Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bottom of the Barrel: West African Beer

This week's entry is dedicated to two friends: PR, an avid homebrewer and, JK, an industry veteran who - when informed I was going to live in Africa - sent a one sentence note: "Drink lots of beer."  
But, this is a blog about business in West Africa - not about idly drinking lots of beer.  Luckily, one of my security guards has an uncle who is gainfully employed at (drumroll, please...) the Societe Des Brasseries De L'Ouest Africain, alternately known as SOBOA and more commonly referred to as, "The Only Brewery in Senegal."
http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soci%C3%A9t%C3%A9_des_brasseries_de_l'Ouest_africain

My guard and I secured a reservation to take a brewery tour for May 20.  Make that May 27.  Change that to June 3 at 3:30 p.m.  We arrived promptly at 3:30 p.m. to meet our designated guide.  Well, actually we showed up at 4:00 p.m.  It did not really matter.  Our designated guide never arrived until 5:00 p.m.  It's difficult to explain "Africa time" to people who have never been here, but this is fairly typical.  Nothing starts on time; you should just be happy if an appointment is kept at all.  Even a meeting with our accounting firm, Ernst & Young, scheduled for Friday May 27 actually occurred on Wednesday June 1. Why would I think a brewery would be any less business-like?

The other bit of information required for pleasurable reading is a bit of knowledge about African beer.  A better name for it might be "Lottery Beer" because, regardless of the label, you never have a clue what it's going to taste like until after you've opened the bottle.  I thought it was because of poor quality control procedures, but my tour proved otherwise.

There are two well known West African beers: Gazelle and Flag.  Gazelle comes in a giant green bottle and dates back to 1929.  Gazelle harkens back to the days when it was safer to drink beer than water, and when Muslims drank beer and ate pork.  Okay, I made that last part up, but Islam has been in this country since the year 1040 so the fact that Senegalese love to drink beer and eat pork should tell you how relaxed the religious observations are here. 

Gazelle has a relatively low alcohol content and is socially acceptable as a breakfast beverage (goes great with Corn Flakes!).  Gazelle can be consumed by women and small children.  Okay, I made that last part up, too!  But, the important note here is that Flag should not be consumed by children.  Flag puts hair on your chest.  Flag has hallucinogenic properties.  Flag is a thoroughly dangerous beer...

Or, so I thought.  After taking the SOBOA tour, I discovered that Gazelle and Flag are essentially the same beer with a singular exception:  Flag contains more of the "secret ingredient." You know, that secret ingredient that gives Flag its yellowish color?  It's maize.  Flag has more maize.  While it is manufactured with imported barley, the corn content is what ratchets up the alcohol factor and provides drinkers with the famous "Flag headache" the next day.

There was one other surprising factor for you home brewers.  I asked where they stored their hops.  Hops are the flower that gives beer its aroma.  The brewery manager looked at me as if I had asked him whether they put small children in the beer.  As it turns out, SOBOA uses cans of "hop extract" (Hop Extract #9, to be exact) to add flavoring and aroma.

I have previously worked in almost all facets of the beverage industry, but this is the first time I have seen everything under one roof.  EVERYTHING is done directly at SOBOA.  This brewery is the manufacturer, the distributor and the sales & marketing agency.  Glass bottles are not manufacturered in Senegal (which seems ridiculous given all the sand here), and virgin glass would be outrageously expensive to import.  So, all bottles are sold with the equivalent to a 20-cent or 40-cent deposit and the returnables are re-washed, re-labeled and re-filled directly on site.  In fact, there is not even a minute's time between when a bottle is washed and when it is re-filled.

The cases that hold the beer are made of plastic and even broken cases are recycled; shred into small shards (say that three times fast!) and sent out for re-manufacture.  SOBOA employs at least 1,000 people and is a 24/7 operation.  It's a gentle reminder that manufacturing items for local consumption is one of the keys to economic development for any developing country. 

Throughout the tour, I was surprised at the professionalism and the many quality control check points at the brewery.  I even had a frank discussion with the manager about possibilities for defects in the process (or, "Why does every bottle seem to taste different?") and surmise that any errors in the process could only come from the bottle washing and refill.  Most likely, differences in the final taste are most affected by post-brewery storage.

As an aside, SOBOA is also the local manufacturer for Coca-Cola, Sprite, Fanta Orange and nearly every other carbonated, bottled beverage available in West Africa.  I learned that the Coca-Cola syrup is actually imported from two different places and mixed together on-site, so that not even one syrup producer can know "the formula."  The only true imported beverages here are Heineken, Corona, Desperado and a variety of Belgians (with the most expensive beer being Corona!). 

There are several other tidbits that I found interesting.  Being located in West Africa, not much is actually "under a roof."  Bottles are stored outside in open air (hence, the plastic cases).  The beer tanks are outside in open air.  Only the bottling plant and the brewery itself are located under a physical roof.  Next, no one was wearing hard hats or steel toe boots.  Even employees working with broken glass were often wearing plastic sandals!  Finally, there are no toilets here.  None.  There are "facilities", but they consist of open pipes and urine-slicked floors.  The wash basin looked more sanitary.  Now that I think about it, I was never actually shown where the pipes led to or where the water used to brew Flag actually comes from...

The tour itself took almost two hours.  That did not include "post-tour" discussion with fresh, cold beverages.  No two-ounce samplers either, but full bottles of all-you-can-drink Flag, Gazelle, "33" Export and Castel.  The latter two brands are made under license.  Castel is originally from Cameroon and "33" Export has a checkered history, to say the least.  No one seems to know where it was exported from and whether or not the "33" appeared on this bottle before it appeared on the Rolling Rock bottle.  But, those would be topics of discussion for a different day, when JK and/or PR buys me a beverage to talk about my time in West Africa...

1 comment:

  1. Are you still in Senegal? We are trying to find out about beer kegs to use in a project.

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