Article By Tim King – Photos By Brian K. Smith
Throughout our interview, no matter where I was trying to lead with my line of questions, Near Wall Bar/Xian Brewery master brewer Jon Therrian kept coming back to the same central tenet: “It’s about making the best beer possible.”
That’s never more apparent than when we’re sat with a friend of his who brought some Australian tourists, a mere forty minutes disembarked from their train, just to try his brews. He orders them a sampler of six varieties, and while there are usually placards to denote which beer is which, with the master around there’s no need—he confidently identifies each and unspools a line of facts and figures about each one, including the alcohol content and ingredients. There are probably a few other people in town—the local clique of hop heads, the homebrewers he’s mentored over the last couple of years, or frequent drinkers at his bars—that could pull off a similar party trick, but they won’t come close to the expertise, or the enthusiasm, that he laces his descriptions with.
Jon’s passion for brewing started while he was a business major at university, with an interest in craft beer that soon manifested in once-or-twice-a-week homebrew sessions back home in Ohio. He first worked in the industry making business plans for breweries, but eventually decided to go to Brewlab in England to get formal training as a brewer. It was there that he met Xinglei, a bit of serendipity that would end up drastically changing the course of his life.
“We stayed in touch after and we always talked about doing something together…one day Lei sent me a picture of a brew kit he was working with, and I said, ‘Okay, I can work with that,’” he explains. “So I set a date; in six months I would go to China and work with him.”
Sure enough, six months later Jon would find himself working with that 60-liter kit, which at that time was on the third floor of the old Vice Versa, by Wenchang Gate. They began to develop their recipes and test them on patrons at a small taproom they put adjacent to their modest brewery. Meanwhile, a few blocks west, crews were hard at work converting a residential property into what is now Near Wall Bar.
Now filled with handmade furniture and a stylish burst of Yunnan-esque woodwork, it’s hard to imagine Near Wall was once anything else, but it’s much easier to picture when Jon begins to point out specific renovations. “We had to retrofit the [500-liter] brew kit into one of those open-air courtyards where old people drink tea,” he says with a laugh.
Once Near Wall opened, it wasn’t long before success followed. Original recipes, like the Classic Wit, a first draft of their Coffee Stout, and their signature beer, the Citra IPA, kept patrons coming back for more—and the occasional raucous party didn’t hurt their reputation either. For his part, Jon is modest about their rise, but makes a great point regarding their effect on the Xi’an bar scene. “When we started we were ‘that place west of Park Qin’…there were no other bars in this alley. Now it’s filled with bars.”
More than that, Near Wall has become something greater than a place near a wall; it’s quickly developed into a brand. They began selling kegs of their product to area restaurants, and eventually partnered with local eatery Leban to create their bold new gastropub, Xian Brewery, which is home to their biggest set up yet—a 1000-liter kit with 16,000 liters worth of storage tanks. Just in the past several months, the team brought the Chinese craft brewing scene to Xi’an, including thirteen breweries from six different countries, notably 京A from Beijing, Hugo from Chengdu, Baird Beer from Japan, and Firestone Walker from the US, at the first-ever Xi’an Craft Beer Festival, a weekend of music and beer attended by thousands; Xian Brewery beer is also making the rounds at beer festivals in other parts of the country and, as of late September, is being sold at brew pubs in craft beer hotspots like Beijing. Some might consider “meteoric” to be hyperbolic, but it doesn’t take a genius to see just how quickly Xian Brewery has emerged as a serious contender in their industry—and, at least in Xi’an, a leader in what might be China’s final frontier of brewing.
Jon speaks honestly about the potential for more upward movement for their beer and their brand, but sat on a bench in the backroom of Near Wall, eating a hamburger made in his own kitchen, one can’t help but help feel that workmanlike, almost punk rock soul he maintains from their early days. “It’s about making the best beer possible,” he explains. “It’s like being an artist with a palette, and your ingredients are the paint. You know what each one does, and you combine them and work with them and experiment until it’s the best it can be.”