In spite of the trend towards ultra high-end in Beijing’s nightlife district, craft brewing operations continue to dominate much of the daily business. Sanlitun’s craft beer halls are perennially packed to the rafters with a gas-like supply of customers – they fill whatever space is provided for the consumption of artisan suds.
Slow Boat finally entered the Sanlitun drinking scene at the beginning of autumn, opening a new flagship location on Nan Sanlitun Lu. The huge red marquee visible from the street, above the building’s white-washed façade, is a world away from the tiny hutong original – not that we pine for the days of ass-to-elbow queuing for a pint.
Slow Boat’s Sanlitun location is a play of three acts, starting with the ground floor. A small bar with a select line-up of taps at street level spills out onto an outdoor standing bar for warm-weather sipping, reminiscent of Shanghai’s famous, if now somewhat neutered, outdoor drinking street Yongkang Lu.
Sacks of fragrant grains are piled along the stairs to the second floor, hinting at the sorcery going on inthe massive stainless steel tanks across the way in the large secondstorey hall. This is no mere taproom: Slow Boat’s signature brews are now brewed on site, rather than a nearby brewing location.
White pine, polished concrete and red leather banquets set the stage, while floor-to-ceiling windows flood the entire space with an almost indecent amount of natural light. The third floor is a continuation of the second, effectively doubling the square footage, and also providing a viewing platform over two of the large tanks below.
The beer line-up – easily one of the biggest and more diverse in Beijing – has made the trip in tact, as has the hallmark burger menu. But the brewpub could hardly arrive at such plush new digs without a new menu item or two. The Lao Thai Thai burger (75RMB) features chunky peanut butter, a slice of grilled pineapple and Thai basil. It’s a funky idea, but we’re not sure why adding a pineapple ring and spoonful of peanut butter to the regular burger justifies a 30RMB price hike. But a couple of slightly bitter Flying Whale IPAs (45RMB) later, you won’t care a jot.
The new Fried Chicken Thigh Sandwich (65RMB) is a better bet if you’re looking for something more on the savoury side. Delectably crunchy skin gives way to outrageously juicy dark meat, topped with Swiss cheese. Pair it with the light American Wheat (35RMB).
Neither burger come with chips (30-45RMB), which may have flown in the hutongs but seems like pure madness in the middle of Sanlitun. As mighty as Slow Boat’s beer-battered seasoned fries are, in our universe burgers and fries are subatomic: split them and all manner of chaos shall ensue.
As well as the crunchy Dongsi Dofu burger (45RMB), veg-heads and carb-counters will be glad of a few new leafy green options on the menu. The House Kale Salad (65RMB) is a straight mash-up of 'basic b**ch' necessities topped with grilled chicken; while the Watermelon, Feta and Salmon Salad (65RMB) is tangy and sweet with its raspberry vinaigrette. Caramel and Sea Salt Waffles (45RMB) and the Fresh Fruit Popsicles (25RMB) offer a juvenile and indulgently sweet finish – all to be washed down with a pint of creamy Sea Anchor Imperial Vanilla Stout (45RMB).
The new brewpub is not without its faults. It’s not an easy feat to go from a hutong taproom to a sprawling brewpub, and there have been some choppy seas on the way, with incorrect orders and long wait times the norm on each of our several visits, even during weekday lulls. This wouldn’t come as such a shock if the rest of the place weren’t so damn polished, and we’re confident this will be resolved in good time.
We go to a brewpub for the quality of its brews, and Slow Boat excels in that department, but a really great brewpub is more than just beer. This is not quite there yet, but with some time we think it’s in as good a position as any to raise the bar in Beijing’s craft beer scene.
By Nick Gollner