I blame the Germans. For some strange reason they seem to think that their beer actually tastes good; and worse than that, they will insist on exporting their vile libations around the world. It was the Krauts who were responsible for setting up the Tsingtao brewery in China; and the rest, as we know to our cost, is history.
The result is that many Chinese beers are – how can I say this delicately – a ‘disappointment’ on a grand scale. Yes, I knock back the occasional flagon of Tsingtao or Yanjing on a hot and sultry day; or I splash out on the occasional imported beverage when I’m feeling flush with money after pay day; but drinking beer, at least in Beijing, was hardly what I would call one of life’s little luxuries.
So you can imagine my delight when I discovered only recently the existence of a craft brewery set up by two Americans in 2011. The brewery itself is to the north of the capital beyond the fifth ring; but the taproom is a five minute amble from Zhangzizhonglu station on Line 5, which makes it a cinch to get to it from almost anywhere in BJ.
The name “Slow Boat” comes from that Frank Loesser song “Slow Boat to China” – well I did say the founders were American didn’t I? But I think we can forgive them that little peccadillo, since apart from that they have done a bloody good job with this little business of theirs.
Time Out Beijing summed it up perfectly: There’s never a weak link in any of its 12 beers on tap — be it the popular standards such as the hoppy Monkey’s Fist IPA or the limited-edition brews such as the Sea Anchor Imperial Vanilla Stout. The taproom is like catnip for the capital’s beer lovers, whereas the uninitiated can always rely on recommendations from the bar’s knowledgeable, approachable, beer-loving staff.
The enthusiasm of the behind-the-counter staff is infectious. You can tell they just love their job and though they are at times rushed off their feet they will still make the time to describe the subtle nuances of the individual brews.
Slow Boat has ten core production beers that are brewed all year long, but according to the time of year, they add new seasonal and experimental beers regularly.
Captain’s Pale Ale is Slow Boat’s flagship beer. It’s a dark copper coloured ale made with four varieties of hops from the American Pacific Northwest and it has a pungent aroma of grapefruit – a bit like a New Zealand APA draft I tried quite recently. The official web site tells us that “Gentle effervescence and a crisp, light body with sweet malt notes balance this beer’s strong, citrusy bitterness and give it a smooth finish”.
In the past two years, the brewery has won a slew of awards including Best New Bar, Outstanding Local Craft Beer; Best Microbrewery Taproom; Best Bar Food…. the list goes on and on.
You can tell a marketer has been closely involved in the project, not least by the names given to some of the brews: Monkey's Fist IPA / Malty Dog Red Ale / Oregon Steam Boat Lager / Slutty Mermaid Triple IPA / Sea Level Chocolate Stout
And if you’re not sure which one to go for (they had 19 brews on offer when I visited), you can choose samplers – five glasses for 100 kwai.
Oh… Did I mention the bar food? You’ll simply love the chips (American potatoes battered in beer) – sheer heaven in a bucket!
And the hamburgers? So good you will want to order one of each type and mix and match with your drinking buddies…
You might even be tempted by their Pickle Plate which thank goodness is explained in detail on the menu… “A whole bunch of stupid pickles…wait for it… on a plate”.
Mid week you can get some special deals on both beers and hamburgers; and on Sundays they even do a special brunch.
Not surprisingly the place is extremely popular with those in the know. On weekdays it opens at 5pm; but within a very short time there is standing room only. Because Slow Boat is located in a protected hutong, it cannot expand upwards or outwards, and spilling out into the street is also strongly discouraged. In fact the front door is so heavy and thick that not even the sound of revellers can be heard outside. This means that you need to have done your 50 press ups a day to even manage to open the door to get in!
By now, you might have got the idea that I’m mighty impressed with this place – and you’d be right. In voting it Best Overall Winner, Time Out Beijing wrote: “Our favourite microbrewery is also our pick for best bar. If you’re anything like us you picked Slow Boat because it hits every mark—a great all-rounder. Its pub grub is top-notch, offering arguably the best burgers in the city, and the service is incredibly warm and genuine; the staff always have the time to share their passion for beer if you find the selection of 12 craft brews on tap daunting. And, most importantly, the beer always comes fresh, chilled and perfectly carbonated. Slow Boat hits that sweet spot of being big enough to cope but small enough to care about the little details that make a bar truly outstanding.”
I’ll certainly drink to that!