Kenyan brewer overcomes red tape to launch craft beer brand

A selection of 254 Brewing's beers.

A selection of 254 Brewing’s beers.

In a market that had relatively few varieties of beer available, a Kenyan brewing company overcame stifling red tape to launch its craft beer brand.

In 2011, Eoin Flinn and his wife Megan Root moved to Kenya because they saw enormous potential in the country’s infrastructure and manufacturing sectors. Back home, in Ireland, all the roads were already built, he says in a thick Irish brogue.

“We wanted to start a manufacturing business, using as much local raw materials as possible, hiring local people and selling into the domestic market.”

After dabbling in homemade soaps, green cleaning products and kombucha from a makeshift lab in their back garden for a few years, the enterprising couple turned their eye to craft beers.

“Craft beer was something we wanted to see on the market ourselves as consumers, and I thought it would be a much easier and faster business to grow than our kombucha and cleaning products business.”

With little in the way of craft brewing experience, Flinn and his wife teamed up with two American brothers who were home brewers and founded 254 Brewing.

The company started tinkering around in their micro-factory making IPAs and different kinds of beers, using their friends to sample the finished products.

Meanwhile Flinn launched himself into the process of getting a brewing licence. “That is where I really had underestimated just how difficult that environment could be in Kenya,” he warns.

Labyrinthine red tape

In order to make and sell beer in Kenya, companies need an excise and manufacturing licence from the county they reside in. However, to get a manufacturing licence they need to submit beer samples produced from the equipment that they intend to use for future batches. This requires prospective brewers to build a brewery with no guarantee they will ultimately secure a licence to sell their product.

Flinn and his co-founders set about raising $300,000 from family and friends to build a brewery in Kikuyu, north of Nairobi. During the construction phase – which took around three months – Flinn began navigating the byzantine bureaucracy of Kenya’s alcohol licensing system which eventually took two years.

With twelve different government departments arbitrating the licensing process for alcohol production, Flinn says there were times when he genuinely thought his application would fail.

“I know many people that have been in this process for years and have not been able to get the licence. And they’ve given up and walked away because there’s so much red-tape.”

In January 2020, the company was finally awarded the eighth Kenyan brewing licence in the last 100 years.

“To be honest, had we known how difficult the licensing process would be, we probably wouldn’t have done it in the first place.”

The 254 Brewing founding team in Kikuyu in 2019.

The 254 Brewing founding team in Kikuyu in 2019.

Barrelling along

254 Brewing was on the market for two months before the pandemic struck, shuttering all the bars in the country for the rest of the year.

With most of its brews sold in bars and a brew pub at the brewery, the company quickly adapted by pivoting toward retail sales to recover lost revenues.

Recalling his unsold beers from bars, Flinn soon got orders from big local retailers such as Carrefour, with 254 Brewing bottles now appearing on the shelves of around 60 supermarkets across Nairobi, as well as Total petrol stations and small liquor stores.

The clouds started to part in October 2021 when the curfew was lifted and sales began to shoot up.

Following the launch in January 2020, they were selling around 1,000 litres a month. Today the company is touching on 15,000 litres per month and bringing in US$100,000 in monthly revenues.

“We’re happy overall with the rate of growth especially considering the challenges we’ve had just to stay alive.”

The secret sauce

The company’s big break came when it accidentally developed a brew which had a strong taste overlap with a traditional local home-made beverage called muratina.

254 Brewing, which currently has six flagship beers, has made over 150 different varieties since it started, experimenting with a new brew every week to see what stuck. One week the company came up with a Belgian tripel, and demand exploded. “We see why people really resonate with it, so we called it Muratatu and ironically funnily enough this rapidly became our best-selling beer.”

The secret of their success was learning to give the market what it wanted, as opposed to what they thought it wanted, Flinn reveals.

“We definitely changed our approach a little bit in the sense that in the beginning we thought that we knew what the market wanted because we knew what we wanted, which was super hoppy easy IPAs.

“And we still make and love those and a lot of Kenyans pick them up and become instant IPA fanatics. But the continuous innovation and experimentation is more critical to our success so far because that’s how we’re going to tap into things that really resonate with Kenyan beer drinkers.”

254 Brewing CEO Eoin Flinn’s contact information

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