Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. Specifically, they teach classes online.

City Brew Tours is a Newton, Massachusetts-based company that leads groups of between four and 400 people behind the scenes at craft breweries in nine U.S. cities. Loquacious beer geeks conduct the tours, which travel among sites in vans or buses. Clearly this was not a business model built to withstand coronavirus.

The company had $3 million in revenue last year, and before the stay-at-home orders hit had hundreds of thousands of dollars on the books. "Those first two weeks were 18-hour days of just pleading with people not to ask for a refund," says founder and CEO Chad Brodsky. Roughly 95 percent of customers--many of them party hosts and event organizers--agreed to postponements rather than cancellations.

Unfortunately, refunds made earlier that month had reduced the company's cash position by 80 percent. Unable to perform any part of their core business, Brodsky and City Brew Tours co-owner Barry Hansen furloughed the full-time staff of 13, as well as more than 40 tour guides and other part-timers.

Next, the partners considered whether any aspect of their business might translate online. They came up with two.

Of stout and Stilton

A typical City Brew Tours event comprises four stops, one of which is a restaurant meal featuring food-and-beer pairings. So last month the business debuted virtual beer-and-cheese pairing happy hours, where for $15 participants can gather on Zoom and learn from an expert what IPA goes best with a nice Wisconsin blue. 

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Most of City Brew Tours' regular clientele are groups--friends celebrating a birthday or bachelor party or companies providing field trips during a conference. Now those clients can book private happy hours on Zoom for $150, serving up to 30 people. For an additional $50 to $125 per person, the company will have boxes of cheese and beer delivered to all participants in the same area. (Prior to the pandemic. for a real-world private tour--which includes visits to three or four breweries, transportation, and a beer-pairing meal--the company charged, on average, $130 per person.)

The sweet spot may be team building, as newly virtual companies try to boost collaboration and morale. "We do ice breakers, and people talk about their favorite pairings. It's a way to get to know who they are," Brodsky says. The events have attracted several corporate customers, including one of the largest tech companies.

In April Karen Staples, director of Northeast sales for Visit Salt Lake, invited meeting planners from a dozen Massachusetts companies to a virtual beer-and-cheese pairing. She kicked off the event with a presentation about the bright horizons of Utah's capital and then handed off to a City Brew Tours guide, who regaled the group with beer lore. Participants had received packages that included, among other things, a craft beer and artisanal chocolate bars from Salt Lake, information about the city, and city-branded swag. 

"This was totally unique and something I may do in the future way beyond the pandemic," Staples says. "The fact that they could customize it and offer education was incredibly helpful. People don't just want an event. They want to learn something."

Brew it yourself

The other online experience is a three-hour homebrewing class. Brodsky and Hansen, who was once a commercial brewer, worked with an online store to curate a homebrewing kit designed to make the process safe and simple.

They also had to streamline the normally five-hour process by, for example, having participants start the call with their water already boiling and by creating a separate video showing later steps, like pitching the yeast once the batch reaches the right temperature. The cost is $99 per person, which includes the kit and ingredients to make an American pale ale or amber ale.

Here, too, the corporate market is most promising. Brodsky recently booked a homebrew experience from one company for 60 people over multiple events for $12,000. With several such jobs lined up and a $185,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan, he has been able to bring back all his full-time employees and provide some work for the company's stable of part-time guides, who host the virtual events.

Participation has been building. The company hosted 10 virtual events during one week with north of 160 customers. It has also substantially increased bookings and leads. Brodsky thinks City Brew Tours can make up most of the roughly 50 percent of company revenue that comes from corporate clients. 

He imagines keeping some version of the homebrew experience even after the tours return. "The question constantly comes up during our tours: How do I get started in homebrew?" he says. Now City Brew Tours' guides can point customers to the company's own offerings, with instruction by people they already know from experience are smart and entertaining about beer. "With this new model we can have you brewing in less than 10 days," Brodsky says.