For the old generation, beer is beer. However, for drinkers in their 20s and 30s, beer is a beverage that ought to not necessarily have a dense and harsh mouthfeel. It may be brownish but taste like ginger or mango, be gluten-free or even be easily mixed with whisky.
And it is this new generation of beer drinkers that brewers are targeting. Their palates may not be as experienced to pick the best beers but they are pushing demand for alcohol with premium flavour and subtle aroma.
At a beer festival in Nairobi two weeks ago, there were over 35 types of beers and ciders, attracting thousands of young drinkers.
“This was the second Nairobi Beer Festival, an annual event that celebrates the beer industry. We had over 2,500 people attending compared to last year’s 1,800 people. Every year, the number keeps growing,” said Noam Orr, of Baraka Events that was a partner event organiser.
The future of beer consumption is expected to be more fragmented and individualised, prompting brewers to introduce flavours that cater for the ever-adventurous drinkers.
In the beer festival, there was everything from different types of Tuskers to others like Tuborg, Carlberg, Amstel, Desperados, a tequila-flavoured beer, Alska Cider and Kenyan Originals Cider.
Craft brews available included Sierra, Big Five Breweries and 254 Beer. 254 Beer is a new craft brew set to be launched in the Kenyan market.
“We are not yet available in the market as we are still conducting research,” said Gerald Bukhala, the marketing and operations manager of the soon-to-be new entrant which had pitched tent at the Nairobi’s Westlands venue for Kenyans to have a taste.
So why is beer still enjoying popularity, even among the young?
Whisky, gin or cognac may seem fashionable to these young drinkers but Gerald said beer is still on demand because it allows drinkers to gradually progress from one bottle to the next.
“Unlike other types of alcoholic drinks, when you drink beer, it takes you on a gradual journey, bottle by bottle. It’s not a drink that will lead you to wake up the following morning with bits of your memory from the previous night missing,” he said.
Mark Maina, the shopper manager, premium beer, EABL attributes heritage as a factor that has made beer to stand the test of time.
“We grew up seeing our fathers, uncles and their friends drinking beer. Our first interaction with alcohol growing up was beer and for a long time in Kenya, alcohol has been pseudonymous with beer. The entrance of spirits, wine and other alcoholic drinks is quite recent and beer just speaks to the larger demographic of the Kenyan population,” he said.
“The fact that beer is also the common first drink that introduces people to alcohol makes it a timeless drink,” he added.
On average, the alcohol by volume (ABV) in beer is between four to 10 percent, which makes it less harsh, more palatable, and an easier drink compared to others, Mark said.
With a growing beer market, international brands and craft brewers are set to expand their market presence through local subsidiaries and distributors, to target the rising population of millennials with varying tastes and preferences.
Already, craft beer has found space in five-star restaurants, unlike before.
Despite the availability of many brands in bars and restaurants, and the fight to retain consumers and gain a competitive advantage, Gerald of 254 Beer believes there is room for more players as beer is becoming more diverse.
“Our target is all beer enthusiasts and curious beer lovers who want to experiment with new flavours and we believe there is a positive outlook to where beer can go. Craft beer is pegged on quality as opposed to quantity and that what makes it different. We have 27 different types of craft beer. We believe there’s a beer for everyone, and this is how we plan to stand against other established brands,” he said.
A challenge that Gerald mentions they face is introducing craft beer to traditional beer drinkers.
“While doing tastings, I have found that there is a group of people who are a bit sceptical of craft beer and this is only because they are used to their go-to drinks and are not sure whether they will like the new flavours that craft beers offer. During the tastings, we share all the necessary information about our processes and once the guests have a taste, some end up liking it,” said Gerald.
Christopher Rich, a Swedish cider importer who has been in the business for three years, brought the light and fruity cider called Älska into the Kenyan market, as an alternative alcohol for women in Nairobi.
“At the time, I realised there weren’t many options for women who did not like beer at clubs. The prices of wine by the glass in Nairobi clubs was high and this cider bridges this gap,” he said, adding that his stay and doing business in Nairobi has proven Kenya to be a beer-drinking nation.
“Someone who drinks whiskies and spirits in Kenya is considered more of an alcohol lover as opposed to someone who drinks beer. So the perception of beer is that it is not such as bad thing and this is because beer was the predominant drink in Kenya for a very long time,” he said.
As an importer, his biggest challenge, just like the many who bring in craft beers from around the world, package them in Kenya, is the high taxes that he has to pass onto his customers.
“As much as I would wish to sell a can of 500ml beer at a favourable cost the taxation cost is a huge hindrance,” he said.
The cider is sold in local supermarkets for about Sh400 a can, just like most premium brands.
Aleem Ladak, a director of Big Five Breweries Limited who has been in the craft beer industry for close to 10 years says beer has evolved in terms of style, creativity and the craft beer industry.
“As much as Kenya and the East African market has been predominantly a lager market, people are now exploring more into the world of ales, stouts, double ales because beer has become diverse and it has a lot more to offer. I believe the beer industry will continue to grow just like in South Africa, Asia where craft brewery is expanding,” he said, adding that drinkers ought to keep experimenting further and try out home brewing.
But even as new flavours and brands are introduced, old beers are looking to remain cool.
“Most people stop using products and move to others because the product is considered old or uncool and beer is still cool and there’s a beer for everyone. From the health-conscious to those who want heavy beers or light beers. More women are now drinking beer than before and this is because alcohol has now become gender-free. Back then, beer was believed to be a man’s drink but this is no longer the case,” Aleem said.
Mark added that beer, unlike other alcoholic drinks, is mostly consumed in bars, restaurants and clubs as opposed to at home. Third-party spaces such as concerts and events have also boosted beer consumption.
Having attended both beer festivals, I found myself going for the newest entrants because just like traditional beer lovers, I have a preferred drink. I tasted the Tusker Premium Ale, a craft beer by EABL. It is different, it has five percent ABV, it is smooth and felt more like an upgrade of a lager.
From the Big Five Breweries, I tasted a new flavour infused with miraa (khat). I anticipated it to have a bitter taste but the miraa flavour was so mild it was almost unnoticeable. Small amounts of the miraa extracts are added into the beer during the processing stage.
From the ciders, I tasted Älska, which is vegan and gluten-free and can be used in making cocktails. I enjoyed the lemon and ginger flavour, which I think would taste magical if mixed with whisky.
“Initially, I brought this drink in for the ladies who don’t like beer but I was surprised to see men enjoying some flavours such as the lemon and ginger and the kiwi and ginger,” said Christopher.
The Kenyan Originals Cider had three offerings; lime and ginger, a drink whose alcohol tasted very faint to me, next was the pineapple and ginger, a bit too tangy, and mango and ginger combination.
Finally, I had the 254 Craft beer, a mild ginger flavour that was easy on the palate and perhaps ideal for someone who wants to try craft beer for the first time.