Author: Lucy Corne

It’s not easy to be the first to market. It’s a lot of fun of course, and can potentially be extremely rewarding. But it’s definitely not a stress-free task. Add in a harsh climate, some pretty tangled red tape and the fact that the nearest business doing what you do is 250km away, across an international border no less, and life can indeed become very challenging.

Big Sip Co. is Botswana’s first craft brewery, situated in the capital city of Gaborone. The brewery actually opened its doors at the end of 2017, but only at the end of 2019 did they launch their on-site taproom. The business has so far been a great success. Big Sip’s beers are found in 20 restaurants and liquor stores around the city and the brand is gradually being embraced as a Botswana-born start-up.

Initially, the brewery thrived on ex-pat supporters, but the taproom launch was strongly supported by locals as well, thrilled and intrigued to learn that their city has its own small-scale brewery. It hasn’t been an easy ride to get here though. The challenges began when the brewhouse arrived from China, along with a technician to help piece it together. Through a variety of translation apps, Big Sip co-founders Jan de Buhr and Angelique Punt learned that some of the valves and connectors were in the technician’s suitcase – which had not arrived on the plane with him. It would be an easy enough problem to solve if you lived in a major city in Europe or the US or even South Africa, but the missing parts were not available to purchase anywhere in Botswana.

“We only realised a couple of days before Mr Chui was leaving that we needed to go to Johannesburg to get some stainless steel fittings and pressure valves that just didn’t turn up,” says Angelique. “We had to drive down to Johannesburg on a Sunday to be there at the moment the shops opened on the Monday morning. At 7am we started rushing around getting control units and pipes and cords and electrical equipment and then drove back to Gabs, arriving around 2pm to finish the physical build.” The system was finally ready for its commissioning brew at midnight, which left little time to clean before the milling and mash-in started. “After some final discussion via WeChat and Google Translate, we were finally able to start our first brew at 2am on the Tuesday, with Mr Chui having to fly back to China at 1pm that day!” Angelique recalls somewhat fondly, now that the ordeal is behind them.

Tangled in red tape

Jan admits that the first brew did not go to plan and the whole batch was pretty much a drain pour, thanks to its strong metallic note. Since then he has fine-tuned Big Sip’s core range, which features a Kölsch, Golden Ale, APA and IPA. But brewing the beers has only been half the challenge – working out how to legally sell them was the next step. “There are quite a few issues red tape-wise,” says Jan. “They originally thought we were making Chibuku (traditional African beer – a thick, opaque brew made with sorghum and maize) and the council didn’t really know what to classify us as.” Angelique continues the tale: “Jan took samples to show them and as he poured it out they were really surprised, saying “oh, it’s clear beer!’” Jan ended up sketching out the brewing process and eventually invited council officials to the brewery to show them just how a Braumeister – the small system they were then brewing on – works.

With the manufacturing licence in place, it still took months to receive the distribution licence – that is, to actually be allowed to sell the beer they were brewing. Then, after two years of selling to bars and bottle stores, the team was finally ready to open a tasting room at the brewery – until local bureaucracy reared its head again. Right up until the last minute, Jan and Angelique weren’t sure if they could actually welcome people to the brewery on the day of the taproom launch. Luckily, the ‘all clear’ came about 20 minutes before the first customers trickled in.

Big Sip’s taproom – a 30-seater space with all-essential air conditioning – overlooks the 500-litre brewhouse. The brew floor of course is not air conditioned and Jan reports temperatures of up to 50°C on brew days. The country’s desert heat doubtless creates a serious thirst for beer, but it is also one of the major challenges for Big Sip Co. “Managing the cold chain is absolutely essential,” says Jan. “We can be looking at ground temperatures of 40°C and in summer the average ambient temperature is at least 35°C, which makes draught beer difficult unless kegs and lines are also kept cold.”

The problem is at its worst when Big Sip’s beers head north to Maun. It’s a 10-hour drive through the desert to get there and from the town itself, the beer has a further journey to its final destination. Most of the beer that leaves Big Sip headed north is destined for one of the region’s lodges, whose wealthy tourist clientele are an important market for the fledgling brewery. “A cold truck is high on our list of wants for 2020,” says Jan. “But as we don’t filter or pasteurise, until then we just need to spend a lot of time educating our customers on the importance of always keeping the beer cold.”

Capturing hearts and minds

Education is undoubtedly one of Big Sip’s biggest challenges. The beer scene in Gaborone reminds me of South African in 2010, which is perhaps best likened to the USA in the early 90s. People are used to drinking a single style of beer. Most bars and restaurants serve a variety of pale lagers from Kgalagadi Breweries Limited (KBL), including South Africa’s favourite, Carling Black Label, the local brand St Louis and more recently, Budweiser, introduced to the country once AB-InBev took over KBL’s parent company, SAB (South African Breweries).

While I’m in Gaborone, I work with the Big Sip team to host a couple of food pairings – a concept way ahead of its time in this burgeoning beer market. I am amazed by the way people here have embraced the idea, the deep interest in beer styles and the processes that turn malt, hops, water and yeast into this wonderful beverage we call beer. What I’m really here for though, is the big night when Big Sip opens its doors to the public for the first time.

At the taproom launch, Jan brews a single-hop pale ale on his 50-litre Grainfather – his 170th batch on the small system. The visitors are mesmerised by the smell and fascinated by the process. They taste malt and sniff hops and ask countless questions. Some even begin to make plans to launch their own homebrewing careers. It is no doubt difficult being the first brewery in a country with unforgiving summer temperatures; where everything from malt and hops to kegs, bottles and even labels has to be imported; where licencing authorities struggle to complete the paperwork because they’re not quite sure which paperwork to complete. But as I look around Botswana’s first microbrewery and see a room filled with excited faces sipping cold, refreshing beers, I’m pretty sure the midnight brews, the baffling bureaucracy and those days when it felt hotter outside the mash tun than in it are all completely worth it.

Pictures: Uyapo Ketogetswe