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Who Puts the Tiger in Taihu Brewing

Pub talk with Winnie Hsu

· pub talk

There are plenty of reasons to visit Taiwan - easy access to nature, friendly locals, night markets - and you can now add Taihu Brewing(臺虎精釀) to the list.

Over the past few years, Taipei has developed a thriving and vibrant craft beer scene that is uniquely Taiwanese, adapting the best craft beer learning from abroad and infusing it with local talent, ingredients and flavors. Taihu Brewing leads the way.

Taihu Brewing has quickly grown to 6 locations around Taipei, taking its name from two distinct sources - ‘tai’ for ‘Taiwan’ (as you might have guessed), and ‘hu’ from the Mandarin for tiger (lǎo hǔ). Their distinctive logo features a prowling tiger under a banner of hops.

For craft beer lovers, stepping into a Taihu taproom (啜飲室) is a bit like waking up on Christmas morning. The long line of taps beckon, the chalkboard detailing the selections overwhelms. Where do you begin? Can you possibly drink every beer you’re curious to try in one single session? (You could, theoretically, but a doctor probably wouldn’t recommend it.)

The difference between Taihu Brewing and Christmas is that Santa isn’t delivering these presents - Winnie Hsu is.

Meet Taihu’s head brewer

Hsu’s journey to craft brewing mastery began in Atlanta, Georgia at the Gordon Biersch Brewery.

“My teacher was a man...everyone there was a man,” Hsu recalls of the experience. But being outnumbered didn’t bother her. She put her head down and got to work. “It was my very first experience, so at the time I didn’t understand beer at all. I was basically an apprentice, doing the most basic tasks.”

Looking back now, the time she spent at Gordon Biersch were invaluable. “It was a great opportunity to learn, because everything was done by hand. Actually, I was very lucky to be given all these chores. My teacher was very strict, always standing next to me watching my every move and critiquing - I’m so grateful for his strictness.”

It’s a good thing Hsu appreciated her first teacher’s strictness, because her next stop on her craft brewing journey placed her under even more intensive instruction.

The Fatherland of beer

If you’re going to learn the ins and outs of craft brewing, there’s no better place than the beer Fatherland: Germany.

“Through my time in the States, I had enough experience to understand [beer], but I wanted to formalize my education,” explains like Hsu. Unable to receive the training and certification she wanted where she was, a mentor of hers suggested she move to Berlin to attend a famous brewing program there.

“It was a very intensive six months,” Hsu recalls. “Germans who want certification often attend 5-year programs!” Squeezing so much knowledge into six months of education made for a challenging schedule. “We had tests every week. We covered one new curriculum each week.” Like her boss in Atlanta before, her German instructors were rigorous and strict.

They also gave her a new perspective on the term ‘craft beer’. According to the Germans, it’s a silly turn of phrase - if you’re doing your job right, every beer is a ‘craft beer’.

Bringing beer to Taiwan’s drinkers

Once again, Hsu’s hard work and patience was worth it to obtain expertise in doing what she loves most: brewing beer.

“I’ve never faced anything that’s been totally able to stop me,” she grins. “The more things that stand in the way, the bolder I feel. I’m ready and willing for every obstacle that comes my way.”

Nowadays as a seasoned veteran, Hsu’s doing more than brewing highly professional quality beer for Taihu’s many taprooms. She’s also training up a new generation of Taiwanese brewers.

“To understand the whole [brewing] process you have to learn step-by-step,” she says, fully aware of how similar she must sound to her first strict teacher from days gone by. “You have to learn the basics of brewing and production management...You have to reach a certain level before you’re able to start toying with your own brewing ideas. In order to improve, you have to understand the entire process to know where you need to make adjustments.”

Most importantly, if you want to learn brewing, you have to have a passion. “It starts from yourself,” Hsu argues. “I can only help to a certain extent. You have to have a keen interest in learning it all.”

Hsu may seem strict, but she’s a woman of contradictions. Sometimes she digs into the nitty gritty of the production process, and then she jumps to waxing poetically on the beauty of beer. So what is she? Left brained or right brained?

“You need artistry,” Hsu explains herself. “You need that flexibility and creativity. But when it comes to experimenting, you also need accuracy to know how to tweak the fine points of your recipe. You need both sides to do the job.”

Enjoying the fruits of Hsu’s labor

Outside of Taipei you may find Taihu’s brews hard to come by. Happily, Hsu graced us with her newest line of brews- and in return, we brought some of our favorite Shanghai snacks to pair.

First we tried the ‘Mai Xiang’ (麥鄉), or Taihu Bright Ale, a malt forward beer inspired by a Taiwanese favorite: barley tea. The flavors are deliberately based on this traditional Chinese drink. “We wanted to brew a very relaxed beer,” says Hsu. “We were brewing a Taiwanese beer for Taiwanese people. We wanted to brew something that would put people at ease while they drink, so naturally we chose a familiar flavor, reminiscent of the local barley tea they know and love.”

Shanghai snack pairing: A classic, juicy fried dumpling (生煎包) for a consummate Chinese flavor combination.

Next came the Taihu IPA (臺虎IPA) from this new series. It’s extremely aromatic with notes of passionfruit, citrus and other tropical fruits paired with floral hops, and balanced with the trademark bitterness of an IPA aftertaste. Hsu says, “I really like to make these kinds of classic beer. Getting the base right is the most important part, and then whatever you add on top is bonus.” And this Taihu IPA has plenty of bonus to appreciate.

Shanghai snack pairing: A breakfast savory pancake (煎餅), because everyone should start the day with beer & eggs.

The next ‘Xiao Mai’(臺虎小麥), or Taihu Weisse, is a German-style with notes of a smoky, mature wheat, brewed with an alluring mixture of banana, cloves and cardamom for a mild and smooth texture.

Shanghai snack pairing: A stuffed rice ball (粢飯團) for a filling brunch. Don’t worry, you’re getting your serving of fruit from the banana notes in the beer.

Finally we tried the winner of the 2016 Gold Award at the Japan International Beer Cup: the Kumquat Kölsch (金桔科隆). The style is historic, hailing from Cologne, Germany where it’s clear, bright flavor and straw-yellow hue has been enjoyed for hundreds of years. The addition of the kumquat is uniquely Taiwanese.

Shanghai snack pairing: A uniquely Shanghai almond & walnut shortbread(杏桃排) with the Kumquat Kolsch, it's our favorite pairing of the day. The Taihu brew is refreshing and thirst-quenching, cleansing the palate of the buttery, nutty richness of the shortbread, while the bread's sweetness enhancing the fragrant kumquat notes.

If you enjoy the beautiful labels, by the way, you have Taiwanese artist Yao Ruizhong(姚瑞中) to thank. These breathtaking labels illustrate the roots these beers have sprouted from - the fertile mind of Hsu and the inspiration she finds in her native Taiwan. Each can represents a different landmark. The red of Wuling Maple Farm, Taichung (台中武陵); blue of Si Shou Moutain, Taipei (台北四兽山); the purple of Beinan, Taitung (台東卑南); and the green of Guanziling Hotspring, Taichung (台中關子嶺).

Ultimately the addition of locally inspired ingredients and the label artwork based on Taiwan’s natural beauty are all a testament to Hsu’s labor of love: making Taipei a truly unmissable destination for craft beer nerds everywhere.

If you can’t afford the trip in time to taste this latest release, don’t worry. Hsu’s not letting up anytime soon. “I’m interested in lots of other things,” she admits, “but beer is the thing that is inseparable from myself. It’s my other half.”

The videos are only in Chinese, but they can still make you thirsty and hungry.

(Part 1:和Winnie聊她职业生涯中的贵人,理想中的另一半,还有对釀酒一絲不苟的態度。原谅我不时翘起的大爷腿,因為和女神聊天太愜意,難怪她說身邊許多好友當她“心理醫生”。)

(Part 2:吃吃吃,喝喝~)

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