Creative Nairobi gin makers find market beyond Kenya

POSTED: 5th Aug

At a funky brewery in Nairobi’s Baba Dogo, alcohol jets out, flavoured with mango-ginger and pineapple-mint. The alcohol content in this drink is eight percent ABV (alcohol by volume).

The fruits in it are locally sourced; pineapples from Kisii, mint from a farmer in Thika, mangos of the apple variety favoured because of their sweetness from Meru and hibiscus.

“We want to ignite originality in Kenya through these locally made craft beverages. They bring something new to your drinking experience,” says Alex Chappatte, the CEO and founder of Kenyan Originals (KO), one of the craft beverage makers.

There is something brewing in Kenya. Craft beverage makers like Bateleur Breweries, 254 Brewing Co, and Sierra Brasserie are gaining traction, distilling gin and producing cider, competing with established beer and whisky firms and giving more options to the consumer.

“Today’s alcohol consumption is influenced by three trends; they are big on purpose, sustainability and health. From this foundation, we built KOs,” says Ms Chappatte who cut her teeth in West Africa where she worked for Pernod Ricard, a French alcoholic beverages giant, which makes Jameson, Chivas Regal, Martell, Balentine’s, Absolut among others.

With a portfolio of ciders and now a gin line, the brewer she built from scratch with part of the seed funding coming from Chandaria Capital, the business has grown. Today, KO products that come in over 10 flavours are sold in over 1,800 outlets countrywide.

The brewer has also picked up several awards such as being recognised as a key innovation driver and being the best botanical drink and product of the year in the 2019 Africa Excellence Awards.

But it is her gin brands, recently launched, that make Ms Chappatte's KOs among the few stand-out brewers in the fast-growing craft beer market. Their entrance promises a slice of the market dominated by East African Breweries Limited. In three years, the gin market in Kenya is forecast to reach Sh1.8 billion ($15.23 million).

In KOs entry-level category is 58 Gin (named after the Buru Buru matatu route), retailing at Sh1,300. It comes in two flavours; the 58 Classic, a natural fruity gin with a spicy finish, made with locally-grown lime, groundnuts, mint, mabuyu (boabab powder), and ginger. The 58 spiced orange gin is a light, citrusy- gin made from orange, dried mango, chilli, and turmeric.

“We created the 58 Gin for consumers who are interested in brands that meet them at their price point. We also wanted to bring the street culture,” she says.

In the premium category, the brewer has created the KO Classic Gin, an aromatic gin of 40 percent ABV, distilled with bitter orange leaves from Kilifi; lemongrass from Kabati; bay leaves from Kinangop, and roses from Mt Kenya region. Some of the gin is infused with real cucumber and a hint of hibiscus from Meru.

Procera Gin, another craft alcoholic beverages maker founded in 2017 has opted for a different strategy. Unlike KOs high volume approach, Procera Gin, founded by Guy Brennan, has focused on the high-end market and produces 100 bottles a day for the local and international market.

The gin business was borne out of a rendezvous with friends. “We were drinking Bombay Sapphire and we realised on the side of the bottle they had listed out each botanical that is used in the gin,” says Mr Brennan, who previously worked for a micro-finance company in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Most of the botanicals in the gin were found in Africa, this was the moment of revelation for us. We realised we could make our gin,” he says.

Mr Brennan tapped Roger Jorgensen, one of Africa’s greatest distillers, a decision that appears to be paying off going by the strong demand from bars in London, Hong Kong and the US. Procera Gin’s unique selling point is that it uses Kenya’s indigenous green juniper harvested in a forest in Kijabe.

Unlike a typical juniper that is grown in temperate zones that are only hot for three months of the year, the Kenyan juniper receives sun-drenched, equatorial climate conditions seven hours a day, yearly. This gives it a distinguishing nutty and earthy flavour.

“We distill our juniper green not dry, unlike other gins where the juniper is dried and transported across the world,” says Mr Jorgensen. The gin is packaged in Kitengela Glass bottles.

The string on the bottle’s stopper is made by Sandstorm, a Kenyan bag maker, with the stopper itself coming from Rampel Designs. The bottle has already won gold twice at the prestigious San Francisco spirits awards and the Michalenagole Award in 2018.

Procera Gin has grown in the EPZ zone. When they started, the equipment was basic but now they have a state-of-the-art Mueller, the “Rolls-Royce of stills” as Mr Brennan puts it.

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