As a continent, we are lagging behind somewhat when it comes to craft beer. At the moment, outside of South Africa, I have around 20 microbreweries on my very high-tech African breweries spreadsheet. So I was pleased to recently add Big Sip Co. to the list – the first microbrewery in Botswana.
Big Sip Co. actually quietly launched last year, but their products are just starting to be seen in bars and restaurants around the Botswanan capital. I recently met co-founder Alexander Moss at a Cape Town CBASA meeting and got the lowdown on the first craft brewery in Gabs.
So who is behind Big Sip?
Alex: Jan-Hendrik de Buhr is our head brewer and director. He is responsible for brewing and all the logistics of running the brewery. He’s been brewing for six years, and having previously studied science, has a very fine eye for detail, particularly on the chemistry side.
My background is more corporate-focused. I moved to Botswana in 2015, initially for a three year stint and I currently work as a management consultant. Although I don’t have much experience in brewing, I have been an avid drinker of craft beer in Australia (and more recently South Africa) for quite some time!
The labels say that Big Sip was founded in 2017, but when did you actually start producing and selling?
Alex: We officially started Big Sip Co. in 2017, and started producing beer commercially in that year. It has really only been in 2018 though that we have started pushing products in to the market. Although we are currently small, we have big plans to grow and become a sizable regional player in the coming two years.
What sort of system are you brewing on?
Alex: We are currently using two Speidel Braumeisters to do our brewing. They produce fantastic results, with exceptionally high quality beer and good consistency. However we currently have a custom-designed 500-litre brewhouse nearing completion, which we hope to start using from November 2018. This will help meet local demand for the beer and allow Big Sip Co. to push more widely across the country and the region.
Where can people find your beers?
Alex: Currently the beers are in a handful of restaurants and bars in Gaborone. We are widening the network to bring on a restaurant and lodge in Kasane in the north-east of Botswana, and will also start commencing shipments to Maun in the north-west soon. Our website has links to all current and upcoming distributors.
How far are you planning to distribute? Are we likely to see them in stores in South Africa at some point?
Alex: Our focus by the end of this year is to stabilise a steady supply in Gaborone and across the rest of the country. In early 2019, we are planning to start exporting. We are keen to start exporting into South Africa, where we have already received great feedback from early samples in both Gauteng and the Western Cape. However we are also focused on targeting other regional countries where craft beer is still in its infancy, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and to a lesser extent, Namibia.
What are the main challenges with setting up a brewery in Botswana?
Alex: Working in a smaller country certainly has its challenges, including access to water and electricity, particularly during times of drought or extraordinary weather events. Obtaining ingredients and other equipment is also a challenge we often need to import from South Africa or elsewhere. Also, as we are the sole commercial microbrewery in Botswana, we don’t have the opportunity to collaborate with other brewers.
How have locals responded to the beers?
Alex: It’s still early days, but so far we have received an incredibly positive response. Many have been fortunate to sample craft beer across South Africa, the United States, the UK and elsewhere. They know what craft beer is and are very excited to see a local product. One of our biggest focuses though is on educating people about what craft beer is and how it differs from mass-produced beer. This has been an incredibly enjoyable experience and we are glad to see people embracing the beers.
So what about the beer? Well, there are four brews in the range at the moment: a Kölsch, Golden Ale, APA and IPA. I nabbed some sneaky samples a few weeks back and must say I was pretty impressed – and pleasantly surprised. Big Sip are currently bottle conditioning and that telltale layer in the bottom of the bottle set alarm bells ringing, but that first sip of the golden ale was crisp, bitter, clean and as the label says, sessionable. Although I failed to take decent notes, the Golden Ale was the stand-out of the bunch, followed by the IPA. I found the bitterness on the APA and Kölsch a little harsh but otherwise they’re all pretty sold brews.
Africa is the world’s fastest growing beer market and while the majority of that growth is focused on affordable mass produced products, it’s always heartening to see another microbrewery forging their way and spreading beer culture further across the continent.