The beers of Kilimanjaro

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.

Beer has an emotional pull, as well. The label names of local brews are a highlight reel of the country’s most famous attractions: Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, Safari, Ndovu (“elephant” in Swahili). Although international beverage giant SABMiller (as in Miller Genuine Draft) now owns a majority stake in Tanzania Breweries, it formerly spent 25 years as a fully government-owned company, until 1993.

So in a country with a small manufacturing sector, beers have long been one of the Tanzania’s most visibly-branded commodities.

“I’m proud of my beer,” said Mbegu, who is a 33-year veteran of the industry.

Tanzanian beers have yet to delight the palettes of foreign beer connoisseurs, though. The flavors of the lagers vary from the crisp and mild to the watery. Online reviews range from the indifferent to the unprintable.

“Aroma is typical swill. Vapid, corny, sort of sweet, but mainly bare,” wrote a reviewer of Safari on one beer enthusiast website. “Taste: largely vacant, yet inoffensive.” But local beer drinkers don’t seem to care whether their beverages are winning any international accolades. The brews fuel the Thursday-to-Sunday party scene. In downtown discos like the Savannah, bartenders are kept sweaty passing an interminable stream of jumbo half-liter beer bottles over the counter.

And in the dusty streets of Dar’s more humble quarters, the Kilimanjaro logo, a profile of its namesake mountain, is emblazoned on every hole-in-the-wall drinking den.

Even on a recent weeknight in the middle of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan — when beer sales register a slight dip — the plastic chairs at one of Dar’s many outdoor drinking spots were filling up. As a soccer game flickered onto a screen beneath mango trees, patrons could be heard murmuring an urgent request.

“Naomba Kili baridi.” Bring me a cold Kilimanjaro.