South Sudan Battled For The Right To Drink Beer

by VR Sreeraman on  March 28, 2009 at 2:56 PM Lifestyle News
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South Sudanese rebels fought one of Africa's longest civil wars for the lofty goals of equality and freedom in a vision of a "New Sudan". But they also battled for the right to drink beer.
 South Sudan Battled For The Right To Drink Beer
South Sudan Battled For The Right To Drink Beer

So preparations for the launch of production at the south's first commercial brewery since the 22-year long war have been a cause for celebration.

"We are looking forward to tasting our own beer," said former guerrilla fighter Joseph Deng, chatting in between gulps of an imported Kenyan lager in a bar.

"The war was about freedom -- but that also means the right to drink alcohol, not to be ruled by the laws of another religion," he added.

During the war alcohol was banned in the south, which was under Islamic law.

More than two million people died and about four million were forced from their homes after rebels from the largely Christian or animist south rose up against the Arab-dominated and Muslim government in the north.

Now, four years after a US-brokered peace deal, a giant 37 million dollar (27 million euro) brewery is ready to begin operations, with a daily packing capacity of 150,000 bottles.

"We have developed a dry, crisp, thirst-quenching beer -- especially to match the climate here," said Ian Alsworth-Elvey, managing director of Southern Sudan Beverages, a subsidiary of global brewing giant SAB Miller.

No samples were available to taste, but Alsworth-Elvey promises the beer will "more than rival" others on the market.

"All beer is good, it's just that some are better than others," he said.

He gestures at the 7,400 square metre (80,000 square foot) building packed with gleaming pipes, giant cooking cylinders and complicated cooling machines needed for the brewing process.

Mounds of malt sacks lie beneath tall grinding machines, ready to be milled, while around the corner, tonnes of sugar, another key ingredient, are stacked high.

First brews will begin in "coming days", said Alsworth-Elvey, but with batches taking 18 days to be ready and the need to build up stock, the beer is not expected to be in the bars until May.

South Sudan's last commercial brewery was destroyed during the previous north-south civil war in the 1970s.

While alcohol drinkers still risk harsh punishment in the Muslim north, booze is abundant in the south, imported from neighbouring Uganda or Kenya, or from Europe.

The brewery is also seen as another step by the semi-autonomous south towards greater secularisation and independence from the north.

Under the north-south peace deal, the south will hold a referendum in 2011 for potential full independence.

"They should view it as a victory for the right to self determination," said Alsworth-Elvey.

Plans for the brewery began in 2006, with building work starting in May 2008.

Now the brewery rises high above the surrounding tin shacks and thatch huts scattered in the low scrub, some eight kilometres (five miles) from the southern capital Juba on a bumpy track lined with land mine warning signs.

While having their own beer may be symbolic for southerners, the brewery also marks a major investment in the rebuilding of the war-damaged region.

"Although small in world standards, it?s the biggest manufacturing facility in south Sudan by far," said Alsworth-Elvey.

The plant will provide some 250 jobs, 80 percent of which have been earmarked for southern Sudanese.

However, with the region still struggling to recover from years of fighting, most ingredients will be imported from neighbouring countries.

But the water will pumped from the nearby Nile river, before being cleaned and filtered for the brewing process.

The beer's name is being kept a tight secret until the formal launch.

Trademark applications must still be made in Khartoum -- which refuses to register an alcohol product -- and the company wants to wait until the beer is on sale.

"The name will have significance to the people of south Sudan," said Alsworth-Elvey, refusing to say more.

Outside a tin-shack bar in Juba, drinkers discuss the possibilities.

"Dr John Garang," says one, referring to the former rebel commander and first president of the south, who died weeks after the 2005 peace deal was signed.

But his companion, William Sebit, said that would dishonour his name.

"Beshir Beer would be better, so we can drink him," Sebit laughs, referring instead to former enemy Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir.

But the drinkers calm down and select a different name instead. "A good choice would be "Liberty", because it symbolises our freedom," said Sebit.

Source: AFP

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