By mixing traditional and modern elements of Taiwanese culture with humor and creativity, Taihu Brewing manages to stand out on the shelves.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF TAIHU
Taihu Brewing Co. has brewed around 100 different beer flavors per year since its brewery came online in 2015. The company was founded by five people who had never before been involved in the brewing industry. Despite this, Taihu has grown to be Taiwan’s second-largest domestic beer brand, following only state-owned Taiwan Beer.
Its drinks are sold widely in Taiwan and internationally, and companies like EVA Air, Starbucks, and the Regent Hotels Group have developed co-branded or specialty beers together with the company. Taihu also runs five well-frequented bars in Taipei and three in Taichung, where it sells its own beers along with cocktails and food.
In addition to producing refreshing and flavorful products, Taihu owes some of its success to its distinctive branding and design. It’s been described by CommonWealth Magazine as using “international language and modern elements to interpret tradition,” a blend that attracts both domestic and international drinkers.
The company’s name – Taihu, or 臺虎 – translates into “Taiwanese tiger,” and its logo features a tiger and nine hops, since the number nine (九, jiu) is a homonym for alcohol (酒, jiu). Hops – the dried, flowering parts of the hop plant (Humulus lupulus) – are used as a bittering, flavoring, and stability agent in beer. The logo is shaped like a hulu (葫蘆), a Chinese bottle gourd.
Although tigers are not native to Taiwan, the animal carries historical connections to the island. For example, Taiwan is famously one of the four “Asian tigers” that experienced rapid economic growth in the second half of the 20th century.
Taihu’s tiger, however, draws its inspiration from the short-lived Republic of Formosa (1895), which prominently featured a tiger on its flag. This republic emerged as a response to the competition between the Empire of Japan and the Qing dynasty for control over Taiwan. Remarkably, it managed to hold onto power for 151 days in a David-versus-Goliath-style struggle.
“We knew we wanted to compete directly against the bigger players in the market,” says a member of the management team. Unlike most markets, where the top four beer brands are domestic, Taiwan’s second most popular beer was a foreign brand when Taihu was founded. “We felt strongly that there was opportunity for a for a new domestic brand to emerge and saw ourselves as the small guys competing against the big guys.”
Asked about the tiger and its connection to the brand identity today, Daa Huang, Taihu Brewing’s brand and creative director, says a tiger is “a big, cute, and curious cat – and it hops.”
Huang has been working on Taihu’s designs and marketing for the past seven years. Before that she was an origami jewelry artist in London, selling her creations on Broadway Market and, as she puts it, “drinking a lot of beer.”
Upon returning to Taiwan, Huang continued selling her highly successful origami jewelry at markets around Taiwan. Her love for beer and curiosity over the brewing process led her to also become a part-time brewer at Taihu. At lunch one day, the team was struggling with its first-ever can label, and Huang piped up from the corner: “Oh, I can take a stab at that.” The rest is creative history.
The creative process behind a Taihu-brewed beer and the design of its container can vary. Sometimes the flavor comes first, sometimes the name. An example of the latter is the fruited ale “Son of a Peach,” which the Taihu team created as a nod to a co-founder’s tendency to use a certain English profanity.
The brand’s strong Taiwanese identity is often reflected in its design. For example, the Taihu Lemon Formosawa uses fonts and a style with connotations to old Taiwanese fruit boxes. The name in English blends “Formosa,” another word for Taiwan, and sawa (沙瓦), a loan word from Japanese used for sour alcoholic drinks frequently served at an izakaya, a casual Japanese-style drinks-and-snacks establishment common in Taiwan.
One flavor that stands out in its deep connection to both Taiwanese and pop culture is the limited-edition betel nut beer, which was available in stores earlier this year. Betel nuts, widely popular in Taiwan, are the world’s fourth most commonly used psychoactive substance after tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine.
For Taiwanese people, the chewing of these cancer-inducing stimulants is often associated with Taike (臺客), something like the Taiwanese version of rednecks. The expression brings to mind men in the countryside wearing colorful and patterned shirts, chewing betel nuts, and sporting large tattoos.
In Taiwan, betel nuts are mostly sold on roadsides by binlang girls (檳榔西施, binlang xishi), also called “betel nut beauties.” These are young women selling cigarettes and betel nuts from a brightly lit roadside glass enclosure, wearing revealing clothing to attract customers.
Huang explains that this beer started out as an April fool’s joke. Taihu collaborated with the fictional character Zack (財哥) from the viral meme “Zack’s Professional Betel Nut Stall” (財哥專業檳榔攤) as well as the Taipei-based merch brand Baby Betel Nut (寶貝檳榔) for an online joke post promoting the fake product last year.
“But we saw that the market was very excited about this product, so we thought, why not make it real?” says Huang.
Taking into account the negative health effects of betel nuts, Taihu used Piper betle leaves, which are used to wrap betel nuts, to mimic the distinct aroma – and unlike chewing betel nuts, drinking the beer did not turn consumers’ mouths red.
Go big or go home
Taihu’s brand identity is described by a member of the management team as “你最壞的好朋友” (your naughtiest best friend) – that best friend who, sporting a playful grin and a glint in their eyes, is always down for your crazy ideas.”
The company aims to create a consumer brand with a distinct Taiwanese identity and international recognition. Although some consumer brands – such as electronics companies Acer, Asus, and HTC – have gained international success, few people know that they are Taiwanese. Meanwhile, famously Taiwanese companies like chip manufacturer TSMC don’t make products that consumers can hold in their hands.
When asked about the target audiences of Taihu’s marketing, Huang says that’s not how the company works. “We don’t market our products to specific demographics,” she says. “We make them for certain situations. The same person will need different types of drinks for different situations.”
For example, the more simply designed “Beer” is a low-calorie drink made for bringing along on a hike or enjoying in nature. The neon colors make the beer easy to find if you put it down in the grass, and the cans feature outlines of different mountains in Taiwan. The top part of the can reads “brewed for adventure,” and the text at the back of the label says this beer will accompany you in “the ups and downs of life.”
The highly popular strong beer 9.99 Series, meanwhile, is clearly made for parties. The high alcohol content – 9.99%, which not-so-coincidentally sounds like “alcohol, alcohol, alcohol” in Chinese – makes it a popular option for drinking before or during a night out. The price of a can is a fitting NT$99. This series features designs that are modern, playful, and often cheeky, and most of the product names are bilingual puns.
The strong ale Cow-Bae Fizz is my favorite example of the fun bilingual word play. This Gin Fizz-inspired drink uses sweet and lactic acid as the base and features a cow and a milk pitcher on the front of the can. The English name uses the slang “bae,” which is an endearing nickname meaning “before anyone else,” babe, or darling. In Chinese, however, kaobei (靠杯, pronounced cow-bae) is slang used in often ridiculous situations when you would say “damn” or “shut up.”
When asked about the most challenging aspect of designing for Taihu Brewing, Huang says it’s “getting past people’s lawyers.” Some designs and names have required modification due to intellectual property concerns.
For example, the Moonlight Yuzu strong beer, which was launched during this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival (also known as the Moon Festival), features an undressed woman just dissimilar enough to the popular cartoon character Sailor Moon to avoid trouble. As an added cute feature, the Taihu tiger on the logo is wearing a simulated version of a pomelo hat. Pomelos are frequently eaten during the Mid-Autumn season, and household cats often end up wearing the peel as a hat.
Perhaps for her own amusement, Huang often incorporates ”Easter eggs” – hidden messages, images, or features – into a design. The Easter eggs are never mentioned or explained by Taihu – only those who notice will know.
A notable example of the thought and care put in by Taihu’s design team is a bitter beer with a sweet aftertaste. For the label, the design team wanted to present the concept of the four-word idiom 苦盡甘來 (kujin ganlai), meaning “happiness comes when bitterness ends.” The final product was a label that in daylight reads “bitter” (苦), but on which a glow-in-the-dark “sweet” (甘) appears in darkness. To me, it connotes nagging from my husband about doing chores in the form of 先苦後甘” (xian ku, hou gan) – first bitter, then sweet, or “c’mon, can you at least do the dishes before putting on Netflix?”
Despite a proven track record of impressive creativity, Huang remains humble about her own abilities. Still, she offers three nuggets of wisdom for brands looking to stand out: stay true to your identity, don’t copy others, and “go big or go home.”
Please drink responsibly.