Charles Njogu was among the 100 employees who left East African Breweries Limited (EABL) two years ago in the wake of a retrenchment exercise the regional brewer instituted to save costs.
His departure from the brewing firm after 32 years of service was, however, the push the chemical engineer needed to venture into entrepreneurship.
In July last year, after seven months out of a job, Mr Njogu opened Sirville Brewery and Lounge — a microbrewery on the first floor of Galleria Mall in Nairobi where he brews and serves four types of beer: Tsavo Lager, Mara Pils, Amboseli Ale and Aberdares Bitter Ale. The brands are named after popular national parks and game reserves in Kenya.
Mr Njogu, 57, and his four business partners have managed to rake in more than Sh70 million in revenues in the first year of operation, an amount which is slightly higher than their initial capital investment.
“I visited many micro brewing establishments in the UK and Germany during my career and noticed a gap in the Kenyan craft beer market,” Mr Njogu told Enterprise when we visited his business last week.
Craft brewing, which involves use of facilities that produce less than 1.8 million litres per year, is popular in the US. Some brewers, like Mr Njogu, serve their clients on site.
The beer is made using the usual ingredients like hops, malt, barley and yeast, with the brewers adding unique ingredients that distinguish their brands from mainstream products.
To achieve different alcoholic content, flavours and aromas in beer, craft brewers alter elements like the amount of malt, hops or barley used, the brewing period as well as strains of yeast used.
“I started to give it (craft brewing) serious thought in the 1990s and when EABL presented us with the early retirement package, I opted out and straight away set about establishing the microbrewery and lounge,” says Mr Njogu.
He partnered with Robert Kinuthia, Sirville’s operations director, medical doctor Patterson Njogu, Panorama Car Hire director Titus Waithaka and General Loss Adjusters managing director George Macharia.
The five partners injected Sh60 million of their personal savings into the business, with Mr Njogu retaining the highest individual shareholding of about 25 per cent.
The money was spent on importation and installation of the equipment — brewery tanks and serving taps — from Germany, Italy and China as well as furnishing the lounge which can host 250 customers.
Sirville Brewery, which is coined from Mr Njogu’s Sironi Village in Nyahururu, has an annual brewing capacity of about 180,000 litres. The business is run by 47 employees and targets middle and upper class clientele.
The four beer brands, whose alcohol content ranges between 4.2 per cent and 6.2 per cent, retail at Sh250 for a 500ml mug during normal hours and attract a Sh50 discount during Happy Hour.
Aside from the lounge, Sirville sells its beer at select bars in Westlands, Karen, Ongata Rongai and the central business district in Nairobi using refrigerated keg tanks of 20, 30 and 50 litres which cost between Sh5,200 and Sh13,000. A 20-litre tank is leased for events, including weddings and birthday parties.
“We import malt from Germany while the yeast and hops are sourced in the UK,” says Mr Njogu, adding that he recently began sourcing some malt from his former employer.
He says the brewing processes are fully automated and operated under the watch of a brew master, Henry Simila, who has 35 years experience in the trade. It takes 14 days to brew a particular brand. This includes seven days of fermentation and another seven days for maturation. To ensure sterility, tanks are cleaned after every batch.
Mr Njogu’s brewing journey began in Manchester University where he studied chemical engineering. He came back home and in November 1982 joined Kenya Breweries Limited where he worked as an assistant project engineer.
He rose to become EABL’s Group technical engineer in charge of the brewer’s multibillion-shilling capital investments including installing and operating new equipment and coming up with new products.
Mr Njogu, who also has a diploma in brewing technology from Versuchs-und Lehranstalt fur Brauerei Institute in Berlin, Germany, says his experience helped him fully understand the beer market, making his decision to start a microbrewery an easy one to make.
At the time of his exit from EABL, Mr Njogu says he had established a wide network of contacts in the beer industry, which proved vital when establishing his business.
In Kenya, craft brewing is still in its nascent stage with the one known business in this trade — and Sirville’s main competitor — being six-year-old Brew Bistro and Lounge on Ngong Road in Nairobi.