Jing-A Bids Farewell to Richard Ammerman, Long-Time Marketing Director
If you live in the hutongs or near Xingfucun, chances are that you've at one point or another seen a lanky yank riding in a dusty, only slightly dinged, red vehicle reminiscent of a gondola-on-wheels. Officially known as the Keg Egg, this speedy little number has been Richard Ammerman's main form of transport over the past several years as Jing-A Brewing Co.'s marketing director, enabling him a quick and convenient way to ride to work, deliver kegs to distributors, or head one of the brewery's many impromptu "watering the masses" free beer events across town.
In between, Ammerman was integral to Jing-A's vision of producing high-quality (and often high-ABV) beer that looked as good as it tasted, as well as making sure it reached those that shared the brewery's love of craft brew whether via venues or one of their beer events, such as their annual 8x8 Brewing Project and affiliated festival. Those exploits have earned the brand recognition abroad, even securing a minority stake from Danish beer giants Carlsberg early last year, a boon or a bust depending on where you stand on corporate involvement in independent brewing.
Now, after seven years heading their marketing department, Ammerman has called it quits, and returned to the US to refine his business chops via an MBA. Before he gets lost in mountains of books (and hopefully not so much beer) we caught up with Ammerman to quiz him on some of his favorite moments working as one of Beijing's – and China's – most original and beloved breweries.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background – where are you from, how long have you been in Beijing, what originally brought you here?
I grew up in constant motion between the quiet college town of Hamilton in upstate NY and several cities around the Mediterranean where my parents (both archaeologists) had their digs: Venice, Rome, Athens, Nicosia. That experience left me with a lasting sense of wanderlust and also helped open my mind to living across different cultures.
I moved to China soon after college with the intention of learning about a country that was totally new to me – unlike any of the places where I had previously lived. I had visited Beijing once before, in 2004, on a trip with my parents to adopt my younger sister, who was born in Chengdu. My first gig here was an internship at the American Chamber of Commerce. I don’t think I could have hoped for a better starting job – it was truly a crash-course on all the issues companies face in China. My job there was mainly to attend their weekly speaker events and summarize the key takeaways for AmCham’s newsletter, so I got to hear from experts across different fields: business, academics, journalism, politics, and public health.
How did you initially get involved with Jing-A?
My first Beijing winter I quickly realized I would need some good indoor hobbies to keep me busy out of the cold and smog – it was 2013, so the average winter AQI seemed to hover between 200-300. I lived out in Haidian and hadn’t yet discovered Beijing’s nightlife scene, besides the pub quiz at Lush. Faced with that, I bought a rudimentary homebrew kit and started experimenting with beer recipes for myself and my friends.
A few months later that led to my introduction to Alex and Kris (Jing-A’s founders), who had just installed their first brewhouse inside what was then The Big Smoke (now Jing-A Brewpub Xingfucun). By the summer I was volunteering to help them pour beer at events and shuttle kegs around the city in my egg car, which eventually was branded up and given a tap system of its own, transforming into the iconic Jing-A Keg Egg.
As Jing-A started to take off, they invited me to join full-time to help with the hard work of brewing (90 percent of which consisted of cleaning, sanitation, and hauling heavy kegs and bags of malt), and chip in wherever else help was needed. That list of tasks in that second category grew as Jing-A became more active, and I was eventually helping run our design work, communications, and engagement with the community through events and pop-ups, while also contributing ideas for some of our quirkier beers.
What are some of your proudest achievements as marketing director at Jing-A?
At Jing-A there have always been two teams driving creative output: The first includes everyone in the brewery who actually makes the beer and gets inspired to experiment and perfect new recipes. The second is the marketing team, which designs identities for those beers, develops the overall voice of the brand, and works to generate a neverending series of memorable experiences for our customers and fans. I’ve been on each side and eventually settled into the latter, while Jing-A’s founders are still actively straddling both. I’m proud of the many awards that we’ve won in international beer competitions, and the fact that for virtually my entire tenure we’ve been the highest-rated Chinese brewery on the beer reviewing app Untappd, but I can’t take credit for those achievements – they belong to the brewery team.
I’d have to look, then, at our biggest event – the 8x8 Brewing Project, an annual beer festival that we first launched in 2017. Alex, Kris, and I always traveled extensively for international beer festivals, representing Jing-A and pouring our beer. In doing so, we crossed paths with so many great breweries, and we wanted to find a way to invite them out to China. This would give Beijing’s beer lovers a taste of their incredible creations, and also introduce those brewers to our local craft beer scene through collaborations with breweries from around Greater China.
It was a project at a totally different scale than anything we’d done before, but we managed to successfully pull off a great festival that first year. In the two years since we’ve partnered with more breweries and changed the venue to accommodate ever-growing crowds. This year has been a quiet one for beer festivals because of COVID-19, but just before my departure from Jing-A I worked with my team to chart a framework for the 2020 edition of 8x8, accounting for both best-case and worst-case scenarios. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about it soon!
More generally, my biggest lasting impact has been building up a community of regulars and partners for Jing-A, both in Beijing and beyond China’s borders. A few months after I had officially started with Jing-A, I was back home in upstate New York visiting family for the holidays. On a trip to the post office I had to do a double-take – there was a man wearing a Jing-A t-shirt, the first ones ever produced. What were the odds of going to a town of 3,000 people halfway across the world and finding a sample from our tiny run of just 100 shirts? I took it as a sign that I had made the right decision in joining, and even now, years later, I still get excited whenever I’m in the wild and I see someone wearing our merch.
What are some of your favorite and least favorite beers at Jing-A? Favorite food-drink pairing?
My all-time favorite is the Hutong Clan, a beer that originated from one of our earliest collaborations, a brew with Tony and Clay from Boneyard Beer from Bend, Oregon. Hutong Clan is a 9 percent imperial black IPA infused with fiery fresh-pressed ginger. It’s a beer that doesn’t pull any punches, yet by some miracle it’s dangerously balanced and drinkable.
Picking a least favorite is tough, there’s just so many … kidding! But I suppose I can let one slip. Jing-A has always experimented with unusual ingredients over the years, and I think that by now they’ve made over 120 distinct beers. Out of all the weird stuff we’ve used, my least favorite ended up being buckwheat tea. We once tried to use it for a light summer lager, but the end result was a light beer with a super-malty “grape-nuts” cereal flavor, not refreshing at all.
Early on Jing-A was probably known best for brewing hard-hitting IPAs, but it’s got a solid portfolio of beers across the spectrum now, including summer quenchers like the Beijing Bikini, Death by Passionfruit, and the Tuhao Gold Pils, which are the beers that I find myself drinking most often. We have a delicious new lager coming out soon that I was able to taste just before leaving Beijing, think of it as a craft beer riff on Qingdao and Yanjing, but brewed with much better ingredients (no formaldehyde!).
As far as my favorite beer and food pairing, I’ll skip over the standard stuff like burgers, pizza, and spicy Sichuan food to instead again go back to an old collaboration from Jing-A’s early days. Our Koji Red Ale was originally dreamed up together with Beijing’s notorious sushi-samurai, Alan Wong, in late 2013 and we’ve never stopped brewing it. It’s a mildly hoppy ale, so not super-bitter, and brewed with red koji rice which gives it a vibrant blush of color and notes of berries and oak. It’s a great match for sushi – the iron tang of tuna, vinegared rice, soy sauce and a hint of wasabi, it all washes down great with the Koji, whose flavor profile is closer to a sake than an Asahi.
Given that you work at a brewery, around (some of the strongest Beijing) beer, are there any particularly entertaining and drunken stories that stick out in your mind?
Well, the Keg Egg is really the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a clown car – we once drove it from Gulou to Sanlitun with six people packed inside: two people seated in the backbench, two standing on either side of the driver, and one very flexible person folded into the trunk.
At the events we run in Beijing I usually keep a lid on things, sticking to one or two pints, but at our annual company retreats it’s a different story. In 2016 we organized an Olympics-themed party out at the Great Wall for all 50 or so staff members, which is how I learned that our ayis are all crazy good at flip-cup and our delivery driver is a highly trained martial artist who can do the splits. You should never try to steal from Jing-A’s beer van!
As if working for a brewery in Beijing wasn’t enough of an adventure, I’ve also had the opportunity to travel to some of the world’s most interesting beer festivals to represent Jing-A. A couple of highlights include marching through downtown Portland to kick-off the Oregon Brewers Festival, led by the fire-spouting Unipiper (do yourself a favor and Google him), as well as a far-flung winter beer festival in Iceland that included a hike to soak in mountain hot springs in the middle of a raging snowstorm.
What do you envision for the future of Beijing’s beer scene?
Breweries in the US have been hard-hit by COVID-19, but Jing-A and the other well-established local breweries all, fortunately, seem to have successfully weathered Beijing’s shutdown period and are now on the rebound, so I expect they’ll all keep growing and brewing great beers. Of all the cities in China, Beijing has benefitted the most from having a competitive local beer scene driving quality. We’re also a tier-1 beer-loving city with access to all the other local brews from all around China and a growing selection of international beers, although those imports are hardly needed now given the quality and freshness of what local brewers offer.
Chinese restaurants are increasingly interested in serving local craft beer, and I think we’ll see craft beer continue to gain ground in places that you previously would have only found mass-market lagers. New economies of scale on the production side are definitely helping make wholesale pricing more attractive to a broader audience. We’ll also see a bigger variety of Chinese craft beer available in bottles and cans, with China’s killer e-commerce platforms and delivery services making it easier than ever to stock your fridge with beers that used to only be available at brewery taprooms.
For my whole tenure at Jing-A, Beijing has been China’s craft beer capital, and I don’t see it losing that title anytime soon. If anything, I’m sad to be missing out on the post-COVID rebound and the upcoming plans for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
What will you be most upset to leave behind?
Nobody moves to Beijing for the weather … I’ll miss the tight-knit and diverse community that I was welcomed into here. Most of all my ex-colleagues and all the other characters working in the food and beverage scene I’ve gotten to know over the years. I look forward to coming back to visit soon – I’ve even kept a spare set of keys to the Keg Egg for that occasion!
Finally, what’s your plan now?
My dream of becoming a Lululemon Brand Ambassador never panned out, so this fall I’m looking forward to starting an MBA in Chicago, which will involve a few wardrobe adjustments (shout-out to Principle M!). Much like in Beijing, I’ll be thrown together with a bunch of people who are more interesting and more clever than I am, so I hope that once again some of their talent and smarts will rub off on me.
In the meantime, I’ll be spending some long-overdue quality time with my folks and helping them cook Chinese food. Cheers!
Photos courtesy of Richard Ammerman