COVID-19 Slows But Doesn’t Stop Africa’s Craft Beer Brewing Women

Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela doesn’t know if the brewery she owns will survive if South Africa bans the sale of alcohol for the fourth time in a year. Currently, the first Black female owner in the country is working under the partial lift of a third ban, implemented by the federal government as a safety response to COVID-19.

“We have started trading again but it’s very difficult. I won’t lie,” she says.

Nxusani-Mawela has been the subject of many an African news article since she opened Brewsters Craft as a female-focused brewery, contract facility, lab and beer education space, in 2015. Yet here in the States, most people don’t know the highly educated microbiologist and former SABMiller brewer exists; or that a handful of women also own, manage and brew at craft breweries across the continent. 

Josephine Uwase and Deb Leatt number among them as brewer and chef, respectively, at Rwanda’s Kweza Craft Brewery. Like Nxusani-Mawela, they have gotten their share of coverage, in part because Kweza is Rwanda’s first brewpub; in part because Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company in Ottawa has very publicly supported Kweza with fundraising and consultation; and in part because managing director Jessi Flynn is Canadian and knows how to attract English-language media attention.

Compared to these colleagues, Peace Onwuchekwa toils in relative obscurity as director of quality control at Nigeria’s Bature Brewing as she focuses her attention, for now, on teaching people in the nation’s capital, Abuja, and in the city of Lagos the very basics of craft beer. 

“We do have our local beverages made from palm tree sap, sorghum and other adjuncts,” she says. However, “A lot of people in these areas can attest to having their first ever glass of IPA or Pale Ale in our tap room.”

What Kind of Beer is Popular in Africa

You might consider beer brewing in Africa somewhat dichotomous. Women have traditionally brewed beer made with sorghum, cassava, maize and other native starch sources and still do on a very small scale for their male neighbors in the villages and for relatives on big holidays like Christmas. But most young people strongly prefer the mass-produced international lagers that dominate the landscape, even though it costs a great deal more than what the women make. 

Despite some younger women still professing to learn brewing skills at their mothers’ and grandmothers’ knees, brewers like Onwuchekwa say their countrymen and women do not necessarily associate their product with her gender.

“We have ladies show up at the taproom but will rather prefer a glass of gin and tonic or a glass of wine rather than beer. Some say beer is too bitter, others think it’s not ladylike to drink beer,” she says.

The processes the older women use and the liquid they produce vary by ethnicity and by region but some generalities do commonly apply. For instance, because traditional beer remains very much a rural cottage industry, these brewers tend to rely on hand tools, open flames, wooden vessels and calabash shells or clay jugs as communal cups to serve their customers.

And although some of these women have formed loose affiliations, many lament their craft is dying out.

What Are African Craft Breweries Like 

It’s into this void that some craft brewers are stepping. Though the total number across Africa remains relatively low — around 225 in South Africa and seemingly none other than Bature in all of West Africa — they are cropping up as entrepreneurship, value-added natural resources and other factors create more disposable income for swaths of the population in places like Rwanda. 

Some breweries, like Bature, focus primarily on western styles, mostly using imported malt and hops to make fairly straightforward stouts, pale ales and IPAs. But even the most European among them tend to bring at least a little bit of African flare to their fires. 

At Brewsters, for example, Nxusani-Mawela is launching a line of Tolokazi beers, which she named for her clan, as is the custom for Zulu women, and uses exclusively African ingredients like African Queen hops and rooibos tea. 

“When we were naming the beer, I knew that I wanted it to be a brand that will carry the legacy of women as the original brewers in African culture,” she tells the Herald Live media site. “Everything we do is about celebrating SA and Africa.”

Sometimes indigenous ingredients are a necessity. At the beginning of COVID-19, Flynn couldn’t get imported ingredients. So she improvised by making an alcoholic ginger beer using entirely hyper-local inputs.

“It was brewed literally in mop buckets with saran wrap ‘airlocks’ because it was all I could get my hands on, as there aren’t homebrew shops in Rwanda, and with borders closed, I couldn’t get my pilot equipment in yet!” Flynn emails. 

When Did Brewing Start in Africa?

At the very beginning. While some people mistakenly believe Germans invented brewing or that it dates back to the ancient Middle East, brewing likely traces its roots to Africa. Though it’s impossible at this point to say for sure, scientists are fairly certain humanity began in South Africa more than 4 million years ago. Once our early ancestors developed two legs and the ability to walk, they likely began wandering north, foraging for food. Some archeologists believe between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago they probably stumbled on puddles or small pools of naturally fermented sugar water made from grains. They tasted it and found they enjoyed the buzz. Though history has taught us that people started planting cereal crops for beer in ancient Sumer (today’s Iraq) by 4,500 BCE, evidence is mounting that our forebears began building sophisticated commercial breweries in modern-day Egypt and perhaps Ethiopia earlier than we thought. 

Just this month, archeologists confirmed the discovery of a 5,000 year old brewing complex in Egypt. It’s not the oldest evidence of grain-based brewing but it appears to be the most sophisticated. 

What’s more, while it’s known that women brewed for their families and for religious purposes in these early civilizations, the world’s top beverage archeologist feels strongly that women would have brewed as far back as hunter-gatherer days in eastern Africa.

“While men were out hunting, women were out gathering the ingredients they needed to make other foods and drink to go with the wooly mammoth or mastodon. Women [were] the ones who [made] the household fermented beverages,” says Pat McGovern, Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.

How Has the Pandemic Affected Breweries in Africa

While hunter-gatherers would have faced a good many threats to their lives, they didn’t have COVID-19 to threaten their livelihoods. Bature has dealt with it much like we have here in the States by pivoting from draught to bottles and producing sanitizer for frontline workers. 

In Rwanda, the Kweza team hasn’t had to make many adjustments since early on, thanks to the fact that an Australian think tank has ranked their nation’s pandemic response as the sixth best in the world and case numbers have stayed low. Flynn says she and her team used any downtime to network with other African brewers and hit the media circuit hard to promote what they’re doing. She also feels that the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 generated welcome interest in hers and other African breweries. 

“We’re defying expectations, we’re a year ahead of schedule, and breaking all the norms. I think it’s a story of hope and growth in an otherwise hard year for everyone,” she says. 

In early March, Kweza will launch a round of crowdsourced fundraising so that the Rwandan women who are involved can take on more equity instead of relying on outside venture capitalists.  

Unfortunately, Nxusani-Mawela’s anticipated crowdsourced financial campaign is designed to simply help her get through the most severe pandemic-related alcohol restrictions on the planet. 

She’s already laid off two workers, creditors have launched legal proceedings and retailers are hesitating to stock much beer, especially at the higher-end, because they fear a rumored fourth COVID-19 wave and alcohol ban in May or June. 

But that doesn’t paralyze Nxusani-Mawela into inaction. Rather, the always busy entrepreneur is amping up her online sales platform in case the government allows direct-to-consumer purchases. And just in case, she’s readying yet another specialty line of beer. This one’s non-alcoholic.

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