Cheap beer made from cassava and sorghum launched in Africa

SABMiller sells Impala as healthy alternative to moonshine
A photo taken on November 1, 2011 shows a bottle of cassava beer the day it was launched in Johannesburg by SABMiller, the world’s second-biggest brewer. SABMiller is hoping an untapped market of low-income Africans will switch from home brew to commercial beer. The company says the new product, Impala, is the world’s first commercial cassava beer. It will debut in Mozambique and cost 25 percent less than standard barley-based beer. AFP PHOTO / Johannes Myburgh (Photo credit should read Johannes Myburgh/AFP/Getty Images)
Niche beers find a home in Africa
Johannes Myburgh/AFP/Getty Images

The era of home brew in Africa may be coming to an end. SABMiller, the world’s second-largest brewer, is wooing the continent’s illegal drinkers with dirt-cheap beer. In Mozambique, the brewer has released Impala, a beer made from cassava, the milky root used to make tapioca. At 70 cents a bottle, Impala is significantly cheaper than its malty cousins, priced at a dollar, making it affordable for the country’s rising middle class.

Zsuzsa Szilagyi, an alcohol analyst for Euromonitor International, says companies like SABMiller are looking for niche markets. “The African beer market is highly consolidated,” she says, so there’s a “big fight” for new markets.

SABMiller, founded in Johannesburg in the late 1800s, is battling with other beverage companies such as Heineken and Diageo for Africa’s growing population of beer drinkers. Impala was pitched as a healthy alternative to illegal alcohol made from sorghum—a starchy grain—and corn. (Methanol and battery acid have reportedly been included in the moonshine recipes.) The Mozambique government is giving the beer a break on taxes, seen as a way to give the economy a boost by employing farmers to produce raw cassava. One year after its 2011 launch, nine million bottles of the brew have been sold. In Uganda, the company has had tax breaks for years with Eagle beer, made from sorghum.

The beers have a different taste profile from Canadian brands. Take Chibuku, an opaque beer with the consistency of a milkshake. It’s made from sorghum and corn, and the flavour ranges from sour to sweet, depending on the region. Packaged in cheerful white, blue and red one-litre cartons, the beer ferments in the store, going from 0.5 per cent alcohol to four per cent over a period of five days, at which point it expires and must be tossed.

SABMiller is planning to use the Impala formula in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia. “We hope to extend the use of cassava as a brewing ingredient beyond Mozambique,” says Andy Wales, SABMiller’s vice-president of sustainable development. There are other unconventional beer crops being considered too, he says, but can’t “disclose specifics, for obvious reasons.”