brand awareness, promoted themselves on Facebook, and were featured in a TV program as well as some newspapers. As more people became aware of the brand, the number of inquiries increased. However, when the pandemic hit, says Casper, “everything came to a grinding halt, and we had to start all over again.”

The factory production line was originally a simple affair, with each individual bottle needing to be capped manually. “It was terrible,” Casper recalls, but says their current setup is “awesome,” thanks to a remarkable stroke of good luck and hardworking ingenuity in the form of UK native Shaun Armstrong. 3 Giants clearly needed to scale up, but the machinery to do so was extremely expensive and needed to be imported from America.

Shaun, a musician who plays in the bands Ever So Friendlies and Shapemaster, was studying mechanical engineering in an online distance-learning course at Teesside University and at the time happened to be on the topic of pneumatics. One day, in the lunchroom at the school where they both taught, he noticed Adriaan checking out pneumatic bottling machines online. Near the end of his studies, Shaun was trying to figure out what to do for his final project. He joked that he could build such a machine for the brewery, and although the two at first laughed off the idea, the more they discussed the project, the more of a reality it became for them.

Photo: Shaun Armstrong

Originally expected to take three or four months, the project took about a year to complete. After the planning process, Shaun created a 3D mockup, hired a metalworker, and bought the pneumatic equipment. The assembly line functions using pneumatic cascade circuits, in which each action upon completion triggers another action via pneumatic limit switches. At the touch of a button, the machine handles everything from washing and sanitizing the bottles to filling and capping them.

Shaun challenged himself to make the contraption purely mechanical, with no electrical, microcontroller, or programmable logic controller involved. This approach has several advantages. One is that with beer around, electronics can pose safety risks. Also, with electronics more can go wrong, and a specialist is usually needed to come in and fix issues. Shaun received a high grade for his project, and for less than US$10,000, 3 Giants got a machine they estimate would have normally cost US$30,000-60,000.

The success of his pneumatic assembly line led Shaun to explore it as a business idea. It even attracted some attention from overseas buyers. However, the costs of shipping and regulatory standards made the entire project prohibitively expensive. Still, the experience has given him the entrepreneurial bug. He has opened a school that teaches young students robotics and is developing a curriculum for schools around Taiwan based on kits he sells under the brand name roBox.

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