A Chicago Booth alum taps into Beijing’s microbrewery scene.
Kristian Li, MBA’11, first visited Beijing on a backpacking trip in 1998, when mass-produced beer ruled the market. It still does, but a small microbrewery scene now exists too, and Li is part of it. He is a cofounder of Jing-A Brewing Company, which has established its craft beers as popular choices in Beijing.
Jing-A started as a pet project that Li and his friend and cofounder, Alex Acker, transformed into a business. The company now operates with four full-time and three part-time employees who help brew and market the beer. They produce 5,000 liters a month—on tap at the brewery and a flagship taproom—and distribute kegs to a handful of restaurants and bars across the city. Jing-A makes three or four core brews, plus limited releases with flavors aimed at a Chinese palate: roasted sweet potatoes, Osmanthus flowers, Xinjiang raspberries, and Sichuan peppercorns.
Before starting the company, Li, a Canadian born and raised in Toronto whose parents were from Shanghai and Hong Kong, worked at Cisco Systems in Beijing as executive director of corporate development in greater China. He had just finished his MBA at Chicago Booth, and six months into his new job, he started home brewing with Acker. “It really consumed us,” Li says. “We would basically do a batch of 50 bottles of beer, and we would have a party.” Friends would compliment their beer, and then the two would do it all again with another flavor.
Business school planted an entrepreneurial seed in Li, and after three or four rounds of home brewing, he and Acker started thinking seriously about turning their hobby into a full-time pursuit. “We spent more and more time learning about ingredients, brewing processes, and how to work with different flavors. It was a real progression from home brewers to where we are now. It was pretty fast—two and a half years.”
Jing-A is one of less than a dozen craft breweries in Beijing, a city of 21 million residents. Such a small scene stands in stark contrast to the American market, which has hundreds of microbreweries. Illinois alone, with a population of almost 13 million, has 83.
Such a small industry has brought Jing-A close to its competitors. The breweries work together, often helping each other with ingredient shortages. While Jing-A’s customers are primarily expats, Li says, he hopes to expand its audience to Chinese beer enthusiasts.
“The best part of the job is interacting with local customers that are trying craft beer for the first time,” Li says. “I love watching their expression when they drink our IPA or another one of our popular beers. You see this realization on their faces that beer can actually have complex, intricate flavors.”
Located near Beijing’s embassies, in a district known for bars, clubs, and shopping, Jing-A shares its space with Big Smoke Bistro, a restaurant popular with the city’s expats. Young professionals fill the dimly lit tables, unwinding with dinner and glasses of Jing-A.
Amid the bustle on a recent evening, Li sits at a counter with Sha Wang, who markets Jing-A to a Chinese audience. As we talk, a brewer, bag of hops in hand, comes up to consult Li about the next day’s brewing plans. Glasses are filled and emptied. Even Li is taken with his own tricks: “This Airpocalypse is delicious!” he says after taking a sip of his double IPA, whose name references Beijing’s smog.
Li hopes one day to reach beer drinkers overseas and in the United States. In the nearer future, the brewery is opening another taproom in Beijing this year. They are also looking to open retail stores and increasing their distribution around the city. “In terms of vision, it’s pretty simple for us,” Li says. “We are just focused on making the best possible beer and having fun while doing it.”