Brew Bistro Master Brewer and Managing Director Aleem Ladak has always had the mission of growing the craft brewing industry in Kenya. Aleem shares how he does this and the success behind the Brew Bistro brand.
We meet with Aleem Ladak Master Brewer and Managing Director of Big Five Breweries Ltd, otherwise notoriously known as Brew Bistro and Lounge, at the Brew Bistro and Lounge in Piedmont Plaza. Aleem has been brewing his own beers for 20 years; he started home brewing beer and wine when he was in Montreal whilst in university. Although Aleem went to university to study chemical engineering, he switched majors to food technology when he discovered his passion for brewing. While pursuing a degree in Food Science, he worked at multiple craft breweries in Montreal and later received a masters in brewing and distilling in Berlin, Germany.
In December 2009 Aleem decided to bring the craft of micro brewing back home when he opened Brew Bistro Lounge in Piedmont Plaza which, at the time, was still mostly under construction. Although the concept of micro breweries was still new to the market, Aleem was confident he could make it work by building an experience around the brewery. The heart of Brew Bistro has always been the Big Five Brewery: the bar, restaurant and lounge were built to create an experience around the Brew Bistro brand. “When you introduce a new brand to the market and the experience is not there, it’s very hard to create demand for your product” says Aleem about starting a new venture “We wanted people to know Big Five Breweries for the craft beer and Brew Bistro Lounge for the experience and view both as premium Kenyan brands. For the first three years it was tough but I think we’ve achieved what we wanted over the last six years. People know the Big Five as the beer and Brew Bistro as the experience”.
The five core beers of the Big Five brewery consist of four ales and one lager. Each core beer is named after one of the Big Five animals and it’s respective brewing style. Brew Bistro also brew seasonal beers and recently worked with Jameson East Africa on their Brew Barrel campaign to produce Enkare, Masaai for ‘cool water’. The Brew Barrel campaign was inspired by Jameson’s global project, Caskmates and Brew Bistro was the fifth brewery chosen globally to participate in this project. Aleem travelled to Ireland to meet with Head of Whiskey Science David Quinn in the Jameson distillery and learn about the whiskey making process. He then travelled back to Nairobi with Jameson whiskey barrels and brewed a Belgian style triple ale which aged in the barrels for 16 weeks. The beer extracts flavours from the barrels creating a full bodied beer with a malty character and notes of spice, pepper and vanilla from the whiskey. “Jameson is very passionate about their product, just like we are. When you look at Enkare and taste it, you’ll see the passion for both industries in that product” Aleem says of the partnership.
We take a walk through the small brewery in the heart of Brew Bistro as Aleem describes the brewing process. “When someone drinks a beer they don’t see the technical aspect, people see a beer as a beer but to make a good product is extremely challenging. It’s all about time, temperature and the quality of the raw materials” says Aleem as he compares the art of brewing beer to that of cooking.
Brew Bistro works with select suppliers in Europe for their raw product and conduct physical checks in Nairobi. The raw material is checked, milled and mixed with water to extract the natural sugars. The mixture is then filtered to get a thick sugar syrup and remove the outer husks of the grain. The syrup is then boiled for about 90 minutes at which point hops are added. Depending on the time in which the hops are added determines the flavour and aroma imparted to the beer. The product is then cooled and passed into a fermenter where yeast is added. Depending on whether an ale or a lager is being produced determines the type of yeast used, as well as the fermentation temperature. The main difference between an ale and a lager is a lager is always clean, crisp and slightly bitter whereas an ale has slight fruitiness and more floral aromatics.
Aleem attributes Brew Bistro’s success to the experiences they create, their collaborations and great staff. Brew Bistro is run in a family style with his wife Soraiya leading marketing and himself, the Master Brewer. In collaboration with a local NGO, Brew Bistro has a performance-based scholarship fund, the Nairobi Slums Scholarship Fund which started in 2013 and currently supports 25 kids. Kids supported by this fund have performed well in primary school but do not have the means to attend secondary school or university and the fund allows them to do so. Proceeds from events such as Brew Bistro’s Oktoberfest go toward this program and Aleem runs a trainee mentorship initiative for these kids with work placement opportunities at Brew Bistro in the brewery, kitchen, HR and admin.
In the coming year, Aleem aims to grow the Brew Bistro brand through collaborations with companies such as Brown’s Cheese by washing their cheeses in beer, creating a spa product line and soaps from the rich-in-protein spent grain and importing 40 – 50 craft brews from around the world to Nairobi through a collaboration with 20 – 30 breweries which will be available at both Brew Bistro branches and select outlets.
As we wrap up the interview now sat at the bar, we sip on delicious Enkare and raise a pint to the growing craft brewing industry and the people who make it thrive.