Let's speak about Beijing. How did your city go through this virus storm?
In many ways, Beijing is two months down the timeline compared to the rest of the world: we're a portent of what's to come elsewhere.
The city weathered this storm head-on. We all went into a de-facto lockdown in late January - bars and restaurants closed due to strict stay-at-home orders – and it was only cautiously lifted a few weeks ago.
Things have been coming back to life since then. Everyone's wearing masks, keeping their distance and sanitizing constantly. I wouldn't say everything is 'normal', because there is still no live music or museums or theatres open. But the streets feel livelier and the bars are full on weekends, with one meter spacing of course!
How did JING A go through this storm?
We acted fast, and we made sure our staff were safe and taken care of. We complied with public health guidelines to the letter - setting up health checks at the entrance, making sure social distancing was in place, and experimenting with alternative forms of delivery.
We expanded our options for to-go and home delivery, and once the city's lockdown was partially lifted we decided to give back to our community by rolling out the Keg Egg, Jing-A’s famous electric tricycle. We loaded it with kegs and took to the streets, bringing free growler fills of beer to several neighborhoods around Beijing!
It was a tough few months, but we hunkered down and kept our optimistic spirit active. Our customers couldn’t be happier to be returning to Jing-A’s pubs now that we’ve fully reopened.
Among other beers like awarded Worker's Pale Ale, you have a double IPA named 'Airpocalypse'. Tell us the story and feedback on that beer.
Both of these beers are very connected to the culture and life of Beijing. The Worker’s Pale Ale was created to reflect the industrious spirit that animates this city, which works hard and parties harder. It’s a full-bodied American-style pale ale with big aromas of grapefruit and pine resin balanced with moderate hop bitterness and a backbone of pale and specialty malts.
The Airpocalypse is our hazy tribute to the days when Beijing had infamous air pollution. Back in the day, people had a habit of constantly checking the AQI (air quality index) which would sometimes go so high that it was “beyond index”. True to form, we brewed a double IPA with an ABV and IBU that were through the roof (at the time it was our strongest beer at 8.8% abv) and we would discount it based on the real-time measure of smog in the city. In the 6 years since we originally released this beer, Beijing has done so much to improve its air quality that now we almost never have a chance to offer this 'Airpocalypse discount”. One thing that hasn’t changed is Beijingers' love for this hoppy brew – it remains China’s #1 rated beer on Untappd.
How important for you is a proper name for a beer?
It's really important because every beer name has to work across two languages - English and Chinese - and capture both the story and locally rooted essence of why we brewed it. For many of our guests, the name is often the 'gateway' to try something new, and we try to be playful with every single one! Another example that comes to mind besides the Airpocalypse is the Beijing Bikini Watermelon Wheat. The 'Beijing Bikini' is a nickname for the behavior of men (mostly middle-aged and older Beijingers) who like to lift up their shirts in the summer to cool down their beer bellies. The Chinese name for this habit is Guang Bangzhi（光膀子).
Beer lovers here do not know a lot about craft brewing in China. Where is the craft beer scene now? Which profile is the most common among beer lovers in China?
The last half-decade has been extremely vibrant for craft beer in China. There are tons of really interesting and creative breweries popping up in just about every major Chinese city (let’s say those with over 10 million people). What's fascinating to see is how they try and reflect the ethos and culture of the specific cities and provinces where they're based, just like in the West. One Wuhan (yes, that Wuhan) brewery called No. 18, for instance, recently worked with photographers to capture the 'heroes' of the city’s fight against COVID-19, and created a special beer can label that could be 'unfolded' to reveal a little photo gallery. It was beautifully done, and it went viral throughout the country. We’ve brewed collaborations with them like the Guo Zao Breakfast Stout, made with sesame and sticky rice, typical ingredients of a Wuhan breakfast. Most beer drinkers in China still stick with lagers and wheat beers, but IPAs, sours, and other styles are gradually gaining ground. There are definitely a lot of craft beer geeks here who will go to extreme lengths to try rare and hyped beers from around the world, as well as frequenting the local breweries. But our taprooms are popular for young people who are new to craft beer as well, so we’re definitely helping educate and help build up a beer-savvy generation of Chinese drinkers.
Did the fact that China has a lot of brewing equipment producers helps a lot to the development of the scene?
I think it definitely makes it easy and affordable for many of the small local brewpubs to get started, but even in China you get what you pay for. We’re all lucky that it’s a quick flight or train ride to inspect new equipment when we commission new tanks, for example. But equipment isn’t everything, you also need good recipes, brewing knowledge, and a creative spark to really make a mark in this industry.
Give us the story behind JING A…
We were founded in Beijing, a city that’s in constant, dizzying motion. It just felt like the perfect place to start something that we wanted to be both iconic and iconoclastic.
We're obsessed with hunting down rare ingredients and unexpected flavors to brew our beers, ranging from twists on classic styles to curious experiments and inspiring collaborations with breweries from around the world. Our goal is to make beer we’re damn proud of – beer that pushes the envelope, celebrates its roots, and changes perceptions of Chinese brewing worldwide. We started very much as a grassroots brewing operation, and we’ve grown and built our business quite significantly. Today we run two dedicated brewpubs in Beijing, we partner with some of the city’s most iconic restaurants for special beers, and we’re on tap throughout China and (occasionally) other parts of the world!
How do you connect brewing and cycling?
Going back to your question about fun beer names, here’s another one: our Yellow Mountain Radler. In China there are many mountains that are considered sacred, and millions of people visit them as a type of pilgrimage every year. Huang Shan (translating as Yellow Mountain) is perhaps the most famous. But we had another yellow mountain in mind when we brainstormed this name: the yellow share-bikes that have piled up in Chinese cities, as that hyper-competitive industry floods city streets with rows and stacks of colorful bikes. We decided it was the perfect for this low abv radler, a style that was developed for cyclists outside Munich to drink as a refreshment after long rides.
Beijing is an incredibly flat city and a cyclist’s paradise. Wide bike lanes everywhere make it easy to get around town on two wheels. Every night you’ll also see intense cyclists racing carbon fiber bikes back and forth on the enormous road that crosses Tiananmen Square. The mountains north of Beijing, where we keep a cottage for company retreats, are home to world-class cycling routes on brand new roads built for tiny farm villages, so there’s hardly any traffic to worry about. There are many cycling clubs in Beijing and we often see them at our pubs.
You love to experiment and use local ingredients from greater China and whole Asia.Give us a few 'weird' ones and most successful combinations.
We've mentioned a few of our experimental brews so far, but here's a couple more that really stand out:
Suan La Tang: a beer inspired by Hot & Sour Soup, is a gose with chili pepper and ginger. Spicy, salty, sour, sweet... It sounds like A LOT going on in that combination, but it's shocking, balanced and refreshing.
Late Night Date: a collaboration brew with Estonian brewery Põhjala, this was a big Baltic Porter that we infused with local smoked dates and figs smoked over a fire at our farmhouse by the Great Wall, using wood from nearby fruit trees.
What About Mi?: The majority of the mash bill for this one is glutinous rice (Mi is the Chinese word for rice), which we fermented to mouth-puckering perfection with our house mixed culture, then conditioned on berries and stone fruit.
Full Moon Farmhouse Ale: A saison brewed for the mid-autumn festival on China's lunar calendar. We infuse this beer with osmanthus flowers, an ingredient often used in the 'moon cakes' that are traditionally exchanged as gifts during this holiday.
Does China and Asia in general have great craft beer festivals?
Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong all have great annual craft beer festivals that we’ve joined over the years – and in recently Mikkeller has even taken his famous Beer Celebration to Japan!
In China there’s usually a string of beer festivals from May to September all throughout the country: Shanghai, Xi’an, Shenzhen, Nanjing… these are usually big food and beer fairs open to the public – a great way to introduce people to craft beer. We’ve been doing events like these since 2013. On top of that we’ve been organizing our own festival, the 8x8 Brewing Project, since 2017. This is a ticketed festival in the same style as many beer geek festivals in Europe or the US. We’ve given it a special focus on cross-cultural collaboration. Each year we partner with another region of the world and invite 8 of its best breweries to partner with 8 local Chinese breweries to brew collaboration beers for our festival.
In October, once everyone’s beers are ready, all 16 breweries come together in Beijing for a 2-day party where we release their collaborations and also give them 2 extra taps to pour their “greatest hits”. In the past few editions of 8x8 we’ve partnered with awesome breweries from the Pacific Northwest, Scandinavia, and most recently we had breweries from the Northeast US visit, including the legendary Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery, who brought along bottles of some of their rarest sours and barrel-aged stouts.
Last year’s event was a huge success with most sessions sold out! This year covid is obviously limiting our options to invite overseas breweries, so we’re considering doing a “quarantine edition” with 16 Chinese breweries instead. It’s a great way for us to get to know other brewers doing great work in other regions of China. You can check the instagram or facebook for @8x8brewingproject for updates later this year!
How do you develop your brand and do you see JING-A as a local or you're thinking about worldwide brand?
Our name comes from the original batch of license plates that were issued in Beijing decades ago. All Beijing plates start with the character Jing 京 , meaning capital, followed by a letter - so the first ones started with 京A. The arrival of cars back then was a new cultural wave for China, much like craft beer is today, so the name Jing-A lets people know we’re gritty O.G. Beijingers. Both of us had lived in Beijing for more than a dozen years each before starting the brewery. For this reason many of our beers’ themes reflect our take on contemporary life in Beijing, the charm of it, the challenges, and the everyday humor of life in this city.
As for the second part of your question – we’re confident China is going to have one of the fastest growing and most exciting brewing scenes over the next decade, hopefully for even longer. Yet try to find a Chinese beer anywhere outside our borders and right now you’ll find the same little green bottle of lager everywhere. So for craft beer lovers, it’s definitely worth seeking out CHinese craft beer to experience something different.
Chinese food is also having a renaissance globally as this country’s regional styles of cooking, like Sichuan food, are becoming popular with foodies everywhere. We hope that someday soon we’ll be able to help offer a more interesting Chinese beer to go with these authentic flavors.
Where will the brewing business be in China in the post COVID19 era? Which will be the main change?
The restaurant and bar industry has suffered of course, but fortunately most cities here have experienced relatively short lockdowns so far compared to the west. Maybe 5 or 6 weeks of hard closure, and then a gradual reopening. Delivery services are super popular and affordable, which has helped many small breweries stay afloat, even ones from Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus. Now that people are feeling safe to go out again, they all need a well-deserved drink.
We recently joined Other Half’s 'All Together” global collaboration, a beer that helps raise funds to support hospitality professionals. Part of the proceeds have gone to our staff who were unable to work during the shutdown, and half of the entire batch is being donated to small craft beer bars across the country to help them get back on their feet.
Barring the risk of a second wave shutting us all down again, things are starting to return to normal for China’s breweries. The news in west is obviously not good, but I hope that we a see recovery there as soon as possible. The closure of even one brewery is a tragic loss for its employees and its loyal customers.
And for the end, a message to beer community all over the planet…
Stay resilient, take care of your staff, and keep engaging with your community however you can!
Let's speak about Beijing. How did your city go through this virus storm?