In this article, LCB’s managing editor, Aaron Posehn, sits down with Shawn Kidd, cofounder of Beer & Cheese and 886 Brewing Company, to discuss his experiences in the food and beverage industry in Taiwan.
This post is the fourth in a series of interviews on entrepreneurship in Greater China. A listing of all interviews can be found here.
LCB: How long have you been in Taiwan, and what made you first come here? Did you have an intention to specifically start a brewery or restaurant before arriving?
SK: I was originally here for 9 years before heading back to Vancouver for two and a half years in 2010. Being back home for a few years, I realized I could bring my newly found passion for craft beer back to Taiwan and turn it into a business. When I landed back in Vancouver in early 2010, the city was already starting to explode with local and import craft beer. I quickly jumped on board with this trend, planning craft beer-centered events, and working at some of the city’s top craft beer bars and stores.
In late 2012 just after Christmas, I decided to head back to Taipei. Right away, I jumped back into the scene here and attended as many events as I could, trying to meet the right people in the industry. My initial goal before I came back was to open a brewery here, but I decided that it might be wise to start a little slower. My first attempt into the business was through importing a craft beer brand from Vancouver, Parallel 49 Brewing Co. I thought this might be a good way to test the market, and get my feet wet at the same time, without risking too much capital. However, in the back of my mind, brewing was always the end goal. Beer & Cheese was more of a reaction to the marketplace at the time of my first endeavour. I was having trouble finding bars that were willing to take risks by purchasing craft beer, along with a lack of bars in Taipei City where my buddies and I could go for a good pint. It just seemed logical the next move was to open our own.
LCB: Tell our readers a bit more about both Beer & Cheese and 886 Brewing Company. Which came first? Do you have interests in any other establishments in Taiwan?
SK: Bierwest Inc. was actually my first business involving craft beer in Taiwan. Through Bierwest, I imported Parallel 49 Brewing from Vancouver. Realizing there was a need for more craft beer venues, we decided to fill that need with Beer & Cheese. By opening a craft beer bar, we had the perfect niche business that hadn’t yet exploited around town, and it gave me a channel of distribution that would drive through large quantities of my own imported products. 886 Brewing Company came later once I had already created some distribution channels through Bierwest and found a brewery that was willing to contract brew. East Drinks West is now the parent company to all of the above business. I played around with the term “east drinks west” and just couldn’t let it die out. I figured it was the perfect slogan to everything I was doing at the time, and planned for the future.
LCB: Why did you decide to go into the food and beverage business? Did you have experience in this area before you left Canada?
SK: I’ve always had one foot in the food and beverage industry. Starting from the early 90s, I worked for a number of Vancouver’s trendiest restaurants and hotels bars. At one point, I helped to open and train one bar after another, becoming well-versed in setting up SOP and training staff for new openings. From 2004-2009, I owned a small bar in Taichung called The Dive, which I closed before I moved back to Vancouver. Back in Vancouver in 2010, I worked for a newly opened craft beer bar called Bitter, and helped out part-time at a craft beer store that housed more than 800 craft beers. I guess if you add it up, overall I have almost 20 years of experience in food and beverage.
LBC: What were the main difficulties you experienced when first building your companies in Taipei and how did you manage these? What types of challenges do you encounter now that the businesses are more established?
SK: For Bierwest, the toughest part was definitely finding customers that wanted to branch off from the usual lines of beer you see at every convenience store. Language was always a tough part of the business as well. Dealing with customs brokers gave me a few headaches early in the game. As far as Beer & Cheese goes, the toughest part has been staffing the bar. We have really high expectations of our staff, being a niche beer-based business. Everyone needs to be able to speak both Mandarin and English, and have some sort of passion for craft beer, or else be willing to learn a lot about the beers we carry. As far as 886 Brewing goes, we’ve got a whole new bag of concerns, with forecasting sales, planning new brews, and trying to purchase enough raw materials to keep the beer flowing. Since everything is imported, it makes planning our raw materials tougher than back home, where all of these materials are locally produced.
LCB: Did you experience any problems because of being a non-Taiwanese citizen when first setting up your companies? Specifically, were there any types of legal obligations that you needed to meet?
SK: The biggest hurdle was setting up the first business, Bierwest Inc., because I needed to have a certain amount of foreign capital to get everything set up. Once Bierwest was established, the rest has been easy. I’m now treated liked any local Taiwanese person every time I set up a new company using Bierwest Inc.
LCB: How do you approach marketing for your companies?
SK: All of our marketing I do through Facebook locally, and Twitter overseas. For Beer & Cheese, we relied entirely on word of mouth marketing and Facebook. We were actually nervous of non-beer loving customers coming in and finding us too expensive, or not liking the intense flavours of the craft beers, so we let word of mouth among craft beer lovers do that for us, and it seemed to work out perfectly.
LCB: What do you look for in a potential employee? Do required qualifications vary for each of your companies?
SK: For starters, all of our employees must be bilingual in both Mandarin and English. We get a lot of expats at Beer & Cheese, and a lot of foreign visitors from web sites like Trip Advisor. We would love all of our employees to have a passion for craft beer, but it’s not a requirement. As long as they pass some of our standards of service, as well as being outgoing and friendly, we can train them on the beer side of the business. We have a course that a friend designed back in Vancouver that takes them through entry level beer tasting and general brewing knowledge. They learn about the history of beer, the basics of brewing, the main ingredients in beer, the major styles of beer, and the best part of the course that everyone loves: the actual beer tasting. From there, we try to follow up periodically with our staff, pushing them to talk more about our beer with our guests.
LCB: Do you focus on serving particular types of groups or clientele? For example, I’ve seen that 886 Brewing Company’s Screamin’ Pale Ale was the official draft pale ale of the Spring Scream (春天吶喊) Music Festival in Kenting in 2014.
SK: I think 886 Brewing’s take on craft beer has been to retain the original west coast style that I grew up with, which got me into craft beer in the first place back in Vancouver. I’ve done my best to stand by my beliefs, and I’m doing my best to not adjust any of our products to “suit the local palate” that you hear so much about in the food and beverage industry. We’d rather have the local palate slowly adjust to the style of beer that we represent and have a strong passion for, giving them a North American craft beer experience from our point of view. We realize that this could slow us down when trying to break into the market outside of Greater Taipei, but we remain positive that a few of the styles we have coming out will please the local palate while staying true to our style.
We were extremely excited to be able to brew our first commercial beer last year for Spring Scream, launching the “Screamin’ Pale Ale” down in Kenting for the event. It turned out to be a fantastic stepping stone for other custom brews that have come our way since that initial batch, and gave us the chance to test out a hoppy version of an American Pale Ale with a wide range of people in one concert venue.
LCB: What advice would you have for someone wanting to start a business in Taiwan, and particularly a business in the food and beverage industry? Is there anything that they should particularly be aware of?
SK: The best advice I have for anyone interested in this industry in Taiwan is first to follow their heart; with passion comes success. If it doesn’t, at least you have the passion to drive forward. Secondly, to find a niche that involves that passion, and one that can fill the needs of the local market. There are endless ideas that would work really well in the local Taiwan market, but I think it’s a matter of being able to visualize yourself being able to fill that need and to want to put in the time and effort to make it work.
LCB: What’s next for you and your companies? For example, do you have plans to further expand or to add new types of beer that you’ll offer?
SK: We have a few expansion plans over the next few years. As far as Beer & Cheese goes, we’d like to dial in the concept and franchise it out to other cities and countries in Asia. For 886, we are working on a bunch of new styles/ideas for the local market in order to attack specific segments of the food and beverage industry. We are also looking for overseas expansion through export and contract brewing in other countries surrounding Taiwan. Finally, we are working on a current project that might be launched before this article makes print. We are introducing a new tap house to Taipei city called BRKLYN, that will be more food-based, with the hopes to build the largest taproom in the country, combining craft beer, craft cocktails, culture, and charcuterie in one venue.
Aaron Posehn is currently the managing editor of LearnChineseBusiness.com and is a graduate of the University of British Columbia. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, he also currently works as an academic editor in Taipei. Endlessly interested in the cross between business and culture, he has written a free guidebook on how to learn Chinese characters for business and travel purposes.
Find Aaron on LinkedIn here.