If there’s ever been a bit of unsolicited advice that I would share: Nobody likes a whiner. People who complain all the time are a drag, and they’re generally more than willing to bring you down with them.
That said, my life in Taipei is somewhat stagnant. All work and very little play. But I don’t like to complain about it. I’m a problem solver, right? Therefore, I’m always on the lookout for creative projects to keep me busy during idle times, which is part of why I wrote The Lazy Bastard Guide to Mandarin, and recorded another Aztec Hearts album, and maintain Black Sunshine Media. It’s something to do.
You know what else I do in my free time in Taipei? Drink. A lot. Pretty much every night, unless it’s physically improbable. Mostly red wine, but I will drink beer when I’m hanging out with friends. Hard alcohol (liquor) is almost never part of the conversation, but I’ve been known to order a cocktail – usually a vodka Martini – in the airport smoking lounge. I don’t have a grudge against cocktails with distilled spirits; they’re just too rough on my liver, which has taken a beating and deserves the benefit of the doubt. Don’t even ask me if I want a “shot” of anything. The answer is no.
Beer may be the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man, and the third most-consumed beverage in the world, behind water and tea. A fermented beverage using rice and fruit was made in China around 7,000 BC, and the product that early Europeans guzzled might not be recognized as “beer” today. Alongside the basic starch source – the sugar required for fermentation – the early European beers would contain fruits, honey, a variety of plants, spices and other substances such as psychotropic herbs.
By the 16th century, beer was so important that the Duke of Bavaria, William the IV, introduced a purity law called Reinheitsgebot, which was the only really notable thing Bill did in his life, but everybody took the law very seriously. According to Reinheitsgebot, the only permitted ingredients of beer are water, hops and barley malt. It remained the oldest food-quality regulation in use up until 1986, when it was abolished by the European Union as a ‘binding obligation.’ Germany passed some new law in 1993, and that’s all I know or care about that.
Taiwan loves its beer, loves the fuck out of its beer, specifically, its own beer: Taiwan Beer, brewed by the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation. They drink the stuff by the tanker. It’s pumped in through the hydrants – they use it to put out fires.
Taiwan Beer is unquestionably the island’s most iconic brand and prominent cultural institution. Brewed as an amber lager in a Pilsner style, its distinct taste is produced by the inclusion of ponlai rice (locally harvested “Formosa rice” 蓬萊米). The ponlai is added to the malt during the fermentation process in order to save money on more expensive ingredients such as hops and barley – you know, the stuff beer is supposed to be made from – which are not widely grown in Taiwan, as well as to impart a purported “smoothness.”
Though it’s somewhat of a contentious issue on the street, I’m going to be honest with you people. I can’t stand Taiwan Beer. It makes me unhappy. And I drank Taiwan Beer for my first year in Taipei mainly because I was running on adrenaline and not paying attention. I reckoned, “I’m in Taiwan, I should drink Taiwan Beer.”
A lot of rookies make the same mistake. My good fortune was to catch it and cut it out.
Taiwan Beer’s “distinct taste” is codespeak for raw, unpleasantly earth-like flavor, which gets progressively more rancid as the beer gets warmer in your paw. Some of the most difficult swallows of my drinking career were the last gulps of a Taiwan Beer tallboy. It’s like drinking run-off from a landfill. You kind of hate yourself after those.
Nowadays, when I’m in a situation that calls for drinking beer – usually hanging out at a 7-Eleven – I strongly prefer two Japanese beers, Asahi and Kirin, over anything else in the cooler. I can’t say that I would never drink Taiwan Beer again. There are plenty of extenuating circumstances in which I could imagine drinking a few Gold Medals. I can say with nearly absolute veracity that given other options, I would chose not to drink Taiwan Beer.
Taiwan Beer has one smaller local competitor, Taiwan Long Chuan Beer, owned by the Taiwan Tsing Beer Corporation and brewed in Kaohsiung City. In 2012, Long Chuan launched a line of fruit beers, which were supposedly very popular in the summer. Taiwan Beer quickly entered the market; they now have five different fruit beers in stores. Long Chuan has four – that I’m aware of. They might have 50 for all I know. I see four in the cooler at 7-Eleven.
Back when I was a bachelor, I used to hang out at this local bar called Sam’s Club. One night a pair of women came in and ordered some strange bottle of beer, and then proceeded to share it, all the while cooing over the drink and taking a bunch of selfies with the bottle. I said to the bartender, my friend Simon, “What the hell are they so excited about?”
“That’s the new lychee beer. It just come out.”
“Lychee beer. Are you serious.” No question mark necessary.
“Sure. You want to try?”
“No thanks, man.”
“It’s good – haohe!” Good to drink.
All right, so I’m not a big fan of lychee, either. Shit smells like a grandma perfume to me.
So for the last two years, I’ve been seeing this gradual expansion of fruit beers in the coolers at 7-Eleven and my local supermarket of choice. Every time I walk by, I think, “Who the hell is drinking that crap?”
Here’s something you probably didn’t know about me. In 2004, I took and passed the Introductory Course for the Court of Master Sommeliers. The certificate essentially means that I had a fundamental yet significantly developed knowledge of wine – how it’s made, where it’s made, who makes it, what it tastes like and most importantly, why. [The passing rate for the course is 60%, by the way – so it’s not terribly difficult, but it’s not a walk in the park, either.] It would be hubris to call myself a sommelier – I am not. But if I had stayed in the restaurant business, I may have moved on to the next level. It’s impossible to say.
The other day, my friend Beldone and I were yapping back and forth about some random people promoting their fancy beer-tasting event at a local restaurant. We were basically making fun of them, because that’s what we do when we’re not making fun of each other. But man, even beer can be pretentious, especially in Taipei. I [wrote], “Yeah, I taste beer every time I drink it.” Real clever, sport.
Anyway, this afternoon I went to the supermarket and I saw a woman perusing the fruit beer section – and it is a section, no doubt – and so I stopped to see what, if anything she would buy. I was super curious, man. I’d never seen anyone buy or drink a fruit beer, other than that one time at Sam’s. The woman picked up and eyeballed a couple of items, but ultimately walked away without making a selection.
Then it hit me. Let’s do a fruit beer tasting! And so I grabbed a basket and loaded up on 11 cans of liquid, which set me back approximately ten bucks.
After putting the fruit beer in the fridge for a couple of hours to get it down to a drinkable temperature, I reluctantly selected the first candidate – grape – because I really dig grape soda, which Beldone tells me is the number one drink of choice among inmates on death row. Now, I don’t know where he got that information but it seems highly plausible; grape soda does kind of seem like the beverage of the doomed. Let’s see how much further down the line of damnation we can go.
Fruit Beer Tasting Notes
* The majority of these beverages are 2.5% alcohol unless otherwise noted.
Taiwan Beer – Grape
- Light-bodied, clear and pale, orange-pink color; effervescent but short foam.
- Strong Welch’s grape juice nose with watermelon overtones. Hints of a Jolly Rancher dissolved in bleach.
- Pungent mouth feel on impact – a reflection of the underlying rice brewed swill – which lingers unpleasantly, almost bitterly on the dentals; grape jelly infused with chutney shoots toward the back of the palate and mercifully, immediately disappears, leaving only a fleeting wisp of grapesque flavor. Nail polish as an aperitif.
Taiwan Beer – Mango
- Bright complexion, slight effervesce, rusty-gold color – could be mistaken for regular beer, if you didn’t see the mangoes clearly pictured on the side of the can.
- Prominent mango nose. Floral and sugary aroma. Hints of lychee nut and honeydew.
- Surprisingly mild and tangy flavor. The passion fruit overpowers the rice beer funk. Not nearly as horrible as I thought it would be. Took a voluntary second mouthful. Much longer finish than the grape. Slightly tacky residue on the palate.
Taiwan Beer – Pineapple
- Redundant visuals on complexion and depth – looks like beer, nothing special.
- Beguiling, frustratingly vague nose. Smells of something that maybe stepped in some pineapple a couple of blocks away.
- Grimacingly immediate garbage mouth presence. Wisps of pineapple and salt water taffy. Not the worst thing I’ve ever had in my mouth, but certainly the most unpleasant of the day – so far.
Taiwan Beer – Sweet Touch Green Grape
- Soft, rusty color, medium bodied, clear complexion. Flat as a pancake.
- Sour, unidentifiable nose. Would not have guessed “grape” if it wasn’t on the side of the can.
- Foul raisin, prune, and pickle mouth presence. Tacky finish. Flouride aftertaste. 3.5% alcohol.
Taiwan Beer – Sweet Touch Green Apple
- Brilliant, medium bodied, pale color. Slight clouding near the top. Decent amount of bubbling.
- Hardcore candy apple nose. Sickly sweet aroma. No mistaking what this is.
- The sweetest of all flavors so far. Like insulin mixed with antifreeze. Had to spit it out. Super gross.
Taiwan Long Chuan Beer – Lemon
- Flat, clear, yellowish-gold, diuretic urine color. Nothing on bubbles – went flat within seconds.
- Medium scent of 7-Up or Sprite that’s been left open for a couple of days. Slight hints of lemon drops.
- Clean, fresh mouth feel with a slight tartness of lime and lemon, without a beery aftertaste. Not unlike a Shandy. Unfortunate brackish, fish tank water finish. Off-brand lemon-lime soda with suggestions of some kind of nut, like walnuts or something. No fruit presence or persistence of memory.
Taiwan Long Chuan Beer – Banana
- Redundant color, depth and complexion. Good initial head, but faded quickly. A few stray champagne bubbles persist.
- Potent banana aroma popping straight from the can. Reminded me of my mother’s banana pudding, but sadly, not Baker’s Square banana cream pie.
- A touch too sweet and overboard on the banana flavor. Not unpleasant, but almost chewy.
Taiwan Long Chuan Beer – Hello Kitty Apple
- Medium bodied, clear color. Another dud on the fizz.
- Intriguingly complex aromas of hard cider, green apple, Washington apple, and almond.
- Pulpy, cotton apple mouth feel. Long finish. Slightly astringent, low-grade cider aftertaste. Slightly disappointed by the complete lack of Hello Kitty flavor.
Taiwan Long Chuan Beer – Peach
- Bright, clear, pale yellow. Persistent bubbling. Zero depth, but strong, long-lasting head.
- Subtle nose with hints of peach pit and mild petroleum jelly.
- Bold fruit mouth feel. Strong peachy peachesque presence. Overtones of apricot, watermelon, and honey. Subtle urging to punch someone in the spleen. Smooth finish. Slightly chemical aftertaste.
Kirin – Lime Drink
- Wasn’t sure if this was a beer or what, but it was on the same shelf as the fruit beers and there’s a lime on the can, so let’s do it. [I’m pretty certain this is Happoshu (発泡酒 happōshu lit. “bubbling spirits”), or low-malt beer. The Japanese are as particular about their beer requirements as the Germans. Let’s skip the rest.]
- Call it a 3% alcohol version of a vodka tonic, cuz that’s exactly what this tastes like. Maybe even the most-watered down gimlet you’ve ever had. It’s not bad, it’s just not the cocktail I would want to drink more than once, on a lark – unless they jerk up the alcohol content to something reasonable, like 15-20%. Very strong tonic water and lime presence.
Kirin – Grapefruit Drink
- Have you ever been drunk enough to accidentally put your cigarette out in your cocktail, but still have enough on the ball to catch yourself right as the butt hits the drink, so it’s only submerged for a second, but extinguished nonetheless? And you’re like, screw it, the drink is fine, but it has that little bit of nicotine-tar cigarette flavor until the very last drop? That’s what this crap tastes like to me.
And there you have it, kids. Another episode of Only in Taiwan comes to an end. I’m going to open a bottle of Tempranillo and get rid of all these stupid fruit beer cans.