China's Beer Lovers Brave Danger in the Face of a Deadly Virus

February 12, 2020

By Aurélien Foucault, February 12, 2020

The recommendations are clear: stay home, minimize outings, and avoid unnecessary social interactions. This isn’t a note left by an overzealous parent—these are necessary steps taken to help contain the deadly virus COVID-19 (a.k.a. Wuhan virus, novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV) that’s been causing havoc all over China since January. Following the official announcement by the World Health Organization declaring the virus outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” some countries have closed their borders to people coming from China and major airlines have canceled their direct flights to the mainland.

After nearly three weeks of recommended self-isolation, the city of Beijing has turned into something of a ghost town, offering the eerie sight of deserted streets, closed businesses, and nearly zero traffic. Besides the occasional mask-wearing silhouettes heading out for groceries and a few elderly Tai-Chi practitioners, it’s as if its population of 21 million has simply vanished.

Outside Slow Boat Brewery. All photos by the author.

In spite of this apocalyptic scene, there are some beacons of normalcy. Among them is Beijing’s Slow Boat Brewery, which has made sure its door is open and its taps full of fresh beer, even amid the threat of a deadly virus.

Founded in 2011 by Americans Chandler Jurinka and Daniel Hebert, Slow Boat is one of the pioneers of the Beijing craft beer scene. The pair began by sharing their beer at pop-up events and selling it to local bars and restaurants. That eventually grew into a brand that now has three venues in the city, including a three-story, 750-square-meter brewpub.

Slow Boat co-founder Chandler Jurinka (right).

“Even before the outbreak, we made the decision that we’d always be open, whatever happens. We want people to know they can count on us being open. So when the virus outbreak happened, we didn’t give it a second thought,” says Jurinka, co-founder and CEO. “After we heard of the outbreak we put our efforts into drafting new SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and training staff on how to perform health checks and sanitize the restaurant so that it would be a safe haven for those that wanted a pint or a good meal.”

At a time when most people are staying home, have fled the country, or have not come back after the Chinese New Year migration, it certainly is a costly operation to keep Slow Boat’s venues open. “Yes, we could have saved a lot of money closing during this outbreak, but we decided in times like this, it’s even more important to be open and offer customers a bit of a break.”

Staff checks customers for fever before they're allowed inside.

Besides the tragic human cost of the virus—with more than 1,000 confirmed dead and more than 6,000 in severe condition at the time of writing—it has also caused a major blow to the economy, and nobody can properly estimate its full impact yet. The food and beverage industry has been one of the first to take the hit, with the number of walk-ins going down anywhere from 70 to 95 percent, according to Jurinka.

The virus has now infected more than 45,000 people worldwide, and 300 in Beijing alone. With those kinds of frightening figures, how do you get customers to leave the safety of their homes and go out for a beer? After a long period of self-isolation spent waiting for the latest report on the virus, it’s easy to let paranoia take hold.

Slow Boat reassures its clientele that it is thoroughly committed to sanitary procedures in its brewpubs. Anybody entering the premises will first undergo a temperature screening to make sure nobody comes in with a fever, one of the key indicators of the virus.

Slow Boat takes sanitization seriously.

In addition, all members of the staff wear face masks, and there’s even a box of complimentary surgical masks at the entrance in case a customer needs one. This is quite a feat, given that all proper masks are completely sold out in China and practically impossible to get.

But was it these sanitary measures that got customers to leave their homes? “Well, it helps, as it’s somehow reassuring, but we are still very careful. We only venture out for shopping and dinner,” says Mr. Sun, a customer who came to Slow Boat to have dinner with a friend.

"We come and drink because there’s nothing else to do.”

Gathered around a large table, four friends from the UK, Australia, and France share their thoughts on the situation: “Masks and temperature checks are nice but we don’t care about it much. We’re not afraid—we still go out and come here because we live nearby. We work in the pharmaceutical industry so we understand what’s going on. There’s a lot of bullshit noise and lots of fake news. We come and drink because there’s nothing else to do.”

Asked if they were thinking of leaving China, one of them pointed out that the UK asked for its citizens to go home and he did just the opposite. “I was on holiday in Thailand and actually came back here a few days ago. It’s important to show our Chinese colleagues we’re here with them. We’re not going anywhere.”

Another confessed: “Of course I’m afraid of the virus, but boredom was worse than fear. Staying home all alone isn’t an option.”

The staff say they are not particularly scared of the virus.

When it comes to the staff, they’re not particularly scared either, but the risk is harder to swallow for their parents, who grow increasingly worried at the thought of them facing customers at work. Two of them had to quit to reassure their relatives.

The outbreak has also highlighted a certain tension between the Chinese and the foreigners living here, who usually have another home to go back to. Michael, who’s in charge of marketing at Slow Boat and is originally from Poland, could work from home but decided to come to the bar every day to show the Chinese staff that “they haven’t been abandoned” by their foreign colleagues.

"The situation is so bad that having a bit of fun can’t hurt.”

For Jun and KC, two friends visiting the brewery, it’s the first time they have had a face-to-face conversation with someone in 10 days. “I came back from the South so I isolated myself for two weeks to make sure I wasn’t bringing back the virus,” says KC.

“We know that in Beijing the health risk is low, but the risk of depression is high. There is a heavy mental cost to all this as well. All our travel plans were affected, so when we heard Slow Boat was still open, we were both really cheered up by it. The situation is so bad that having a bit of fun can’t hurt.”

Slow Boat is renowned for its burger selection.

Slow Boat certainly delivers a diversion with its 14 beers on tap and an exciting selection of unique burgers. Two of the favorite beers among customers are the Monkey’s Fist IPA, a continuously hopped blood orange brew boasting a nose of pine and mango and a combination of five different malts, and the Moon Jelly Clear NEIPA, which is surprisingly crystal clear and exhibits a smooth, creamy mouthfeel with low bitterness. 

Slow Boat also takes its food menu seriously. Its legendary FRYBURGER, served with beer-battered fries in between the burger buns, has repeatedly won “Best Burger” awards in the Beijing community since 2014 and has managed to keep its title until today.

Canning beers on site with the Master Sealer.

Inevitably, no matter how good the beer, the virus outbreak still has impacted customer habits. As Roy, the brewpub manager explains, “The mood among customers has changed. They used to stay for hours and drink as much beer as they could, and now many will just come to feed themselves and leave. These days they also tend to come in smaller company and avoid large groups.”

Luckily for those customers, Slow Boat also cans any of its beers on site with its Master Sealer, perfect for take-away or delivery straight to your sofa.

Slow Boat has already taken a massive hit in sales this year.

Even with the virus looming, Slow Boat has brewed enough beer to hold its own for a while—but it’s clear that the situation can’t last eternally. “We’re 95 percent down in outside sales over last year,” regrets Jurinka. “Because of what we sell off-site: bars, restaurants, hotels that normally buy our beer. They’re either closed or they’re not getting any business. And that’s a gigantic difference because we’ve been on a 40 to 60 percent increase in volume every year for the last nine years. Our business planning for the crisis is built around a three- to six-month month estimate of near-to-zero profits. We figured if we can make it after six months in that situation, we can last another 20 years.”

Beer is certainly not a remedy for the outbreak, but it does have the power to bring some necessary relief in these trying times. If nothing else, a visit to one’s local brewery can offer a brief respite from the tragedy while the world awaits a cure.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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