After visiting Shanghai for the World Beer Tour China, I flew to Taipei to meet up with Superstition’s importer, Cascadia International, and to host a “Meet the Mead Maker” event at Mikkeller Taipei. In the lead up to the trip I asked our importer and friend Yuhang if he knew anyone who would be up for a collaboration brew. We began an email chain between Superstition and a top Taiwanese brewery called Jim and Dad’s. What transpired was one of the coolest trips I have had the pleasure to take.
Taipei is a short hop from Shanghai, and within an hour of landing I was checking in to the Palais de Chine Hotel about a half mile from Mikkeller Taipei. I had a bit of time to chill, and caught up with Yuhang in the evening at his place, Mikkeller Taipei. Walking to the bar is a great introduction to Taipei. It seems weird to say this place feels very Chinese, because it obviously is, but the signage, architecture, store fronts below residential living, the aromas, and the feeling of the contrast between modern wide roads and tight alleys bursting with life is culturally encapsulating for this participant observer. I can’t help but smile as I observe the sights and sounds of such a uniquely Asian cityscape. I sometimes find an odd sense of wellbeing in new places, a type of déjà vu perhaps, and Taipei fits this bill succinctly. You simply need to visit this place.
I have met Yuhang twice before, in Copenhagen at the greatest beer festival in the world, but we never had the chance to hang out for very long. We have exchanged plenty of email correspondence in introducing Superstition to Taiwan, but to be on his turf with the time to toss back some beers and share some great meals was a different story. I am introduced to Alex, Cascadia’s sales manager, and the three of us start talking business straight away. I realize that I neglect to start with personal inquiries, but we are all really psyched to get into mead speak, and the guys catch me up on the challenges and success we have facilitated to date. With a plan to meet early for a long day, we call it quits after a few hours and I walk back to my hotel through this historic Taipei neighborhood known for hundreds of years of international trade.
It is 8 AM and Yuhang and Alex show up at my hotel with a Mercedes van and chauffer. This is wild. These guys have some kind of style. We head to Yilan, an area southeast of Taipei about an hour outside of the city. As soon as we leave the urban area, steep mountains covered in sub-tropical forest command the view. I realize I know very little about Taiwan, and compared with the amount of research and experience I have with studying Thai and Southeast Asia from my undergrad days at Arizona State, this thought sticks around for a minute. I feel more like a tourist than a traveler but at the same time there is something very cool about the novelty of each moment. After driving through one of the world’s longest tunnels, the mountains yield to agricultural fields and soon we reach our first destination, a tea farm.
Neither Yuhang or Alex have been here before, and this place which is covered with tropical fruit trees and rows of tea plants is beautiful. The weather is warm and humid as we meet the family running this interactive farm. Yuhang and Alex speak excellent English, and they are translating as much information as possible so I can keep up. Translating is hard work, and it is really impressive how fast these guys are relaying details of our adventure in learning about all things tea, first hand. We first have to tie an ancient style of tea picking basket to our waists, and don a classic Chinese woven hat to mitigate the sun.
I am instructed to pick the last 4 leaves of any branch from the tea plants. We all get to work, and the collection process seems to take longer than you would expect. I am moving with care to properly pick the leaves, and these tight rows of tea plants seem like the perfect place to run into a cobra or banded krait. With a few things on the agenda for the day, we head back to the farm house and are taken through the steps of drying and baking tea leaves, all the way up to us each having our very own package of green tea leaves that we prepared ourselves. This is a very cool experience, and training on how to do something new from the experts is always a rare thing indeed.
After tea time we head to a restaurant to meet up with Jim from Jim and Dad’s as well as Leo and Jay from Taiwan Head Brewers, another top brewery in Taiwan. The meal includes fried squid beaks, an entire chicken including the feet and butt, wild boar, local fish, and more which was all enjoyed family style with some easy drinking beer. My chopstick skills are complimented and the guys think it is cool that I am up for eating anything on the table, but Jay tops us all when he eats the chicken brain. Everything was delicious, but this restaurant is known for its whole chicken prepared in custom firebrick ovens outdoors. It was perfect.
After this feast that we could barely finish, it is time to pick out the honey that will go into our collaboration brew. Right next to Jim and Dad’s Brewery is one of the most unique businesses I have ever seen. It is a business dedicated to educating visitors about bee keeping and honey production. It is geared towards kids with playgrounds and even a miniature train ride through the land of five foot plastic bee figures, as well as having a museum with an indoor see through beehive, and an outdoor apiary. Of course there is honey to sample and it is serious business tasting delicious Taiwanese honey from tropical fruit blossoms like longan to wildflower to pomelo. We all agree that the pleasant citrus notes make Pomelo honey the best choice to pair with the other ingredients of Taiwanese tea and kumquat juice destined for this brew.
We head over to the brewery and get to work on the homebrewing process all of us started out doing in our craft brewing and mead making careers. This is a brew that is very experimental, and commercially very expensive to produce so we are trying this test batch to prove the concept. Jim is an excellent host, and as his production crew takes over the brewing, we tour his immaculate brewery and brewpub.
The equipment is all top notch, the dining areas are huge with long tables made from a single hardwood tree, some up to 6 inches thick. Jim and his Dad even built an observation tower connected to the brewery. Situated alongside a wide floodplain dividing the two mountain ranges that form the spines defining the island, this tower commands an inspirational view of Taiwan’s topography.
I notice that Jim pays a great attention to detail, and this is evidenced when we head back inside the brewery and he spots several frisbee toys have made it up to the roof of his place adjacent to the grassy outdoor area where people can drink and play games. He grabs an extendable pole to remove the toys, and climbs out of a window, adeptly traversing a narrow ledge to reach the items. This looks fun, and I do my best to look cool climbing out of the window myself to lend a hand respectfully disregarding Jim’s commands to stay inside. I am always up for a bit of high angle work from my days of rock climbing and the idea of helping out doing something just a bit risky appeals to the fire fighter in me. All goes well, and we gather to share more beer and I open up several bottles of mead from the Superstition Reserve.
The day is a blast, and friendships are formed as we tell jokes, make fun of each other, and make a crazy beer with a tincture of tea prepared by Leo and Jay, local honey and vibrant kumquat juice. I can’t wait to try a bottle of this collab between Jim and Dad’s, Taiwan Head Brewer’s, Mikkeller Taipei, and Superstition.
With backslapping goodbyes in Yilan to Jim and his crew we head back to Taipei where the guys take me to a very hip Japanese Izakaya. The beer and sake flow, and pair perfectly with the individual skewers of a dozen or more dishes coming off the grill. From chicken topped with fish roe to marinated beef and vegetables, this elbow to elbow place is packed and full of life as we celebrate our day and laugh into the night.
Finally, it is the last day of my trip to Asia and the “Meet the Mead Maker” event at Mikkeller Taipei is on. In the early evening I walk back to the bar, taking my time to enjoy the atmosphere of this beautiful city. I arrive before my hosts, and take some time to educate the staff on each of the products that will be on tap and available in bottles throughout the evening. I share a document with tasting notes and descriptions, and we pour samples as I talk about each mead and our cider, Blueberry Spaceship Box. Yuhang and Alex arrive and they want to show me the neighborhood before the event. Passing by shops with traditional Chinese medicines, dried fish egg sacks, and souvenirs, we pay our respects at a local Taoist temple. This temple is dedicated to a god who can help worshippers with their romantic relationships, and Yuhang explains the significance of this. Because this area has been run by successful merchant and trading families, one thing they could always use a bit of celestial assistance with is asking the gods to help their children marry well. I have always been a fan of Taoism, and it is not out of place for me to make a donation for some incense sticks and participate in the local custom along this busy pedestrian street.
After the temple we walk to the river side bustling with local people eating and drinking from stands and food trucks. It is always refreshing to visit a place that permits you to enjoy an alcoholic beverage outdoors. I have never agreed with the American regulations against standing in public with a beer. Anywhere I have visited without this restriction is always in order, and I don’t think the world will end if you can walk down the sidewalk with a drink. We decide to toast our pending event with a glass of champagne on the roof of one of these river side stands, and we watch the Tamsui river head out to the Pacific as the people of Taipei enjoy their evening stroll along the river walk.
Back at Mikkeller Taipei the place is buzzing with mead fans. Drinks are poured and I am led up to the second floor room where dozens of beer geeks, brewers, mead fans, and even proprietors of our Taiwan locations have gathered to hear about Superstition. I thank everyone for coming out to the event and spend some time sitting and talking with lots of great people throughout the night. I am humbled by the response, and the passion that all of us in this craft beverage world seem to share. Craft beverages bring out some of the best in us. The creativity that goes into everything we make, the positive intentions to make people happy through our craft, and the human bonding that occurs via the ancient tradition of drinking together is something special indeed. The evening comes to a close, but first I am invited to be a part of Fei Gao Gao. This Taiwanese tradition involves a large group of guys throwing one person up in the air until the flying man can touch the ceiling. I have serious reservations about this exercise, but the guys get psyched, and with a bit of liquid courage I fly high and with the benefit of some long arms I slap the ceiling first try.