It’s a long haul from Asheville to Taiwan, but that’s the journey one of Western North Carolina’s earliest craft brewing pioneers has taken.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Jonas Rembert opened two of the city’s first four breweries: Benefit Brewing, the operation at Jack of the Wood pub that became Green Man Brewery, followed by French Broad River Brewing Co. (now French Broad River Brewery) near Biltmore Village.
Then in 2007, he walked away from craft brewing and relocated to China and then Taiwan to begin a new life teaching English as a second language.
“I just took a short break. I was going to take a 7 1/2-month [teaching] contract in China,” Rembert says in a phone interview from his home. “And I think that was 11 1/2 years ago.”
Rembert met his Taiwanese wife Ai Ping, and they had a son who’s now 9 years old. The former brewer seems completely comfortable in his current situation, an ocean away from the craft beverage scene he helped create and build.
Now, he’s written a book about his life in and out of beer, Starlight in a Glass: Home Brewing as an Existential Journey. The ebook covers Rembert’s life from his days following the Grateful Dead to brewing to his current life in Taiwan. It is available online through most major ebook retailers.
“At first, teaching was a way to have a working vacation, to earn a living,” he says. “I found I have a real passion for it. Teaching is something I’ve been interested in. I really needed a break from the beer business and from North Carolina, where I had spent my whole life.”
Rembert works in an elementary school. “It’s a school like any other,” he says. “You can get the students at different levels. They’ve all had a little bit of exposure [to English].”
Though he’s now well-versed in the teaching routine and speaks enough Chinese to “understand everything that’s going on,” Rembert says he was initially “scared to death” of the assignment. His students speak Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese, a southern Chinese dialect.
“On the surface, you’re teaching them to read and write and grammar skills — but you’re getting kids to think,” Rembert says. “Taiwan has a somewhat rigid educational system. These kids are doing 40-60 hours a week of classes and homework. When you teach them in a different way, from a Western perspective, you get them to think and expose them to things like art and culture that they would have never seen before.”
Rembert lives in the central Taiwanese city of Taichung, the population of which currently totals 2.7 million. ”Life is very laid-back,” he says. “Even in a big city, people have very country attitudes. You’ll see older people walking in the middle of the street or riding their bicycles in traffic, like [it was] 50 years ago, not acknowledging that the world has changed around them.”
He continues, “We live in a traditional neighborhood and can walk across the street to a modern grocery store. But we can walk 10 minutes to a traditional market, which is like going back 100 years. There’s an element there that I find rich and exciting.”
While Rembert is long removed from his brewing days, what he learned in that business continues to serve him today as an educator. “You have to be completely patient and control many thing at once,” he says. “On any given brew day, you would have six different things going on — a host of things. Managing your classroom can be like that. You have students with different needs [and] different methods that they respond to.”
Keeping in touch
Rembert has maintained friendships and admiration in the Asheville beer scene. Among his local friends is Scott Pyatt, co-founder of Catawba Brewing Co., who traveled to New York with Rembert to purchase the brewing equipment that went into French Broad River Brewing Co.
“We had a lot of fun in the early days,” Pyatt says. “I met him before he made his first batch of beer [in 1997 at Jack of the Wood]. We had no mutual friends, but we liked each other. He had a little 7-barrel system. It was old-school, but I thought it was fancy.”
They also went to beer festivals together. “That’s the way it was 20 years ago,” he says. “We were a small group of people.”
Mike Rangel, president of Asheville Brewing Co., purchased the first keg of beer sold by French Broad. “In those days, you needed a strong personality — and Jonas was always a big thinker,” Rangel says. “He had a lot of confidence in himself. He’s a very self-motivated person and a smart guy.”
Another cohort was Ben Pierson, who brewed at Green Man and Lexington Avenue Brewery before starting his own Swamp Rabbit Brewery in nearby Travelers Rest, S.C. Pierson helped off-load the equipment at French Broad.
“Jonas loved the business,” he says. “He was driven. Like all of us, he felt he made the best beer on the planet — or he was going to try.”
While his fellow industry pioneers continue to grow the Asheville area’s brewing scene, Rembert enjoys a decent variety of beer in Taiwan. “The Belgians have a micromarket here,” he says. “If you go to your convenience store, it’s mostly your mainstream Taiwanese or Japanese beer, or Budweiser and Heineken. There are a few breweries on the island.”
Rembert says he has not homebrewed in Taiwan — mostly because the warm weather makes it difficult — but misses the work and frequently craves sour beer.
“I’m going to have to come back to Asheville as a tourist and walk around the city and do a pub crawl,” he says. “I’m happy to have been a part of that early scene, but I’ve moved on to new and exciting things.”