I drew Cameroon in Mark Dredge’s World Cup Beer Sweepstake. It was never very likely either that Cameroon would win the World Cup, or that I would be able to find a Cameroonian beer in time to write about it. And so it came to pass that Cameroon were knocked out in the first round, while my best chance of getting hold of ’33’ during the competition also came to nothing. Billy Clark, who must have been excited to have drawn Italy, agreed to visit the African pub Victoria chez Tah-Ndi in London on the day of Cameroon’s third and final game. He reported that they had no ’33’ (pronounced ‘Three Three’ he tells me), at least in part because it is difficult to import. But while I didn’t succeed in winning the beer sweepstake competition, I did learn something about African beer.
As with a lot of things in Africa, the influence of Europe is everywhere. Brewing in Africa is mostly done by a small number of large brewing corporations, mostly with European origins. There are exceptions, including–at a pinch–South African Breweries, which from its 1894 origins in Johannesburg as Castle Brewery, became so large that when it acquired Miller Brewing in 2002 the new company took the name SABMiller, the second largest beer producer in the world. Castle Lager is its iconic African brand and it sells very well indeed: the growing African market outside of South Africa accounted for 13 percent of the group’s earnings in 2009-2010.
The predominant brew produced by these companies–Carlsberg, InBev, SABMiller and the rest–and the local breweries they own, is lager, often in styles derived from European brands. However Guinness is also popular and is brewed under licence in several African countries, a legacy of Britain’s influence on West Africa. Interestingly though, many of these beers are produced using local ingredients, including sorghum grass. Nigerian Guinness, for example, branded as Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, is made from unfermented Guinness wort shipped from Dublin, augmented by wort from locally-sourced sorghum and maize. And there is some traffic flowing the other way. For example, Tusker is a rather pleasant Kenyan beer making inroads in British supermarkets with the help of its giant parent company Diageo.
Traditional brewing does exist in Africa, but it seems (and I’m willing to be corrected on this) that it is more or less limited to home brewing carried out in remote rural villages, or in people’s homes in city slums, where ‘big name’ beers are impossibly expensive. These brews are made with whatever grains are available, including sorghum, maize, and even millet, and sometimes then distilled to even higher concentrations. Methanol, a lethal form of alcohol that can cause blindness and death, is quite often present in these concoctions, though it is not produced by fermenting grains in the usual way.
The dominance of global beer producers came as something of a disappointment to me in my search for a Cameroonian beer, though given the size of these companies and their history, going back to the nineteenth century, of swallowing up smaller brewers, it wasn’t all that surprising. And there is still a glimmer of light. Billy’s investigations at Victoria chez Tah-Ndi offered the tantalizing prospect of being able to find “33” in France.