The inaugural African Beer Cup was recently held in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Until now, African beer competitions have largely been restricted to South African breweries, partly due to the difficulties in shipping beer around the continent and partly because the beer scene has been slow to get moving outside of South Africa’s borders. Happily, this is gradually changing.

Author: Lucy Corne

Pictures: Lucy Corne

It might not sound many, but these breweries are developing quickly, gaining a solid local following and moving rapidly from the continent’s typical “we need to brew a light lager” phase towards producing some fascinating styles, often taking advantage of local ingredients. Among others, medals in the African beer cup went to a mango IPA from Bateleur Brewery in Kenya and a coffee-infused imperial stout containing sorghum alongside malted barley from Nigeria’s only microbrewery, Bature.

It’s not easy being the first microbrewery in your country, but it is exciting. Kevin Conroy, co-founder of Bature Brewery, has helped to build a solid army of beer lovers in the country’s capital, Abuja, but he’s hopeful that more breweries will open soon. “It is impossible for one microbrewery to be sufficient for the appetite for all of the population,” says Kevin. “There is always the need for collaboration among the players in the sector, and the prospect for other breweries coming up means that we have more people we can collaborate and share ideas with.”

Keeping it local

Like many microbrewers, Kevin started as a homebrewer. The hobby is slowly gaining momentum across the continent, but access to ingredients and equipment create a barrier for those hoping to brew their own beer at home. One country with a passionate and growing homebrewing culture is Kenya, where a handful of microbreweries also trade. In neighbouring Tanzania, Chintu Patel sits at the helm of Crafty Dee’s Brewing Company. Just one other brewery exists in the country, but Chintu is optimistic about the future of craft in East Africa.

“We are still under 1hL per month, but our steady growth has proven that there is a palate for craft locally,” says Chintu. “It’s time to scale from nano to micro!” Craft Dee’s, like most African microbreweries, focuses on the immediate market rather than trying to distribute nationwide or export their brews. “Our strategy is to manage consumption onsite, or near-site,” says Chintu. “It keeps the beer fresh, the packaging and distribution to a minimum and retains a healthier overall margin.”

One brewery that is seeking to widen its audience is Big Sip Co. in Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone. Launching in 2017, Big Sip was the first in the country and they have already expanded their capacity and upgraded the brewhouse. On the cards next is expansion around the country and even south of the border. “We currently distribute our beer primarily in Gaborone, but we also distribute across the country, into Kasane, Maun and the Okavango Delta,” says co-founder Alex Moss. “Very soon, we will be starting wider distribution through liquor stores in a number of other towns and villages across the country. We have also just sent our first kegs to Capital Craft in Pretoria and kegs and bottles to Craft Beer Library in Johannesburg. We’re looking forward to feedback from beer enthusiasts from South Africa.”

Overcoming challenges

But starting a brewery in a water-scarce, landlocked country is not without its challenges. “Most of our raw materials are sourced from South Africa,” says Alex. “So we have the added challenge of shipping a range of supplies from Johannesburg and Cape Town.” Challenges rain down across the continent – the lack of locally available materials and equipment, regulatory issues, battles with bureaucracy, lack of relevant skills in the workforce, interruptions to the water and power supply and of course, the challenge of converting lifelong macro beer drinkers to the nuances of craft beer.

This though, is the most enjoyable challenge to overcome. “As the first microbrewery in the country, we have a mammoth task to educate Batswana (citizens of Botswana) about craft beer, and how it differs from mass-produced beer,” says Alex, but it’s clear that he’s passionate about doing just that. Bature’s Kevin Conroy likewise relishes the challenge. “In the end, the size of the market drives us to continue, we have a unique opportunity to give over 150 million people their first taste of a craft beer!” he beams.

There is great optimism across the continent when it comes to beer. Many countries around the world are seeing a slump in beer consumption and a slowdown in the number of craft breweries opening, but throughout Africa beer of all kinds is gaining ground. Homebrewers are getting started, microbrewers are producing innovative beers featuring indigenous fruits and herbs or made entirely from malted sorghum, and drinkers are gradually becoming more adventurous in what they imbibe, making this an extremely exciting time to be a beer lover on the African continent.