As a brewer with a European heritage that dates back 600 years to the Den Hoorn Stella Artois brewery in Leuven, Belgium, our role has long been to bring people together.

Yet this role took on a different meaning with the arrival of COVID-19. As governments across Europe undertook necessary measures to contain the spread of the virus, we saw industries change their way of working, the bars, restaurants and cafes where people gather closed and populations urged to stay at home, self-isolate and socially distance.

In this vastly changed reality, we reassembled quickly to answer new questions: firstly, how can we keep our 7,500 people across 18 breweries and offices in EU member states safe and healthy? How can we support our customers who are also dealing with this new landscape? How can we help our communities, and how can we still bring people together at a distance? And finally, how can we ensure a lasting, healthy recovery?

Ensuring the health and safety of our people

From the outset of this crisis, our top priority as a business has been protecting our colleagues and ensuring their health and safety. As a global company we were able to use important learnings from our China and South Korea business as we shifted everyone who could work from home to remote working and put in enhanced hygiene and safety measures at our breweries. These included arranging production lines and cantines to take social distancing into account, increasing cleaning cycles and putting in voluntary temperature checks at our brewery entrances.

As many businesses now understand, we also have a duty of care for our people’s mental, as well as physical, health. We recognize how unprecedented the current situation is and the rapid adaptations our people are making. We’re listening to feedback each and every week and providing new trainings for our teams – from daily physical exercise sessions and webinars on wellbeing to virtual happy hours and inspirational sessions every Friday, called Beer Talk, where we invite an external speaker to talk to our teams over Zoom.

Our people are our greatest strength and in these times, I’ve been humbled to watch them rally to support each other. We are proud of their resilience and commitment of our people and know that we are in this together.

Supporting the long-term success of our partners

As restaurants, bars and pubs across Europe closed their doors, we knew that the partners we supply our beers to, would be struggling financially. Our teams worked at speed to devise, design and develop a new platform that would enable consumers to buy a voucher for their local bar, which we would match, giving these outlets much-needed income now, and people could redeem these once their bar reopens.

This platform went live in a matter of days,  called ‘Café Courage’ in Belgium, and has rolled out since in the UK, France and Italy, raising over half a million euros for participating bars and pubs.

We’re also working with our customers to give deferred rent payments, free tap cleaning services and keg restocks with fresh beer to support a fast recovery for the sector when social distancing measures begin to ease.

Helping our communities in need

A responsible business must also go beyond their own people, operations and business partners.

Although beers such as Leffe and Stella are globally-recognized brands, beer is a very local product. 95% of our beers are locally sourced, locally grown, locally brewed. We as a company are deeply-rooted in the communities in which we operate and therefore we are in a unique position to support them and to be a part of the solution.

As European governments and public health bodies began implementing measures to combat the spread of Covid-19, public demand for hand sanitizers and disinfectant increased dramatically. As these products are alcohol-based, we were able to step in to help.

Turning our efforts from brewing with barley and hops to producing biocides was a different challenge, but one that we rose to given the situation. We partnered with companies with expertise in this area to produce over 120,000 litres of ready-to-use disinfectant alcohol and hand sanitizers, using the surplus alcohol from our alcohol-free beers, like Jupiler 0.0, Leffe 0,0 and Beck’s Blue. These were delivered to crisis-coordination teams and governments across Europe to distribute for free to hospitals and frontline services that needed it most.

Alongside shifting production to hand sanitizers, disinfectant liquids and gels, we’ve donated a million alcohol-free beers to frontline health workers and donated our billboard space to public health campaigns by FIFA and WHO.

I have always believed that our company can only exist with support and partnership from our communities. In times of crisis, this role becomes even clearer.

Building a lasting recovery

Although uncertainty remains, we know that with our people, our partners and our communities we will emerge from this, and emerge stronger together. Yet, what will the other side look like and how can we learn from this experience to build a better, safer, cleaner recovery?

As a business, we have long advocated the importance of long-term, sustainable growth. The fight against COVID-19 has given us important food for thought on how quickly we can collaborate, connect and change behaviours and actions when needed. What could we achieve together if we applied this mindset, focus on fast solutions and partnership between governments, institutions and businesses to the difficult questions we will now face?

While we must continue to prioritise public health and accelerating progress towards a vaccine, an economic, environmental and societal recovery needs to be taken into account. Here we believe there is a great opportunity for the European Union to lead the way in developing a sustainable future by encouraging green investments. Policy makers should look to incentivise and reward first-mover companies so others follow this lead, generating unstoppable momentum towards carbon neutrality. We believe that this progressive approach will not only lead to lasting environmental benefits, but will also create growth and employment.   

We know that the next few months will bring challenges and as a business deeply-rooted in Europe, we are here to support a smart recovery that is built to last for our future generations.

European Vice President of Legal & Corporate Affairs, AB InBev