Southern Sudan brews beer

JUBA, Southern Sudan — For 22 years alcohol was one of the casualties of the civil war in Sudan.

In 1983, the Muslim-dominated government in Khartoum decreed Shariah law and a rebellion was launched in the south, a region of where people follow Christian and traditional beliefs.

In the long-running war, the people of the southern region were protesting the marginalization and neglect of their area by the Arab north. The southerners demanded the freedom to choose how to live and govern themselves. And to determine what they could drink.

Within days following the January 2005 peace deal, which granted semi-autonomy to the southern area, some of the first trucks to cross the border from Uganda into southern Sudan carried crates of Bell, Club and Nile Special, all popular Ugandan lagers sold in well-used, chipped and recycled half-liter brown bottles.

Earlier this month Sudan held its first multiparty election in 24 years and results are beginning to trickle out. Amid fraud accusations and widespread boycotts, the election is expected to confirm Omar al-Bashir as president. The elections are also expected to pave the way for a referendum in January 2011 in which people of the south will vote on whether or not to declare full independence from the north.

Southern Sudan is a region the size of Texas attempting to claw its way up from the depths of poverty. Almost nothing is produced here. In markets, the only local products are mangoes, charcoal and gravel, hand-hammered from rocks hauled from mountainsides. Everything else is imported and expensive.

Beer is the exception. Sudan’s first and only brewery opened in May last year to supply an expanding and thirsty local market.

“Until we started building here these guys hadn’t seen anything industrial before,” said Ian Alsworth-Elvey, the South African managing director of Southern Sudan Beverages Limited (SSBL), a subsidiary of SABMiller, one of the world’s largest brewing companies.

Juba is a sprawling little city developing in rapid fits and starts. Hotels fashioned out of packing crates charge well over $100 a night, restaurants serve pizzas for $20 or more, the parking lots  of both are filled with 4x4s marked with the logos of NGOs or the license plates of the United Nations mission (UNMIS) or the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS).

In between and around these new arrivals are war-broken buildings, little wooden shacks and patches of land that double as public cemeteries and rubbish dumps. Outside the city center the shiny government ministries and hotels are quickly replaced by stick and mud huts, called
"tukuls," and the tarmac turns to dirt.

The brewery is as alien as anything else that has landed in Juba as a result of the investment rush that followed peace in 2005. There is no reliable power supply so rows of huge generators chug away 24 hours a day. Vast containers hold gallons of water pumped out of the Nile River three miles away and purified before being added to the barley, sugar and yeast.

Inside a hangar-sized warehouse are thousands of 110-pound sacks of malted barley. Silver pipes snake around silos and conveyor belts move recycled bottles that are filled with freshly brewed beer.

Each day the brewery churns out 150,000 bottles of beer — “It’s hot out there, yah, people get thirsty!” said Alsworth-Elvey. The brewery can increase production to four times that amount. SABMiller invested $51 million in the plant, making it one of the largest single investments in southern Sudan outside the oil or telecoms industries.

“SABMiller is particularly strong in emerging markets and we have a better appetite for risk than most of the other brewing companies,” said Alsworth-Elvey. “We recognized that if we got in here first we would have a big advantage. If it was a race, we wanted to win it.”

Currently the brewery employs 283 Sudanese workers but Alsworth-Elvey reckons that another 5,000 or so earn a living off the brewery by working as vendors or distributors. There are also plans to develop an agricultural project that would employ about 2,000 farmers growing cassava or sorghum which could become the cereal ingredient of the locally brewed beer.

This would be significant because for now everything but the water is imported. When GlobalPost visited the brewery, bags of malted barley from Europe were stacked in the storeroom and the granulated sugar had been brought in from South Africa.

Neither ingredient can be found locally so the materials are shipped to Mombasa in neighboring Kenya then brought to Sudan on trucks. But, as Alsworth-Elvey insisted, “The major raw material in beer is water and that comes from the Nile River.”

Three brands of varying degrees of strength are brewed in Juba and because they are locally produced they are a little cheaper, which makes them popular. The local favorite is Nile Special, a beer brewed under license according to a Ugandan recipe with an alcohol content of 5.6 percent.

Chairman’s ESB (standing for Extra Strong Beer) is the most potent at 7 percent, but the real innovation is White Bull, a light 4.2-percent lager brewed especially for southern Sudanese drinkers.

“White Bull has taken off pretty well,” said Alsworth-Elvey. “The unique thing is that White Bull is ‘their’ beer, it has been very well accepted as a beer and carries with it some sort of national pride.”

The choice of a white bull as the beer’s emblem was a smart one. The slaughter of prized white bulls, their heads bowed beneath heavy curving brown horns, marks auspicious occasions, and herds of the beasts can be found in pastoralist areas across the southern Sudan landscape.

White Bull sells for upward of $1 a bottle, depending on where you buy it and where you drink it.

That might sound cheap for half a liter of lager but in a region where 90 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, it remains very much a luxury product.

“Of course I drink it, my whole clan drinks it! It’s the cheapest beer,” said Kjairi Joual, a member of the local Bari tribe indigenous to Juba as he sipped a bottle of White Bull at a city bar.