A waitress serves beers at Brew Bistro, Nairobi.
Credit: Tugela Ridley

NAIROBI, Kenya — Aleem Ladak is not a fan of bottled beers, or cans, or any of the mass-produced over-carbonated, too-cold lagers that are the staple of bars and pubs across the Kenyan capital.

What Ladak, 33, really likes are handcrafted small batch brews and since no one else was doing it he started making them himself at the microbrewery he opened in Nairobi, the country’s first, and so far only, craft beer maker.

“I wanted to do something different, keep the beer craft, keep the product premium,” explains Ladak.

Canadian-born and Kenyan-raised Ladak has come a long way since home-brewing his first beer as a university student in Montreal. The German-trained brew master and former Heineken employee came back to Nairobi in 2007.

After spending a year getting licenses and fine-tuning the concept, Brew Bistro & Lounge opened in December 2009.

“It’s a big risk because it’s a huge investment,” he said. “Of course it has to make money but it’s more about my passion for brewing beer and doing something different.”

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Brew serves as a shop window for Ladak’s Big Five Breweries where he makes his own beers in small batches of 1,000 liters at a time. The brewery itself is little more than a corridor but it is very much the heart of the operation, encased in glass walls so that bar patrons and restaurant diners can see half a dozen chrome fermenting vessels, stacked kegs and a variety of other strange shiny objects that turn malted barley or wheat, hops, yeast and water into beer. Pipes and hoses snake across the slick tiled floor. Tasters in white lab coats check the new brews, holding a glass up to the light and taking a small sip.

“When I was growing up here it was only the big breweries’ beers that were available and they were mainly lager but there’s so much more to beer than just lager and I wanted to showcase that,” said Ladak.

The brewery name, Big Five, refers to the safari animals once prized by hunters and now by tourists, and Ladak has named his five staple beers after their Swahili names.

So there is “Chui” (leopard) a German-styled kolsch, “Simba” (lion) a pilsner, “Tembo” (elephant) a dark stout, “Kifaru” (rhino) a Belgian-style bock and “Nyati” (buffalo) an American-style IPA. The beers vary in strength from 4.8 percent to 6.5 percent alcohol. There also is usually at least one seasonal beer, which for Easter will be a dangerously strong 9 percent.

They are also expensive by local standards with a 500ml glass of draft going for 350 Kenya shillings($4.20) compared with around Ksh 250 ($3) for a bottle of locally brewed Tusker or White Cap, two popular brands.

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Ladak acknowledges the high price and ascribes some of that to the fact that he had to import all of his equipment and continues to import his ingredients. He insists that, “at the end of the day if you provide a good quality product and service then wherever you are, whether in Kenya, the UK or the States, it will work with time.”

The new beers are certainly different and a new product in an untested market which is why Brew is a bar and restaurant wrapped around the microbrewery with the former supporting the latter.

The brewing of beer in Kenya dates back to 1922, when British colonists started up a business that became Kenya Breweries. Bottled beer was reserved for sale to whites until 1947. But beer has shed its colonial image and is now embraced by black Kenyans. Kenyans annually consume an average of 12 liters of beer per person, compared to Americans' average annual consumption of 81 liters.  

Kenyan beer drinkers are used to a frosty cold, fizzy bottle of lager. When presented with a naturally carbonated glass of ale at above 3 degrees centigrade some have complained of being served warm, flat beer.

But as a portion of Kenyan society gets wealthier there is a gradually expanding market for premium beers.

“There’s a middle class that’s really growing in Kenya,” said Ladak, “young professionals who have travelled or studied abroad, have some disposable income and want to try something different.”

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Sitting on high bar stools or clustered around square tables on the terrace, the after work crowd is professional, young Kenyans in suits or designer jeans. Later it becomes rowdier and more crowded as the jazz band strikes up and trays heaving with tall beer glasses are rushed from bar to table.

"It's a cool place to come for a drink after work," said John Maina, a weekly regular at Brew. The 32-year-old businessman said the unusual beers took a bit of getting used to, but "it's great to have something different to drink for a change, some variety."

Big multinational brewers like Diageo and SABMiller are entering the Kenyan market with premium beers but Ladak does not see these as competition. “There are lots of premium beers out there but everyone’s doing bottled beers and cans, not draft. I’m trying to show people the difference in quality between a freshly brewed beer and a bottle that’s sat on a shelf,” he said.

It seems to be working. Ladak acknowledges that it is a difficult market and that a profit on the set-up costs remains some way off but beer sales are growing and the bar, at least, is crowded most nights.

At first the brewery was turning out 2,000 liters a month, now it is up to 10,000 liters, said Ladak: “We’re getting toward maximum capacity.”

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