Author: Lucy Corne

Oscar Olsen founded the Flying Dodo Brewing Company on Mauritius a few years ago and reports among other things on the beer preferences of the natives and the effects of the current pandemic.

When Oscar Olsen opened his brewery, the name he chose was a little tongue-in-cheek. The Flying Dodo Brewing Company not only gave a nod to his island’s long-extinct, flightless bird, but also to the national beer of Mauritius, Phoenix. “I thought you had to name your business after a bird if you opened a brewery on Mauritius,” Oscar says with a glint in his eye.

Flying Dodo opened in 2012 in a mall 12km south of the Mauritian capital, Port Louis. Although there have always been some regular beers on the menu, the brewpub really specialises in what you could say are two of the core principles of craft brewing: innovation and experimentation.

Oscar and his team brew in small batches and have produced everything from German classics to big Belgian ales and of course, a version of the global craft darling, New England IPA. Flying Dodo’s biggest fans are always on the lookout for the latest experimental brew, but the big sellers tend to be a little more mainstream. “As with everywhere, a light blonde is a good seller,” says Oscar. “In winter darker, stronger beers go well too,” he adds.

Oscar has long been on a mission to bring beer culture to the island. His first venture was the launch of a speciality beer bar, Lambic, in 2009. The cosy bar sits in Port Louis and stocks an impressive range of imported beers, many hailing from Belgium, with some rare gems from as far away as the USA.

A new player

For nearly a decade, Flying Dodo was flying solo in the Mauritian craft beer space, but that changed in 2019 when the island’s second microbrewery opened. Oxenham Craft Brewery is part of a larger company, founded in 1932 as a winery. The family-run enterprise has grown throughout the decades, first adding a wine importing branch, then a distillery and in 2019, a craft brewery.

The beers are marketed under the Thirsty Fox label, with the five beers designed by a brewmaster with almost 30 years in the industry. Jörg Finkeldey founded Namibia’s first craft brewery in 2009 and has worked as a consultant at numerous South African microbreweries. But it was a chance message on a South African WhatsApp group that brought him to Mauritius.

“There was a message on a beer industry group advertising a brewing job in Mauritius,” says Jörg. “I sent my CV off and half an hour later the phone rang.” Two months after that, once he had “got the buy-in from the family”, Jörg was on the island ready to commission the brewery. Oxenham Brewery opened in March 2019, launching with four beers: lager, pale ale, amber ale and Weiss. A raspberry version of the Weiss has since been added to the core range and has proven remarkably popular, becoming the fastest growing of all the Thirsty Fox brands.

Just two months after that, Oxenham received their first accolade, winning a bronze medal at the inaugural African Beer Cup for their amber ale. The beer is also a big hit among local drinkers. “I still believe that the amber ale is the island’s choice as well,” says Jörg. “I can picure an Indian lady on the beach sipping a Thirsty Fox amber ale. It’s a little sweeter than our other beers and has proved a big hit.” The biggest seller though is the beer style that the islanders are most familiar with – pale lager.

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The Covid effect

While tourists make up part of Oxenham’s audience, the brewery is focused on winning over the local market. With no tasting room, the beers are mostly sold in supermarkets, and bottles make up the bulk of the brewery’s sales. It is possible to buy the beers on tap though.  “Before the pandemic, I had bought a lot of draught equipment from South Africa and shipped it over,” says Jörg. “We installed our first taps in hotels in December of last year, but now we’re sitting with the equipment and since the island is currently closed to tourists, the hotels are struggling. We’re now finding restaurant clients, but at the moment, we have our beer on tap at just five locations.”

As with everywhere in the world, the Coronavirus pandemic has had a negative effect on the Mauritian beer scene. The virus is under control on the island, with minimal casualties, but the complete closure of Mauritian airspace means that the island isn’t receiving the tourists its economy desperately needs in order to survive. “The whole economy in Mauritius is affected,” says Oscar. There are zero tourists so hotels are closed and those who opened are serving only cheap products as they lowered their prices considerably to cater to the local market. Local suppliers are having a hard time and alcohol producers lost a sizeable part of their market. Supermarkets are also affected due to Mauritians earning less money.”

Oscar sells the bulk of his beer on site at the brewpub, although he does supply certain supermarkets. His packaging is striking – reusable one-litre bottles with swing top caps and Flying Dodo’s easily recognisable, quirky branding. The beers are all unfiltered and unpasteurised, meaning he has to trust the vendors to maintain the cold chain and to pass this information on to the consumer.

An educated future

With the beer scene in Mauritius still in its infancy, a key role for any craft new brewery is education. Oscar has spent years gradually teaching his customers more about the beer they’re drinking, aided by open brew days where anyone interested in the process can watch  a brew in action on the showpiece system. And if you’re going to witness a brew, this is the way to do it in style, with Flying Dodo’s glass brewhouse allowing onlookers to really see what happens in the beer-making process.

Oxenham too are doing their part to keep the islanders educated, offering weekly brewery tours to staff working at any venue that sells their beer. “Our job as craft brewers is to show people why they should be drinking our beer,” says Jörg. “The tours give people insight into why craft beer is different and it seems to work. There is certainly an awareness, a receptiveness among the locals to try something new.”

And it seems that Oxenham is not the only company to notice the islanders’ interest in sipping something different. The country’s largest brewery, Phoenix, whose focus has always been on lager, is rumoured to be opening a microbrewery offering a wider range of beer styles. There is no information yet on what those beers will be, how much will be brewed or what the brewery will be called. But if past naming ceremonies are anything to go by, you can almost picture executives from the Phoenix marketing department studying birding guides in search of the new microbrewery’s name …