With an annual consumption of 45.7 billion liters—nearly double that of the United States—China is by far the largest beer market on the planet. Baijiu, the nation’s signature fruity, fiery liquor, may be the distilled drink of choice, and domestic wine production may have risen in recent years, but beer remains the people’s drink and the average Chinese citizen downs around 109 liters a year. Yet virtually all of that beer has consisted of pale lagers produced by Tsingtao Brewery, CR Snow, Yanjing, and a handful of other domestic macrobreweries.
“Those guys still dominate and macrolagers in China are often literally cheaper than bottled water here,” says Alex Acker, co-founder of Jing-A Brewing in Beijing. “We’re still at less than 1 percent of the total beer market being craft, so we’re really just scratching the surface. I wouldn’t say that craft beer is anything close to mainstream here yet.”
Craft beer may still be the underdog, but China’s thirst for it is definitely on the rise. The last decade has seen the emergence of a string of craft breweries in the People’s Republic, including Shanghai’s Boxing Cat and Beijing’s Great Leap Brewing. Even as overall beer sales have declined, craft beer has continued to grow.
“The change in Beijing in 20 years has truly been amazing, like what you might see in a lifetime somewhere else,” Acker says. “Things have grown faster than we could have imagined, with new craft breweries popping up every year, more and more local customers getting into craft beer, and the whole ecosystem around it developing out of nothing.”
Much of that shift has to do with Acker and his friend and fellow brewer, Kristian Li. The two North American expats had already been living in China for more than a decade when they decided to try their hand at homebrewing. Despite their full-time day jobs and lack of equipment, word of mouth spread and what started as a hobby quickly morphed into something more serious. Before long, the duo were hosting monthly pop-ups at bars and driving around town with the “Keg Egg,” a jerry-rigged two-tap set-up that looks like it rolled off a retro sci-fi film set.
Macrolagers in China are often literally cheaper than bottled water. Less than 1 percent of the beer market is craft, so we’re really just scratching the surface.”
“We were literally brewing out of my apartment and then out of a friend’s commercial kitchen, knocking out 50L batches of pale ale and IPA,” Acker says. “We got a bit of a buzz going that year for our beer, and it was incredibly exciting for us to be making something creative and with our hands, that people enjoyed. So it wasn’t long before we started dreaming of leaving our day jobs and going full-time as brewers.”
After getting permission to use a small brewing system in a friend’s restaurant in 2013, Acker and Li took the plunge and never looked back. Today, Jing-A Brewing has become a leader in Beijing’s nascent craft brewing community. By collaborating with breweries ranging from Põhjala in Estonia to Carakale in Jordan, Acker and Li have spread the gospel of Chinese craft beer around the globe. More importantly, rather than simply imitate international trends, they’ve gone out of their way to create beers with a distinct sense of place.
“Probably the best part about brewing in China is playing around with the amazing variety of ingredients available here, many of which have never been brewed with before,” Acker says.
Huamei (dried plums), Sichuan peppercorns, osmanthus flowers, and chrysanthemum and oolong teas are just a few of the ingredients that have made cameos on their taproom menu. One line of Jing-A Brewing’s beers nods to Chinese dishes, with standouts including No. 17 Orange Chicken IPA, a collab with Collective Arts Brewing infused with orange zest and Sichuan peppercorn, and Pai Huanggua, a cucumber gose named for the ubiquitous garlicky smashed cucumber salad. They’ve even made a Beijing duck-inspired smoked IPA, called Duck Rye’der, in collaboration with Against the Grain Brewery.
“We infused it with charred jujube wood, the same kind used to traditionally roast Beijing’s signature dish,” Acker says. “We’ve also brewed with mijiu, rice wine cultures and qu, the fermentation agent in baijiu. Both impart unusual mixed fermentation flavors into the beer, and we’ve experimented with both in kettle sours as well as wild ales.”
Probably the best part about brewing in China is playing around with ingredients that have never been brewed with before.”
Perhaps their most innovative ode to Chinese culture yet is Mijiaya Neolithic Ale, a nod to the Middle Kingdom’s past. Although modern beer brewing first appeared in China with the arrival of German, Czech, and Polish immigrants in the 1800s, China’s history with brewing extends back millennia. In 2006, researchers from Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology unearthed ancient beer-brewing equipment with residual traces of barley from a 5,000-year-old dig site. Nine years later, Jing-A Brewing journeyed to the site with Hong Kong’s Moonzen Brewing. Together, the breweries teamed up with Stanford archeological researchers to produce a modern-day equivalent of this long-lost ale.
“We visited farmers that were still home brewing in a traditional way to collect native yeast and brewed a beer with the ingredients that were found in the chemical analysis, including Job’s tears, broomcorn millet, and mountain yam,” Acker says. “The result was unlike anything we’d done before, a tart, zesty brew with some funky undertones from all those unusual fermentable ingredients.”
After years of sharing Chinese craft beer with the world at festivals like Shelton Brothers and the Oregon Brewers Festival, Acker and Lin are now bringing international craft beer to China. In 2017, Jing-A Brewing launched the 8x8 Brewing Project, arguably their biggest contribution to their fellow local brewers yet.
“We’ve always really appreciated the beer festivals we’ve been invited to, so we decided it was time to give back and organize our own,” Acker says. “We didn’t want to put on a standard beer fest, so instead we dreamed up 8x8, which is equal parts cross-cultural brewing project and beer festival.”
Unlike your standard beer festival, the 8x8 Brewing Project is as much about creation as it is about consumption. Each year, eight Chinese craft breweries join forces with eight carefully selected breweries from a specific region to create some truly wild collabs. Last year, Thin Man and YUN Brew came up with the Nu York Shizandra Berry Gose, made with a rare berry found only in Yunnan province, while the year before To Øl and Young Master brewed up Foliage / Løv, a hazy apricot IPA.
“We hope [8x8] can serve a bridge between China’s craft beer scene and the rest of the world,” Acker says. “It takes a ton of work frankly to put on, but it’s worth it, both for the exposure it gives foreign brewers to China, and for the benefit I feel for our Chinese brewery friends and beer fans, to get to collab and hang out with some of the best craft breweries in the world who might otherwise not have China on their radar.”