By Ron Hanson, Asia New Zealand Foundation

Taiwan’s craft beer scene has been exploding in recent years, and Wellingtonian Max Gilbert is in the thick of it. In 2019, Gilbert and his American wife, Harn Sun, founded Ugly Half, a microbrewery and craft beer label in Wugu District on the outskirts of Taipei. Despite the pandemic and the couple being locked out of the island shortly after hitting the market, Ugly Half has quickly emerged as one of the darlings of Taiwan’s fashionable craft beer culture. Ron Hanson visited Gilbert at the brewery to discuss the idiosyncratic, award-winning label.

Anyone with a nose to the ground in Taipei’s mushrooming café and bar scene will have noticed the distinctive artwork of the craft beer label Ugly Half. Whether eyeing a poster of its unmistakable logo, a charming, oddball smiley face with protruding buck teeth, or the psychedelic labels of its unique beer offerings, each featuring work by a commissioned artist, one senses Ugly Half’s growing presence.

I asked Taichung craft beer pioneer Weng Yu-Chun, the founder of the taproom and beer festival ChangeX, about his impression of Ugly Half. “Their marketing strategy is fresh,” he told me, “and is expanding their customer base to become a new subculture. I believe it could create a new dimension of craft beer in Taiwan.”

Marketing aside, the beers, which are brewed mostly with New Zealand hops, also taste exceptionally good. Sitting down with Gilbert to discuss his unusual trajectory in Asia, I quenched my thirst with an Ugly Half Hazy IPA, whose equally hazy label of Taiwan’s misty mountain ranges was created by Taipei traditional glove puppetry master Chen Ming-Shan.

My selection of beer was conservative. Ugly Half has some truly experimental and adventurous offerings. We’ll get to those in a moment, but first, I wanted to know what brought Gilbert to Taiwan. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a direct route.

After dropping out of law school at Victoria University in Wellington and spending a year in Sydney working in hospitality, in 2007, Gilbert moved to China. “I mainly just wanted to do something really different,” he told me. “Australia wasn’t much of a shock to the system. China was the most different place I could think of. I ended up, by Chinese standards, in a relatively small town where I taught English for a year.”

Returning to Wellington in 2008, Gilbert began a business degree at Victoria but also pursued a second degree in Chinese. As a budding beer aficionado, it was an exciting time to be in the capital.

“Yeah, it was a really cool time to be in Wellington,” Gilbert says, “when the craft beer scene was fledgling. Going to legendary spots like the Malt House and Hashigo Zake, being exposed to this new thing that was craft beer, Tuatara, Parrot Dog… Garage Project was then only doing big bottles. Early Beervana festivals only took up a fraction of the stadium space that they do today.”


Photo Credit: Frankie Chang

Max Gilbert outside brewery holding Hazy IPA

It was natural for Gilbert to become interested in craft beer. His passion for food and beer culture runs in the family. Gilbert’s younger step-sister Olivia Galletly is a food photographer whose work frequently appears in Dish magazine. Olivia also creates recipes which she publishes on her website The Hungry Cook.

Gilbert’s older (by twelve days) step-sister Alice Galletly, whom he considers to be the true craft beer pioneer of the family, created her blog Beer for a Year in which she drank and wrote about a different beer every day for a year. Alice also authored the 2017 paperback, How to Have a Beer, part of Awa Press’ popular Ginger Series.

Upon completing his studies at Victoria, Gilbert moved to Auckland to work for the import-export trading company New Zealand Trade Centre. Spurred by Gilbert’s interest in beer, the company began exporting New Zealand craft beer into Asia. They exported Tuatara to Hong Kong; 8 Wired, Yeastie Boys, and Tuatara to China; as well as 8 Wired and Parrotdog to Japan.

In 2014, Gilbert relocated to Shanghai to represent the company on the ground while taking up a Confucius Institute scholarship to further his Chinese. “It was fantastic,” Gilbert says. “Looking back on it with friends, I feel like it was a golden age for foreigners in Shanghai. There were lots of people doing fun things, a really great expat community, and such a buzzing city.”

In Shanghai, Gilbert went on to work for Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI), the world’s largest beer company. “They have a separate division called ZX Ventures,” Gilbert says, “which is responsible for all the craft beer acquisitions. In some respects, it’s like a kind of venture capital wing where they invest in things and try to create new products. It’s where innovation and cutting-edge stuff is supposed to happen.”

Gilbert joined the Shanghai office in 2016, not long after it was set up. Things grew quickly. “They went from around six people when I joined to 200 people when I left two years later,” he says. “I started out in trade marketing. I was involved in rebranding things they acquired, including a chain of Belgian beer bars. They started setting up taprooms and buying some local stuff. One of their big acquisitions was Goose Island. I was part of launching that in China.”

But compared to the gradual evolution of craft beer culture in New Zealand and the U.S., to Gilbert, what was happening in Shanghai seemed a little forced.

“It just felt a bit unnatural,” he says. “It was easy to say, ‘Hey, we’re giving you all this Budweiser. Why don’t you take a little craft beer on the side?’ It’s very easy to grandfather it in. But it wasn’t giving people a chance to really appreciate the product for what it is. It was more like this new trend that you’ve got to try. There wasn’t much depth to it.”

In Shanghai, the ever-productive Gilbert also cooked on the side. Before joining ABI, he worked for the American business International Flavors & Fragrances. He started a small catering business and began doing various events. One night in 2015, while providing a Chef's Table at a friend’s restaurant, he was invited to a party. There he met Harn Sun, who would become both Gilbert’s wife and business partner.

Sun, a Chinese American who had opened a series of restaurants in Shanghai, shared with Gilbert a love of food and beverages. The two decided to simultaneously start a family and a brewery. Out of their union came the idea for Ugly Half.


Photo Credit: Frankie Chang

I asked Gilbert about the name. “We were having a lot of conversations at the time about what was happening in China,” he says, “a lot of people pushing brands and trends, pushing things at face value. We wanted to make sure that we could also do well at face value and look good, but we wanted to have substance behind it.

“And I think that’s where ‘Ugly Half’ came from. These days, everything is all about this pretty veneer. But where’s the ugly half? We’re dedicated to consistency and putting the hard yards in behind this nice and polished thing that shows up, but hopefully, it delivers on more than one front.”

The Chinese name for the label is You Gui (酉鬼). Local media reports here frequently discuss the name, which appears to resonate with Taiwanese and their vivacious love of puns. Combining the characters You and Gui creates the character for ‘ugly’ (醜). You Gui looks and sounds similar to jiu gui (酒鬼), a somewhat affectionate name for ‘drunkard,’ whose literal translation is ‘alcohol ghost.’

While searching for a location to launch Ugly Half, the couple quickly settled on Taiwan. “We decided on Taiwan pretty early on in the piece for a variety of reasons,” Gilbert says. “One was the competitiveness of the China market and all the big breweries chasing after it and the sense that the consumer wasn’t quite there yet.

“And then you look at Taiwan. It’s very international. People in that 20-35 age bracket, a lot of them, have studied overseas and come back. It was attractive from that perspective. And personally, we always liked coming to Taiwan. We liked the vibe here. We liked the fact that food and drink are a big deal here, an important part of the culture. And we were looking to start a family and thought that Taipei would be a great place to do that.”


Photo Credit: Frankie Chang

Ugly Half’s Brewery in Wugu, New Taipei

After a long and extensive search, Gilbert and Sun finally found their spot for the brewery, an old factory in Wugu just outside of Taipei. In Taiwan, brewing beer inside city limits is illegal, so all brewing must be done in industrial zones. But Gilbert is quick to point out that Wugu is a short drive from the center of Taipei and is surrounded by residential areas.

At first, the big empty space of the factory was intimidating, but gradually the partners filled it up as the personality of Ugly Half began to take shape. The team bonded over the challenge of founding the label.

“There were half a dozen of us working together in the malt room for six months,” Gilbert says, “because it was the only place with air conditioning. It was before we set up the upstairs. We became a tight-knit team surrounded by bags of malt.”

The intention was to create a consumer-facing operation, and this May, Ugly Half will launch a bar on the premises. “I think it will be great to come to the brewery and have a beer,” Gilbert says, “and it’s made right here. That’s why we put in that window on the second floor. We want people to be able to look at the brewing operation, so it’s this cool experience. You can’t do that in too many places.”

Gilbert and Sun appear to have a particular knack for hiring the right people and tapping into the local environment. The team has been mostly local Taiwanese, with a notable exception. For the first year and a half, Ugly Half’s head brewer was Tom Ashton, a New Zealand beermaker with more than a decades worth of experience and who has judged international beer competitions throughout Asia and Oceania. Ashton had been brewing in Shanghai for the previous five years and decided to make the trip with Gilbert and Sun over to Taiwan.

“Tom was keen to be part of something new,” Gilbert says, “where he could really put his stamp on it right from the beginning. He brought over technical beer knowledge and was instrumental in setting up the facility. Tom got us started, developed excellent early recipes, and set high standards. His most enduring legacy is that we are sticklers for quality control because he was extremely insistent on quality.”

Another key hire was Taiwanese designer Tsan Yu Yin, who became head of creative and was instrumental in developing the early personality of the brand and initiating artist collaborations. Tsan, who worked for Ugly Half until August 2021, had also been living in Shanghai and decided to relocate for the project.“They provided me with a great freedom to trail-blaze the local craft beer market,” he told me. “It’s very hard for a graphics guy to say no.”

I asked Tsan why he thinks Ugly Half has been able to connect so swiftly with the zeitgeist of Taiwanese subculture. “As we all know, Ugly Half was born mixed,” he says. “We can never blend in as a purebred local similar to what other breweries may claim, and neither should we.

“Instead, a fun ‘identity crisis’ is something I believe, as a brand director, that we should celebrate by nature. It is the ‘bit of everything’ that accommodates all the possibilities that only our team of halves could carry out — the beers brewed with a Kiwi mind, tuned with a Taiwanese tone, and set to sail along the Pacific Rim.”

In early 2019, Ugly Half held a huge launch event at the brewery that was attended by more than 700 people. The label organized buses to transport people from Taipei Main Station, closed the street, and arranged food trucks. The event was held during the weekend when the other neighboring factories were closed. The team set up a stage in the middle of the brewing area where musicians and DJs performed.

“In the first year, we did a lot of events,” Gilbert says. “We feel that we’re doing something that’s pretty new to Taiwan, and the best way to do that is to work closely with bars and restaurants to introduce the product. The great thing about craft beer is that it’s not so pigeonholed. It can play in a lot of different areas. It can be involved in art. It can be involved in music. It’s this little platform where you can do fun, creative stuff.”


Photo Credit: Ugly Half

Scene of an event by Ugly Half

Ugly Half’s first year of operating was exhilarating, but 2020 would bring a new, unforeseen challenge. In January of that year, during the lunar new year break, Gilbert and Sun were in the U.S. visiting Harn’s family when news of an emerging virus in China began to spread.

“People were saying something’s happening,” Gilbert says, “and then suddenly, everything kicked off. We were worried about traveling. There was a real element of the unknown at the start. And then Taiwan changed all the rules, and with the visa I had at the time, I couldn’t get back in.

“It was just after we’d launched. We’d just released our third beer. It’s seven in the morning here and seven at night over there. So there were a lot of late-night phone calls, talking to people, trying to keep on top of it. We couldn’t have managed it without such a fantastic team on the ground.”

Several months later, Gilbert and Sun were able to return to the then extremely isolated island. “Taiwan closed down to people from the outside, but things were pretty normal on the inside. But then, when Covid finally did get in, it ruined the last two summers. We were experiencing about a quarter of the sales we were seeing beforehand because no one was going to bars, and that’s where most of our business is. Now, we’re getting back to where we probably should have been.”

But Ugly Half has continued to develop and grow. Its beers and packaging are now gaining international renown. In 2021, Ugly Half’s Oyster Stout won a gold medal at the Australian International Beer Awards, the world’s largest annual beer competition. The following year, its Jumbo Sour won gold in the same competition.

Ugly Half and Tsan Yu Yin have also won multiple awards for packaging design, including the Design for Good Winner award for its innovative TOASTea Lager at the prestigious Dieline Awards 2022 in Boston. Ugly Half’s Oyster Stout Trio was the Top Score Winner at Topawards Asia in Tokyo that same year.

The label now sells six core beverages as well as two seasonal offerings. But Ugly Half’s commitment to experimentation is sustained through its R&D series, allowing the brew team to take risks and play around with often wacky concepts.

There have thus far been 63 unique brews. The series of exotic beverages includes a milkshake IPA; yuzu citrus lager; piña colada pale ale; apricot, peach citrus wheat beer; and a green chili pine IPA. Within the R&D series, a Kiwi subseries focuses on exploring the full potential of New Zealand hops.

“These hops are very well regarded,” Gilbert says, “and the team loves to play around with them. It’s a chance to show off those flavors and let the hops be the star of the show.”


Photo Credit: Ugly Half

Previously, R&D brews were only available via kegs but are now bottled. Gilbert says the more beer-focused bars and restaurants sell them. “Everyone loves having something new,” he says. That’s one of the cool things about craft beer. There’s a relatively quick turnaround cycle. Within a month, you can have a new product. We manage the risk because we keep the volume low, but we can take some chances.”

Ugly Half also maintains distinctly Taiwanese characteristics. These include using local ingredients such as Taiwanese fruits, coral reef salts, oysters, and wheat. Ugly Half’s Guava Gose is made from the Taiwanese fruit paired with the sour plum powder that slices of guava come served with at night markets.

The approach also extends to design, packaging, and conceptualizing the beers. The best example of this, Gilbert says, is Ugly Half’s TOASTea Lager. The brew is inspired by the quintessential Taiwanese experience of purchasing sandwiches to go from the island’s ubiquitous breakfast shops. These cheap sandwiches come in grease-proof paper bags adorned with quirky illustrations of zany characters.

But the sandwiches also create considerable waste in the form of bread crusts. Ugly Half seeks to reduce this waste by collecting crusts from nearby breakfast shops. These are then used to brew a distinctive amber lager infused with black tea, the kind of which is often drunk as an accompaniment to these sandwiches. Ugly Half describes this brew as “breakfast in a bottle.”

The beer labels are made from the same crinkle-cut paper used to make the sandwich baggies, utilizing the same typography. Tsan Yu Yin commissioned illustrator Hai-Hsin Huang to create a new series of new characters for the labels. These illustrations are also featured on Ugly Half’s Toasted Tote Bags, which are made entirely from recycled plastic bags and grain waste from brewing of the lager.

Moving beyond Covid, Ugly Half is entering an exciting new phase. As Gilbert took me for a personal tour of the brewery, I sensed his infectious enthusiasm and passion for the project. The Ugly Half team now comprises twelve members, and Gilbert is also enjoying family life with two young children. He is optimistic about the Taiwanese craft beer market’s potential for growth.

Independent brewing in Taiwan got off to a slow start. Prior to 2002, there was a government monopoly on alcohol production. The state-owned brewer Taiwan Beer’s low-flavor domestic lager, made from Formosa rice, was everywhere. But in recent years, any casual observer in Taiwan will have noticed the local craft beer scene’s explosive growth. However, the culture is yet to truly crack the mainstream.

“You might be lucky if craft beer is two percent of the market here,” Gilbert says. “Whereas it’s 20% in New Zealand at this stage. But look at coffee. The coffee industry didn’t exist here however many years ago, but now we’re swamped with decent coffee at every turn. That came from nothing. Coffee has a confronting taste. No one’s got this palette that’s ready for coffee, so these things change.”

Ugly Half is now exporting to Singapore and Hong Kong, but Gilbert says this wasn’t something the label initiated. These were instances of people approaching them. Ugly Half’s focus is still on cultivating the local Taiwanese market.

“I really want to push the benefits of local beer,” he says. “There are a lot of people within the beer community here who are into really well-established, famous, foreign breweries. But they still have to put that stuff on a boat or a plane, and it sits there for a couple of months.

“They might be famous breweries and amazing beers, but there’s something great about local fresh beer. There’s an enormous difference in whether you’re consuming a product that tastes as intended when it leaves the brewery or not. The big thing is to encourage people to get behind local products and get to know the beer itself.”

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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