Inside the head of the man behind Nairobi's best craft beer bar

"I started brewing when I was 18 years old in my dorm room and it turned out to be a great career."

Meet Aleem Ladak, the brains behind Brew Bistro Bar and Lounge along Ngong road, Nairobi. Brew Bistro is not just any other ordinary bar, it is popularly known for brewing its own beer right in the heart of the Kenyan capital.

Aleem came from a family that appreciated fine food and quality liquors, beers and wines. In 1995, he enrolled for his undergraduate studies in food science and technology, specializing in fermentation science, at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

He later completed a postgraduate Brew Master Certificate in Brewing & Distilling at VLB Brewing & Malting Institute in Berlin, Germany before setting off his career in Montreal, Germany, Netherlands, Burundi, and Nigeria & Sierra Leone.

In 2009, Big Five Breweries limited was born and its flagship enterprise, Brew Bistro Lounge opened its doors. The bar is quite synonymous with the quintessential upper-middle class.

Aleem ranges from managerial work to working with his team of brewers to create a fresh batch of his five unique beer brands, a process that starts at 8am and ends at about 11pm.

Every October, they run Oktoberfest, which offers various beer-related events such as food and beer pairing. The bar also runs ‘The Big Five Scholarship Program’ which offers education and mentors about 30 kids from different slums in Nairobi.

Business Insider SSA sat down with Aleem who believes Brew Bistro is not just about the craft beer but providing a whole unique experience to his customers:

BI SSA: What was the idea behind starting Brew Bistro & Lounge?

Big Five Breweries (Brew Bistro) was started in December 2009. So I grew up in Kenya and I've been brewing for the last 20 years. I've brewed in craft breweries around the world as well as major breweries and when I came back to Kenya about 10 years ago I felt there was a niche in the market. With the craft brewing scene being a big scene across the world, I thought to myself why not bring this concept to Kenya. Ever since we opened, it's been a great attraction. We've seen a lot more people trying to be more experimental. Over the years, we've seen craft and draught beer gain popularity especially along the demographics of the young professionals who want to have something different and are more conscious about the quality of the beer they have.

BI SSA: Talk us through the family influence in starting this business

My dad's a chef. My brother is an hotelier. My mum is in the restaurant business too. My wife is a sommelier. So yes, it kind of does run in the family. I started brewing when I was 18 years old in my dorm room and it turned out to be a great career.

BI SSA: How challenging was it when you started the business in 2009?

It was quite challenging and more so because it was one of the very first craft breweries. The first couple of years were tough since people were used to a certain type of product and getting to change them to a different product took a while. We've, however, been able to grow a loyal customer base going by their understanding of craft and draught beer over time.

BI SSA: What does it take to be a craft brewer?

It is more experience-based. The more in touch you are with the product, the more experimentation and know how you get on it.

BI SSA: Many beer brands are coming up to challenge the traditional big players. What is driving this change in the industry?

There is a growing middle class that wants to try out different things and that niche market is our main focus. Unfortunately, unlike the big players, we cannot go into mass production due to economies of scale. At the same time, we would want to keep our product craft and unique.

The consumption per person in Kenya is however still a lot lower compared to other countries but it is increasing. We now have more imported brands and small local players, which allows people to be innovative. We also plan on opening more craft breweries and increasing our distribution base while at the same time keep our identity as a craft producer.

BI SSA: How do you ensure that you maintain your loyal customer base?

It's all about personalization and providing a unique experience. In other words, it is not just about the beer but the whole experience around it. So we'll use the product in ice cream or the one in our food and get people to taste the combination of beer and food, beer and chocolate and such kind of things.

BI SSA: I understand that you also make unique seasonal brews such as the ‘Obama brew’ you made to commemorate President Obama’s state visit to Kenya in 2015:

Of course the whole craft experience is about coming up with seasonal products as a way of treating our customers. We also had a Trump and Clinton brew during last year's US elections which did quite well. And I am really grateful that we have a young, vibrant team in the brewery and I try to push them to create a whole bunch of creative products.

BI SSA: What is the future like for the craft beer industry?

I think it has got a bright future and I am sure in the next couple of years we'll have a handful of craft beers in Kenya and the region. Not only will the market for craft brewing increase, but also the appreciation and knowledge for the industry. Having worked as a brewer in the US, France, India and Canada and seen the industry develop in these markets, I do believe the same will happen here as it is a growing trend.

BI SSA: If you were not a brewer, what job would you be doing?

I mean honestly I do not think I would do anything else other than brewing. I've been brewing for 20 years and I hope to keep brewing for twenty more years and create more experiences with our customers.

BI SSA: What satisfaction do you find in running this craft beer business?

For me, the best satisfaction is seeing a customer walk into our bar and enjoy our crafted beer. At the end of the day, the brewing process is quite complicated and to get the perfect consistent product is not easy. So seeing people appreciate all the hard work that went into the product is the best satisfaction I can have.

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