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How two farming brothers gave Kenya its Tusker beer

by Grace Kisembo

Members of Kenya’s giant Gikuyu, Embu, and Meru Association (GEMA) outfit flew for an agricultural show in England, where they demanded Tusker lager after getting tired of British draught beers.

The late politician Njenga Karume, GEMA’s chair, telephoned fellow member Kenneth Matiba, then MD of East African Breweries, and requested him to airlift 30 crates of beer.

As Karume recalls in his 2009 biography, Beyond Expectations: From Charcoal to Gold, the members drank like it was their last time, even a Nyeri church elder tried out brandies.

The drunk elder bumped into a woman church member, and coming to his wits, instructed her not to breathe a word as, “This is England!”

Funny how founding President Jomo Kenyatta had asked Kenyans to boycott ‘colonialist beer,’ leading to huge losses in the 1960s.

That forced the British colonial government, through MD Bryan Hobson, to offer him a quarter of Kenya Breweries shares to rescind his call. Jomo rubbed his patriotic nose on the bribery.

That share offer – for free – would today be worth over quarter billion shillings. The history of East Africa Breweries, now a Kenyan heritage brand, began with the British receiving a financial knocking following the completion of the Uganda Railway in Kenya in 1901.

World War I further dwindled the fortunes of the British Empire further and facing cash flow hiccups for bankrolling colonial programmes here, the Crown offered huge tracts of land and high adventure below the equator for its citizens immigrating to Kenya.

Charles and George Hurst; experienced farmers and gold prospectors, answered the call, but burnt their fingers in flax and coffee farming, while gold prospecting almost brought them to their financial knees.

But the tail end of World War I provided the socialite George with an idea. He noticed that foreign beer brands were used in toasting to the War’s end. An idea was frothed.

George, his brother Charles and investor Henry A. Dowding pumped £2,500 (Sh335, 000 at current exchange rates) for a brewery in undulating Ruaraka then teeming with game.

They holed up in makeshift tents while establishing their stone and corrugated sheet plant. Dowding was a director at The English Diastatic Malt Extract (EDME) Ltd which bought 2,000 of the 6,000 issued shares when Kenya Breweries Ltd was incorporated in December 1922. Distillation was via firewood and copper vessels. Bottling was by hand.

The 2012 Journal of Brewing History Society notes that Dowding was a professional brewer and malt specialist.

The first 10 cases of beer were delivered to the Stanley Hotel by an ox-drawn cart in 1923, the year George, a big game hunter, was killed by a male elephant called ‘Tusker’ for their huge tusks and hence the name of the award-winning beer (and elephant insignia) Charles named in his honour.

The tusks that gored George were kept as mementos of that tragedy. Charles Hurst died in Crowborough, England on February 23, 1966, thirty-two years after taking the company public.

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