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The beers of Kilimanjaro

Tanzania's beer industry is a big part of the country’s economy. It’s also a big part of its fun.

A Kilimanjaro delivery truck waits to be loaded up at the Tanzania Breweries headquarters in Dar es Salaam. Even during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when this party-hearty city quiets down, the company says beer sales dip only slightly. Tanzania Breweries calls itself the country's single biggest taxpayer. (Eamon Kircher-Allen/GlobalPost)

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — A night out in this Indian Ocean port city requires a few essentials. A deep-fried dinner of crispy french fries and dripping grilled meat. A club full of sweating bodies. Some thudding Bongo Flava, Tanzania’s version of hip-hop.

And beer. Lots and lots of beer.

Beer is a big deal in Tanzania. And it’s not only a social lubricant, but also a source of national pride and a pillar of the economy. In fact, this summer, the suds have been at the center of a high-profile legal row — dubbed the Beer Wars in local media — about ownership of the two biggest local firms. At least one company executive has been quoted saying the dispute is of national importance.

The stakes may be high, but the disagreement is arcane. The two domestic rivals are Tanzania Breweries Limited, which controls 80 percent of the market, and Serengeti Breweries Limited, which has the remainder.

A third company, East African Breweries Limited, an owner of several Kenyan labels, has — until recently, at least — owned a large stake in Tanzania Breweries. Now, it is attempting to buy a stake in Serengeti. Tanzania Breweries’ bosses are crying foul: if East Africa has an interest in both local firms — or is bidding on one before having left the other — they claim it would create a problem for the competitiveness of the beer market. Local newspaper ThisDay even concluded that it would have “far-reaching adverse consequences for Tanzania’s economy.” The parties are now resolving their differences in an international court, and a Tanzania Breweries official declined to comment this week, because the matter is under arbitration.

In most places, the story might be relegated to the nether regions of the business section of the newspaper. But the claim that the Beer Wars are of national importance is not hyperbole: Tanzania Breweries is the biggest taxpayer in the whole country, according to Maneno Mbegu, the communications manager at the company. On profits that amounted to more than $85 million last year, the firm says it paid about $22 million in income taxes.

Compare that to, say, mining companies — which reportedly paid a mere $1 million in income taxes in Tanzania over a recent four-year period — and it’s clear why the dispute is making headlines here. Simply put, beer is a cash cow.