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Flavor comes first at Ethiopian microbreweries

By Elyse Wurm

Long before steel fermenters and bottle-filling machines were invented, Ethiopian homes acted as their own little microbreweries.

For around 10,000 years kitchens around the country have been producing an alcoholic drink called tella, a type of traditional beer brewed using grains such as teff or sorghum. Spices were sometimes added with dried, ground gesho leaves playing the role of hops and wild airborne yeast driving fermentation.

This traditional brewing method has all but died out. Drop into a family home in Addis Ababa and chances are you will find a bottle or two of tella fermenting away in the fridge.

Rustic home brews may have ignited Ethiopia’s love of beer, but this thirst has only intensified as good quality, locally produced beer has become more readily available throughout the country. In 1922 the first brewery was opened, St. George Brewery, which became a symbol of modernity and progress in Addis Ababa.

Since then a number of breweries have been established around the country. International brewers, including Heineken and Diageo, have jumped at the chance to quench Ethiopians’ thirst by acquiring or partnering with these local breweries.

But alternatives to this commercially produced, big batch beer are starting to appear.

Microbreweries are sprouting up around Addis Ababa and they’re each putting a special spin on Ethiopia’s beloved beverage. Bringing together the heart of traditional brewing with the reliability of modern technology, these microbreweries are producing high quality beer that puts flavor first.

As smaller operations, microbreweries specialize in creating boutique beers that showcase unique ingredients or brewing processes that are hard to find in their mass-producing counterparts. Their independence gives them ample room for experimentation, but quality is always the top priority.

At the Bole Microbrewery, local Ethiopian ingredients will be the star of the show. Due to open in a couple of months, the new establishment will pair traditional beer brewing components with less conventional flavors to create an entirely new drinking experience.   

“We are going to use different kinds of ingredients as compared to the other ones,” Kassahun Gizaw, part-owner of the new establishment, says. “We might do some coffee or lemon flavor or other spices. We might be doing some research into our local spices and might introduce those spices into our beer.”

Originally studying industrial chemistry and then working for over 30 years as a brewmaster at St George Brewery, Kassahun is no stranger to the beer brewing process. But after retiring from St George, he wanted to continue practicing his craft and decided to establish the Bole Microbrewery with his business partner, Dr. Tesfaye Biftu.

Producing 3-5 different beers including a pilsner, lager, dark beer and amber beer, Kassahun is eager to involve his customers in the brewing process.

Two large tanks will sit behind the main bar so sippers can watch their favorite beverage being produced, and the different ingredients chosen to flavor the beer will be guided by their tastebuds.

“We’ll try to gather or collect their ideas of what type of flavor they are preferring,” Kassahun said.  “Maybe they want coffee flavor, others might say lemon flavor, orange flavor, strawberry flavor. So I want them to experience this.”

The Bole Microbrewery is not Ethiopia’s first foray into the world of small batch brewing. The first microbrewery to land on the scene in East Africa was the Beer Garden Inn, located here in Addis Ababa.

Brewing according to the German Purity Law, or ‘Reinheitsgebot’, which states that only water, barley, yeast and hops may be used in the production of beer, the Beer Garden Inn gives Ethiopians a glimpse at how beer drinking culture looks abroad.

“The last 10 years of our brewery, of our organization, nobody has complained about the quality of our beer. Everybody appreciates it,” Banshebi Tejiwe, part-owner and Board Director at the Beer Garden Inn, says.

“What they are saying is our beer they can drink more. They don’t feel that intoxicated or they don’t feel full…The next day we don’t have any headache or hangover,” he says.

Banshebi mastered the art of beer brewing in Germany, studying at the Ulm Brewmaster School and Technical University of Munich. He lent his expertise to a number of beverage companies in Ethiopia including St. George Brewery, the Ethiopian Beverage Corporation and Meta Brewery, before establishing the Beer Garden Inn with seven other business partners in 2006.

Operating as a brew pub, a bar that produces their own signature beverage, the Beer Garden Inn produces its crowd-pleasing beer, the Garden Brau, in two different varieties.

The Blondy and the Ebony are both unfiltered beers created using barley and hops imported from Germany. The distinction is in the color and taste, as the ebony contains dark roasted barley malt which offers a slightly richer flavor than its lighter sibling.

Strictly adhering to the German Purity Law ensures no preservatives, sugar, inferior materials or other unwanted additives end up in the Garden Brau. This results in a pristine product that has won the Beer Garden Inn a legion of Ethiopian fans.

“Flavor is the main thing,” Kidus K. Belay, a regular at the Beer Garden Inn, says. “All the beers from other brewers are like drinking Bud Light.”

But the true test is when the German brewmasters come to visit and the Garden Brau passes with flying colors every time. 

“The German brewmasters, when they are coming here and tasting the beer, “What do you do with your beer?” They are asking me!” Banshebi proudly says.

The Garden Brau is testament to the quality that can be achieved by using top shelf ingredients and showing meticulous attention to detail. But Banshebi is not surprised that bigger breweries haven’t implemented a similar process. It all comes down to the bottom line.

“To be quite honest, to follow the German Purity Law the productivity and the profitability of the money you can make is less,” he says.

Due to their tight budgets, high margins and huge production capacities Banshebi believes you cannot be competitive with bigger breweries.

But Kassahun feels that microbrewing is less about being a competitive threat and more about offering an original alternative to beer lovers.

“It’s a matter of preference of taste. Our beer might have a different taste to that of St. George or Castel or Heineken, or whatever it is, so for that reason consumers might often visit us due to the flavor and so on. Which is quite different from the commercially in large quantity produced beers,” he explains. 

Drinking atmosphere is also a major drawcard at both establishments and acts as a further point of difference. Enjoying a Garden Brau in the outdoor Bavarian beer garden or sipping on a flavored pilsner whilst watching the brewmaster tinker with a fresh brew are experiences that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Neither brewer bottles their beer, they only offer small takeaway containers for private use, so consuming the products in-house is the best way to experience the beer as it was truly intended.

The microbrewing model adopted by the Beer Garden Inn and Bole Microbrewery has been extremely successful elsewhere in the world. Since emerging in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, microbreweries have gradually implanted themselves into the beer market in a number of countries including Canada, Australia and China. South Africa alone is home to almost 200 different craft breweries.

In Ethiopia, the history of home brewing has ensured a love of beer is ingrained in the country’s DNA. But with an annual beer consumption that is still below that of comparative African countries and the cost of starting such a venture extremely high, the viability of an upcoming microbrewery boom in Ethiopia is still in question.

Banshebi believes money will be the biggest hurdle for prospective microbrewers, as many underestimate the costs associated with starting and sustaining a productive brewery.

“People are sometimes thinking that the pub brewery is like a coffee machine that you press out. The beer processing takes 21 days to 1 month, so you have to have the facilities. The energy, the water quality and all the equipment, it’s not easy. So financing this much money and investing to get back your money within the depreciation time is not really realistic.”

Kassahun agrees that finance will be a major hurdle for prospective brewers in the future, but the interest in microbreweries is certainly apparent.

“People used to come here and ask me how to communicate with the suppliers and so on. But finally they come up with the complaint that they don’t have foreign currency. Otherwise, it will boom I am quite sure.”

The microbreweries that currently reside in Addis Ababa provide a great snapshot of the personal touch that small batch brewers can add to the beer industry when given the chance. But whether future beer production takes place in microbreweries, at commercial factories or inside Ethiopian homes, it’s safe to say that beer will always be welcome in the hands of Ethiopians.

Ed.’s Note: The writer is in an internship at The Reporter.