I saw a headline the other day that proclaimed “blood beer.”
Although craft brewers are adding all sorts of materials to beers, these days, including fruits, vegetables, herbs and bits of trees and odd minerals among other things, I have not heard of any brewers adding blood to beers. The headline therefore intrigued me. Turns out I had misunderstood the words: I was intended to link “blood beer” to the more common and pejorative term “blood diamonds.” How easy it is to misunderstand.
Communication is a matter of understanding the other guy. This is much harder than it sounds. The solution to a recent Cryptoquote puzzle in the Sacramento Bee was a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” And that about sums it up.
We understand fairly well those people and those countries where English is the national language. We Americans understand, in rudimentary ways, Canadians and Americans from regions other than our own because, I suppose, there is a shared history, shared sports activities, shared economic interests and shared borders and so on. We understand the British less well and antipodean English speakers poorly.
Throw in now the complexity of understanding those who speak another language and have experienced a different history from ours, and the understand-o-meter takes a serious hit. Mix in ethnic and racial differences and different economic needs and social expectations, and understanding wobbles on shaky grounds. Finally, the astonishing influence of religious convictions and loyalties surely must cause the understand-o-meter to melt so that, after all, nothing is a shared experience or a common cause or a firm starting point.
I misunderstood the “blood beer” headline because I’m in the beer biz.
The full title of the article about blood beer is: “ ‘Blood Beer’ or Brewing Benefits? The Paradox of Heineken in the Congo”; it is a quite long and detailed study, by Jason Miklian and Peer Schouten, about the Bralima breweries and their Primus beer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I have previously mentioned that many of the Heineken students who come to Davis to study brewing through University Extension leave here to go to Nigeria for further training and as a maturing ground; the Nigerian market is growing rapidly and is enormously profitable for Heineken.
However, I have never mentioned the DRC, where Heineken is also active through its five Bralima breweries; Primus beer is its top-selling brand, dominant in the marketplace, with pervasive advertising painted on every wall, bar table and ashtray. “Toujours leader” is its slogan. and those are said to be the most often-read words in the country. The Bralima breweries make many other beers and package soft drinks including Coca-Cola; the following comments thus apply as much to that company as to Heineken.
Here is the key question: How has Bralima managed to thrive in DRC since 1923 and continue to post increasing sales and profits, in a country that is so devastated by civil war, corruption, lack of infrastructure and of security that some experts call it a country that does not actually exist!?
Well, the answer is by “brewing a better future” (from the Heineken International annual report).
Heineken (and presumably Coca-Cola) thinks of itself as a good example of how businesses can contribute to peace and development in the Congo by providing employment and wages and business opportunities, for example, the local distributors and transporters and supply trade they use, plus the nearly 70,000 retail establishments that sell their beers throughout the country.
As the largest company in the country, it assures secure employment to thousands of people. These are real economic contributions similar to the contribution the brewing industry and beer trade makes in every other country where beer is enjoyed. In 2011, Bralima made $384 million (U.S.) and invested part of that in many local development projects with such titles as “Operation Peace in the DRC” and “Investing in the Well-Being of the Congolese People.”
But here is the rub and the paradox and the pejorative “blood beer”: In order to do business, Bralima/Heineken/Coca Cola must navigate the turbulent waters of the DRC and this, for the most part, involves paying “tolls” to pass through “checkpoints” manned by factious groups. The authors estimate that local beer dealerships pay some $1.0 million (U.S.) in such “tolls” which, of course, drives up the price of delivered beer by perhaps a factor of four in some places.
Bralima also must buy protection from private and public security forces and even, in times of conflict, “contract” with rebel forces dominant in regions where the breweries are located. This accumulated cash is not necessarily used for “brewing a better future” but probably helps to fund the chaos in the DRC. The authors quote a “cynical dictum” that “you can bomb a hospital but not Bralima.”
Let me close with a quote from the article by Miklian and Schouten:
“War or no war, Bralima — with a towering market share of roughly 70 percent — has been able to continue contributing to peace and development in the Congo. Today, it celebrates its 90th birthday in the country and its 2012 corporate social responsibility report (published April 2013) fills the reader with hope, giving the impression that doing business in Congo is truly win-win. As Sylvain Malanda, Bralima’s Congolese communications manager, puts it: ‘The government is helping us a lot. Congo is open for business!’ ”
It’s all a matter of understanding.
— Reach Michael Lewis at email@example.com. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com