Food & Drinks

Beer brewer in Kikuyu having a moment


Eion Flinn, co-founder and CEO, 254Brewery in Kikuyu, Kiambu County. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Earlier in the pandemic, Eion Flinn, the co-founder and chief executive of 254 Brewing, a small brewery in Kikuyu, wondered what to do with his unsold beer.

When the bars closed, he recalled the beers from bars to avoid them going stale, but he could not sell them. So they drank them.

“We were a bit in denial at first. We thought the Covid-19 pandemic would be over in a month or two. We never thought it will take over a year. Our first reaction was to hustle and keep going. We had some savings in our bank account to cover payroll,” he says.

At the time, their craft beer was only sold in bars.

“We pulled all the beers from bars and told owners that we will replenish because they couldn’t sell it as most establishments were switching off electricity and our beer needs to be kept cold. We actually didn’t sell it but drank it ourselves. Then we started pivoting our sales to retailers but it took time,” he says.

Just like other brewers who turned their unsold beer into gin or whisky to stay afloat, Mr Flinn, although a small brewer, had to be innovative to keep revenue flowing and ensure his employees have jobs.

“As craft brewers, {brewers that produce small amounts of beer with new flavours} a crisis like this shows who we are and what we stand for,” he says.

A few months later, 254 Brewing got orders from Chandarana, Carrefour, Naivas, as drinkers increasingly sought beers on supermarket shelves. Now they are also stocking in Total petrol stations and other smaller liquor sellers.

“We are currently in about 60 supermarkets in Nairobi which is great, but it is not as good as the bars. In bars, we drink together but at home, people tend to go for wines or spirits which hold bigger volumes and less space in the house, unlike beers,” he says.

Sh100 million

The pandemic has flipped expectations of what sells in liquor stores. A few months ago, beer was seen as an affordable luxury. But not anymore. Spirits are now leading the pack with wine close behind.

Besides that, beer lovers have been treated to an abundance of choice as crafts become popular, following the opening of microbreweries in Kenya in the last three years.

In a pandemic, Mr Flinn says, it is also difficult for people to sample alcoholic products.

“At our size, we cannot afford to advertise on big media like TV or newspapers so we rely on word-of-mouth and do marketing activations when bars are open. Currently, we are trying to get a marketing channel to get our new brand out there. It is challenging but we are trying to get creative on social media,” he says.

Mr Flinn, who was born in Ireland and spent years working in manufacturing in China, first came to Kenya in 2012. He was the general manager at Burn which made Jikokoa, an energy-efficient cook stove that gained popularity in Kenya.

Before he settled in Kenya where his two daughters were born, he and his wife travelled to more than a dozen countries in Africa but once they landed in Nairobi, their hearts felt at home.

“We invested Sh100 million in this business. The first year, we managed Sh27 million in sales and this year we are hoping to do Sh70 million,” he says.

But investing in Kenya is not for the faint-hearted. It took them two years to get a licence to operate.

“It is harder to do business in Kenya, but cheaper in the long run. One has to understand how to get over the initial investment hurdles. After a full two years navigating more than a dozen government departments, we received our licence,” he says,

In Kenya, it is mostly the educated middle class, a demographic that is very tiny, that thirsts for craft beer. And this is not what 254 Brewing is targeting.

“Our business plan is to grow around what Kenyans like. We have asked ourselves, ‘what do people want or like? In the long run, we want to build small microbreweries around the country,” he says.

“A local drink can also be what you can get from a craft brewery a few blocks away. This has made the market way more competitive and craft beer is now being driven by what’s new and innovative.”

While small breweries like 254 Brewing find it hard to compete with brands like Tusker or White Cap, Mr Flinn says that growth lies in developing a culture of drinking craft beer in a bar.

“And the culture has already started,” he adds.

254 brewmasters use over 20 malts to create 13 beers with no added chemicals. Some of the best-sellers include Ni How, Sand Tarpp, Karibrew Pilsner which is a Bohemian-style lager, Sand Trapipa which is made of mango, berries, pine, and orange with caramel malts.

“Unfortunately at the moment, we have to import our malt and hops from Germany. But we are hoping that in a year or two, we will get some from local farmers in Mount Kenya region. But all thanks to Matt Walsh, who is revered in brewing circles in the US for his time with Modern Times and Lost Coast breweries in California. He is the one behind everything that we brew here and the young Kenyans that work with him.”

Beer produced

In the first year, 254 Brewing managed to pump out over 60,000 litres of beer. They started with 1,000 litres in the first month and now they are doing up to 10,000 litres. Before the pandemic, the brewery was doing both kegs and bottles but now that the bars are closed they are doing 100 percent bottles.

It takes at least two weeks for craft beer to be ready.

When asked why he started making craft beer, he says, it was because of his love for beer.

“I grew up drinking commercial lagers. It reached a point when I couldn’t finish a second beer because I would be bloated. One day I went to visit my sister in Canada and she took me on a craft tour. When I tasted it, I wasn’t bloated. I fell in love with beer all over again.”

When he started 254 Brewing, he researched what other brewers were making. Were the flavours sour or sweet? The next step was to look at what was being produced locally, the ingredients being used and which ones were available.

The craft brewery has been lucky. Despite the effects of the pandemic on the alcohol industry, 254 Brewing created new jobs.

“We currently have 35 employees on our payroll,” he says.

His hope?

That when the pandemic ends, people will be eager to crowd bars and taprooms like they once did, try out new flavours and drink with friends.

It will be a big relief for small breweries that rely on draft sales instead of distribution.