Sunday, February 1, 2015

Point of Brew: From sorghum beer to clear beer

The Eagle brand is a clear beer made primarily from sorghum and so has a strong sorghum flavor that suits the African palate very well. This mural was on the wall of the Arusha Brewery of SAB-Miller where the brand comprises nearly half the output of the brewery. Michael Lewis/Courtesy photo

From page A11 | March 29, 2012 |

It does not happen often but I am always pleased when I know something before I read it in The Economist or Time or USA Today or the New York Times Book Review or The Bee.

Such an event just happened.

The occasion also would please my mother who, superstitious as she was, believed that everything occurs in threes (a magic celtic number) and she was always right.

A week ago, I bid fond farewells to a few of the students in my Master Brewers Program whom I teach in a classroom at the Sudwerk. A young woman, employed by Heineken brewing company and a Russian (a native of St. Petersburg), was leaving. I knew she was off to Nigeria to work in one of several breweries owned by Heineken under the name of Nigerian Breweries PLC.

Nigeria is a training ground for their new young employees and most who enter the company spend some time there as a sort of testing and proving ground for those committing to a mobile life in an international brewing company.

As part of our conversation, she told me that the sale of Heineken beer in Africa generally, and in Nigeria in particular, is growing by 25 percent per year (perhaps an optimistic number but I am just reporting what she told me) and that this once backwater market will grow rapidly in contributions to the corporate bottom line.

From other sources, at SAB-Miller and during a recent trip in Tanzania, for example, I also knew that Africans, as a part of an emergent middle class, were showing preference for commercially made beers and moving away from traditional home brew.

Imagine then my delight and surprise to find in The Economist of March 24-30 an article titled “From Lumps to Lager.” A photograph of an African man drinking murky home-brewed beer from a communal bowl accompanied the article; the photograph was over the legend “Next year I’ll drink something nicer.”

The title of the article arises from the steady movement of Africans from their native rather lumpy home brew mainly made from sorghum to mainstream beers known as clear beers. Of course, everyone else associated with the brewing industry knows that, too, but that did not dilute my delight in upstaging The Economist.

The second thing I knew, that many fewer will know, is that SAB-Miller is trying to attract Africans to drink SAB’s commercial beers by making them from sorghum. This is also part of an effort to source local materials. That is, you might say, SAB-Miller is commercializing the home brew recipes and flavors.

I knew this because when I was recently in Arusha (Tanzania) at an SAB-owned brewery I learned that about half their trade was in sorghum beers and that those products threaten to supplant their premium malt-based beers. The sorghum beer was sold under the Eagle brand. It is quite an intriguing product and probably the first sorghum-based beer that is completely clear.

Another such product is ABI’s Redbridge, made in this county for celiacs; it also has quite a strong sorghum flavor. I tried to bring home a couple of bottles of Eagle sorghum beer but had to abandon them along the way. The Economist has now caught up with what I know.

Third, from my Arusha conversations, I also knew that SAB-Miller was making huge strides in beer sales in Africa where it already owns some 60 percent of the market. Their breweries are operating at full capacity; as a result, SAB-Miller is making enormous investments in its African breweries, including the one I visited in Tanzania. The Economist now confirms that.

The four big brewers in Africa are 1) SAB-Miller, operating from an extraordinary powerful base in South Africa where they have a virtual monopoly of the beer market; 2) SAB partner Castel of France; 3) Heineken, with a power base in Nigeria; and 4) Diageo (Africans love the Guinness brand that Diageo owns), based primarily in Kenya. Together, these brewers account for more than 80 percent of the African beer market.

Africans do not drink their beer in the most sophisticated surroundings. Although there is plenty of beer available in hotels and resorts, that is not the Africans’ pub. Instead, there are a legion of shebeens that line the roads into and out of town where a few plastic chairs and a table or two under an awning or a shade tree suffices to provide all that is needed to enjoy a beer, a newspaper and a chat with friends.

But that is the base of a vibrant brewing industry, and yes, Mom, everything happens in threes.

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at



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