A Guide to Ugandan Beer Part 1.

Ugandan’s love their beer as much as the next country despite the fact that neither barley (as we know it) nor hops grow here. Barley will only grow at high or low latitudes because it requires seasonal rainfall patterns. More recently barley hybrids have been developed that will grow at or close to the equator and SAB Miller has been pioneering equatorial barley agriculture in Kapchorwa in Eastern Uganda.

That doesn’t mean that Ugandans are recent beer converts, beer brewed using Millet or Sorghum has been a traditional part of African life for thousands of years, but you can’t buy this stuff in bars. The modern Ugandan beer market is dominated by a few multinational breweries selling bottled lager made to ‘European standards’ using mainly imported barley malt. (Where are CAMRA when you need them?) The two big breweries in Uganda are Uganda Breweries (a subsidiary of East Africa Breweries which is itself a Diageo subsidiary) and Nile Breweries (SAB Miller). Their flagship beers, both bottled lagers, are ‘Bell’ and ‘Nile Special’ respectively. Despite the inevitable fact that both breweries are owned by massive multinationals both beers are allegedly local brews dating back to the 50s.

Bell claims to have the largest market share (25%). It is a fairly good middle of the road lager. The kind of average beer you’d expect to be market leader. It’s refreshing and drinkable, but at the same time has just enough body and flavour to stop it tasting like it has been watered down. It’s a classic 4% lager. Bell markets itself as an aspirational beer for confident people. Perhaps as an attempt to make hay out of one of Bell’s biggest selling point over its arch rival Nile: that it is less likely to put you on your back like a tramp (Bell is 4% compared to Nile’s 5.6%), but maybe not, because all beer advertising in Uganda is weirdly aspirational.

This is the advert that Bell are currently running on Ugandan television. To me the ‘Confidently You’ slogan makes it sound like they are selling sanitary towels:

Nile is a fuller bodied more flavoursome beer, but if you’re not careful it will get you pissed (it is beer after all). I’ve not seen a television ad for Nile, but I’ve heard plenty of radio ads and seen the posters:

I'm a judge and my verdict is - your round builder.

Supposedly Nile is the drink of the hard working, successful piss-head. The tag line ‘You’ve Earned It’ is fairly innocuous in the context of a shiny adverting posters, but does have a darker subtext if you take into account that some of the people drinking the stuff probably have less frivolous things to spend their hard earned wages on, like basic nutrition for their numerous dependents. What you can’t see looking at the above poster is that it was on the corner of two mud roads in the middle of no-where next to a dilapidated shack. (Still I’ve seen a Mercedes advertised in Derby which seems equally pointless.)

By now I realise that in Uganda beer is not really the drink of the poor. That distinction goes to various types of gin-like spirits which are sold in plastic sachets. The bigger ones resemble the kind of thing you might find hooked up to a drip. A 50ml sachet of the popular Bekham Gin will set you back about 500 schillings or 16 pence, (the price of an avocado during avocado season), a 500ml bottle of Nile or Bell costs between 1,500 and 3,000 schillings depending on the clientele of the establishment. That averages out at about 70 pence per 500ml bottle (the cost of a good sized Tilapia (fish) at market).

Did you know: When you buy beer from a shop in Uganda as well as paying for the beer you also have to put down a deposit for the bottle. The deposit can be over a third of the total price, so there is a heavy incentive to return the bottle. The returned bottles are washed and re-used. Very environmentally friendly!

34% Less Beer and a New Bottle!

34% Less Free!

Both breweries are also pushing premium lagers, the imaginatively titled Nile Gold and Tusker Premium. These come in 330 ml bottles, smaller than the standard 500ml bottle, and cost more. This is a favorite trick of beer marketing departments across the world. It relies on the circular logic that because something costs more it must be worth more. This seems to work for some people, despite what I regard as the product’s blatant deficiency, there isn’t very much of it. The slogan for Tusker premium is “Take Time to Appreciate The New 330ml Bottle”. You’d better take your time that’s the size of a can of coke.

Tusker premium is an East African breweries lager, so it’s from the same stable as Bell. Tusker ‘Inferior’, the 500ml standard version, is a Kenyan beer which is sold almost as widely as Nile and Bell. In restaurants they often charge extra for it. The menu lists Local Beers at 2,500, meaning Nile and Bell, Foreign Beers – i.e. Kenyan, i.e Tusker at 3,000, and Premium Beers at 3,500. Though Tusker is a Kenyan beer I’m fairly certain it is made at Port Bell just outside Kampala like all the other Diagio products. I suppose this puts Tusker in the same category as those exotic continental lagers in the UK like Stella and Kronenberg which come all the way from Burton.

The only beer that is widely available that is not from either of the two big breweries is Moonberg. It also comes in a 500ml bottle and sells for around 2,500 in a restaurant. I can’t gleam much information about it’s origins from the website, at least part of which has been hacked by Islamic hackers and now carriers slogans for Allah rather than lager, but I think it is produced by Parambot Breweries, Gayaza Road, Kampala. So it seems that Moonberg may be the only beer on sale that is owned locally. Parambot are better known for making the spirit pouches than they are for beer, the following is an extract from their website:

Parambot Breweries is known for producing the best spirits of Royal Vodka Africa No 1 and Royal Whisky(Peoples` Choice). We are the leading Company that produces products that cannot cause hungover, headeche. Our products have sweet aroma and are smooth and gentle on the throat.

Some bold claims. They also claim that Moonberg is made to German Standards, which is possible; it is one of the better beers available, but unlikely. Nothing in Uganda is made to German standards except perhaps their pop singers.

The one exception to the lager hegemony is Guinness Foreign Extra (Stout) – the super strength version of Guinness – which is widely available and popular. Guinness (Diageo) currently sponsors Uganda’s television coverage of the English premiership. This beer will be familiar to anyone who has been to the Nottinghill Carnival where you can buy it freshly imported from Nigeria. I was reminded of this recently when the Ugandan Irish Society imported numerous crates of Guinness Original from Dublin for its St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

The Ugandan Guinness and the Irish Guinness are certainly very different beers; the foreign extra available in Uganda is stronger and has a more burnt flavour to it. This beer, though brewed in various forms all over the world, does have a claim to be uniquely African. In 1985/1986 the Nigerian Government banned the import of Barley Malt. This forced Guinness/Diageo to substitute the barley malt in its Nigerian Guinness with sorghum malt, an ingredient of traditional African beer. Since sales did not suffer and profitability presumably improved as sorghum could be sourced locally, the sorghum stayed even after the ban was lifted. Guinness has long known that adverts with horses surfing counts for more than taste and tradition when it comes to beer drinkers. The last bottle of Guinness I bought in Kampala (either brewed locally at Port Bell or in Kenya) had ‘Contains Barley Malt’ on the label. ‘Contains’ is marketing speak for ‘Doesn’t Contain Very Much’; when you next see a soda with ‘Contains Real Fruit Juice’ on the label check the ingredients and you’ll see they are using Contains in the homeopathic sense. I’m fairly certain that it was brewed using primarily sorghum malt. I don’t know why Guinness shy away from the sorghum in their beer. It should be embraced as being African. Especially in today’s environment with so much emphasis placed on sustainability and locally sourced materials.

Ugandan’s drink enthusiastically, so it is a shame that the Ugandan brewing industry is dominated by foreign multinationals who have managed to shoehorn their brewing techniques (“Brewed to German Standards”) into an African environment. Africa’s biggest brewer is SAB Miller, the SAB stands for South African Breweries: prior to the development of equatorial barley the best place in Africa for growing barley was South Africa which has the necessary seasonal rainfall. Beer brewed using barley malt has been brewed in SA since Dutch settlers first harvested barley there in the 17thC, so it’s no surprise that they now dominate the market. The beer the multinationals produce in Uganda is good, if a little homogeneous. The problem is that the beer is made from relatively expensive imported materials so it’s more expensive than perhaps it could be; aspirational beer minus the spin is beer for rich people. Where I come from beer is an every-mans drink. To someone from the UK like me beer in Uganda seems cheap, but I think they can do better. I think they can do cheaper. I’d like to see cheaper beer, and who in the world would object to that sentiment.

Post Script: I have to admit to writing all of the above without even trying the local, traditional beer, which although not sold in bars is produced in places on a fairly large cottage industry scale. I shall rectify this situation and fully intend to write a future post on the subject. Will my aversion to bananas stretch to banana beer? All shall be revealed in Part 2.

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    • Berecca le Schmecker
    • April 21st, 2010

    I was enjoying this post until you alienated me and my kind when you slandered Derby, my birthplace. Derby where we make rolls royce engines for planes, Derby the birth place of Lara Croft, Derby the home of many who work at your beloved Burton Breweries. I was driven to school in Derby in my friend’s dad’s mercedes (this dad lived in Derby).
    How many mercedes have you got? none because you’ve spent all your money “researching” beer. Your kind make me sick. Why don’t you fuck off to Africa.

    • Con and Lin
    • April 25th, 2010

    You’ll be pleased to know that my ‘Confidently You’ have been keeping me dry and secure for six months now! I should make an advertisement playing tennis and then riding a horse, and laughing with my gal pals. Actually, we’ve introduced a new performance management system at work. It was called ‘Performing +’ until someone similarly pointed out that it sounded like a sanitary towel. It’s now ‘Achieving +’, which is a little more corporate. One thing is true for all of us, though – we all love cheap booze. But this does not mean that we will all stoop to drinking the cheapest. Or anything that comes in a sachet. Or anything that is fermented by throwing in a car battery. xoxo L&C

    • Nelly
    • August 26th, 2010

    Looking forward to reading part 2.. When it is for?

    • simon
    • May 25th, 2011

    its good 2 post some important information and scoop out hidden meaning of the lebals on those opportunistics beer manfacturers on the expense of poor ugandans.

    job well done. now going to be selective in my operations.

    • byron kats
    • April 25th, 2012

    hey…i live in uganda and i loved your article, am a student and i would like to start making beer, if there are any tips you could give me, i will be grateful…great article

    • Onunga
    • June 30th, 2012

    True about nile special, it can you out flat

    • João Allioni
    • August 31st, 2012

    Hello,

    I’m brazilian empty beer can collector, and I don´t have UGANDA can in my collection. Someone help me??? Sure I pay for the cans and postal charges.

    Best regards,

    João Allioni

    • Markey Mark
    • August 23rd, 2013

    Nice article lived in uganda for 3 years I loved it and loved the beer – did not know about the multnational ownership of the “local” beers

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