When he came to Kenya from Seattle, beer aficionado Tyler Davis initially struggled with the lack of beer options available. Just six short years later, Tyler writes about this now thriving industry and all the great players on the scene.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s little better than an icy Tusker or White Cap at the end of a long, hot day on safari – but if I wanted a distinctly hoppy IPA, I had to convince visiting friends to smuggle some in their luggage, and carefully manage my slowly-built personal stock so it would last in between said visitors.
Despite the historical paucity of selection, Kenya actually has quite a rich brewing past, especially if you consider that nearly every one of Kenya’s 42 recognised tribes has its own traditional fermented concoction – the most well-known of which is muratina, a staple of the Kikuyu community made from the fruit of Kigelia africana, or the Sausage Tree.
Even Kenya’s most renowned and beloved beer, Tusker, has been around for almost a century – introduced in 1923, just a year after the inception of Kenya Breweries (now East African Breweries, Limited, or EABL) by brothers George and Charles Hurst in 1922. (Fun, if macabre, fact: the name “Tusker” comes from Charles’s homage to his brother, George, who was killed by an elephant while on a hunting trip in the same year they founded Kenya’s first licensed brewery).
EABL has been nothing short of a monumental success ever since, acquiring and merging with other brewing companies time and again since the 1930s to effectively become the near-monopoly titan of brewing in the entirety of East Africa, currently with subsidiaries in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and South Sudan. EABL’s products, including Tusker and White Cap, have been recognized nearly annually at the World Beer Competition Monde Selection since they debuted their products there in 1969, including the Gold Quality Award for Tusker as recently as 2020. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of EABL’s success is that, in 2005, it became the first company in East Africa to reach $1 billion in value – ah, the power of beer!
But as refreshing as Tusker is, those with adventurous palates desire something more. Mercifully for us beer snobs, the beginnings of a modern craft beer revolution began in Kenya a few years ago.
The Bila Shaka Brewery in the Kedong Valley
Bateleur (now Bila Shaka Brewing) broke into the market with Kenya’s first IPA in December 2017, becoming Kenya’s first brewery to put ales at the forefront of their portfolio and marking the start of the creative experimentation with hops, yeasts, malts, and other ingredients that characterises contemporary craft brewing. The brainchild of Rajiv Shah, whose family has long been involved in beverages and bottling in Kenya, Bila Shaka has taken it a step further and also aligned themselves in mindset with traditional North American-style craft breweries by applying a holistic approach that goes beyond just the beer: they use natural spring water sourced just outside the brewery’s doors; utilise biofuel boilers that also create steam to wash bottles; spent grain is fed to rescued donkeys; and the brewery property has become a nature preserve in the Kedong Valley just outside of Nairobi. And, of course, their beer is delicious.
254 Brewing’s brewing facility in Kikuyu, just outside Nairobi
Shortly after the arrival of Bila Shaka Brewing, fellow newcomers 254 Brewing began finding their way into the market. Formally incorporated at the beginning of 2018, 254’s beers didn’t hit shelves until earlier this year when, after a full two years navigating more than a dozen government departments, they finally received their license. In addition to their mainstream beers in bars and supermarkets they have also created “Beer Club” where die hards can receive new creative styles every week. Check their website or go visit the tap room in Kikuyu to try them out! 254, unique in their commitment to being unpasteurized and unfiltered across all their products, has now brewed over 100 beers, from pineapple sours to nitro stouts. They’ve also just welcomed new head brewer Matt Walsh, revered in brewing circles in the US for his time with Modern Times and Lost Coast breweries in California.
A selection of 254 beers (as delivered to Tyler as part of his Beer Club membership)
Best of all, there is great momentum in the craft beer scene in Kenya. For licensed brewers like Raj and Eoin, the community has been overwhelmingly amicable and supportive, and there is talk of more breweries joining the party in the coming years. Beyond that, there’s an estimated 200+ homebrewers in and around Nairobi. It’s all happening, and it’s an exciting time to be a beer snob in Kenya.