The Best Little Beer Shop in Taiwan
Ale with Dried Longan in New Taipei City
I roll my eyes each time I read an article touting Taiwan’s street food. The food scene has become synonymous with being cheap and fast. This perception has spilled over to drinks, too. Some of it is true. Like most 20-something expats, I’ve had my share of drunken nights chugging watery Taiwan Beer on the stoop outside of a 7-Eleven. It’s a rite of passage. But a visit last summer to Pasteur Street Brewing Company in Saigon left me wondering where in Taiwan I could find craft beer.
I returned home on a mission. Henceforth, I was only going to drink locally-brewed craft beer. My friends thought I was crazy. My editor thought it was genius. My newspaper column was born out of this idea: uncovering the best bars and breweries in town to show that Taipei isn’t just a cheap city.
The sudden expansion of the craft-beer industry can be attributed to the slow food movement. People want to know more about where their food is coming from. This is largely due to Taiwan’s “gutter oil” scandal: vendors and restaurants using recycled oil collected from drains and grease traps to cook dishes. Luckily for craft brewers, the demand for healthy food has also led to a demand for good beer.
The first microbrewery I visited was in an old double-story house nestled between warehouses in the industrial district of Xinzhuang in New Taipei City. Strict laws confine most breweries to remote areas and explain the absence of brew pubs in Taiwan. Opened in late 2014—around the same time as many other breweries such as 23 Brewing and Redpoint—55th Street Craft Brewery is just a 45-minute metro ride from downtown Taipei.
Jack Yu and Johan Yan, the husband and wife who run the microbrewery, unlock a little blue door to let me in. Downstairs is a mash tank, a kettle, and six fermentation tanks. Upstairs is a room to store malt, another room containing a small miller which Jack and Johan dub “the Terminator,” and a tiny office space where they crack dried longan shells—a subtropical fruit native to Taiwan that tastes like lychee, but drier and less sweet—to make their signature Amber Ale.
Like many other craft brewers in Taiwan, Jack, a former psychology student, and Johan, a model, began brewing as a hobby before taking the leap. The name of their brewery—a reference to 55th Street in Bogota, Colombia, where Jack’s parents ran a Chinese restaurant—represents their own promising start in a nascent industry.
When Jack and Johan began brewing, they wanted to create a beer that consumers would associate as being from Taiwan: something brisk, refreshing, and reminiscent of the island’s subtropical climate. Hence the dried longan.
They explain how they peel the longans, which are sourced from a farm in Miaoli in western Taiwan. The shell goes in the mash tank along with the crystal malt they import from the UK, and the fruit’s meat goes in the kettle. The resulting Amber Ale, with a 5.5% ABV, is surprisingly not too sweet as the yeast eats away most of the sugar. The caramel taste from the malt is evident, along with delightful hints of nut and honey, and a delicate, smoky finish created by the dried longan. It’s technically early autumn when we’re drinking this but the air outside is still a little humid, and the dry, biscuity texture of the Amber Ale helps quench my thirst.
Although Jack and Johan plan to expand, for now they don’t mind being called a “cute brewery,” as I had described it. They joke that one of the benefits of being small is that they get to measure their brew cycles by the number of movies they watch while waiting.
As for the promise I made to myself, I’ve stuck to it, and won’t be popping open a can of Taiwan Beer from 7-Eleven any time soon.