The day American boxer Mohamed Ali launched beer in Kenya

American boxer Mohamed Ali (left) with Njoroge Gishinga in 1980. [File, Standard]

What happens when you lure a doctor from curing the sick to attend to people’s thirst? You end up with a master brewer, a signature brew ready to conquer the world.

In 1961, as the country was preparing for independence, the East African Breweries raided universities in search of raw talent.

In one of its hunts, the scouts discovered a budding doctor, Michael John Karanja at the lecture halls of Makerere university.

There and then, they convinced him to drop his plans and instead study botany and chemistry. And for the next three years, the student was earning a salary even as he studied and ultimately ended up in Ruaraka in April 1964 instead of going to a hospital.

This marked the birth of a legend for Karanja who started training in Scotland as a brewer and ultimately ended up becoming a managing director and legend in malting and ultimately appended engraved signature in the world of brewing.

When EABL dreamed of conquering the American beer malt beer market, it called upon Karanja to come up with a lager that would leave its mark on the throats of the Americans. This is how Tusker Malt larger was born. Everything about its packaging and taste was meant for the American market. That was why it was packaged it was bottled in a green bottle which had a label resembling the American Dollar.

Then-US ambassador to Kenya Wilbert John Lemelle (second from right) introduces Muhammad Ali to Joshua Okuthe (left) and wife Ruth (middle, back to camera). [File, Standard]

To further captivate the market, marketing experts convinced Karanja to scribble his signature on the bottle. This signature relived another famous written by an Irishman, Arthur Guinness when he scribbled the famous signature on the amber bottle in 1759. When the beer was ready it was flown to Milwaukee in America where it was launched with a lot of fanfare.

The cost of production and transport however made Tusker Malt Lager too expensive to compete with the American brands. The export was discontinued and rerouted back to Kenya. It took the interventions of the former chairman of EABL, Kenneth Matiba to get the world’s greatest boxer, Mohamed Ali in 1996.

How the teetotaler Matiba convinced Ali, a staunch Muslim to launch the beer in Nairobi at the Jockey Club, Hilton is the stuff for legends. Although Ali’s launch is still remembered with nostalgia, Matiba, the only person who can explain how he convinced the boxer to fly to Kenya is long gone.

The signature too has since been removed from the green bottle but the larger has become another feather in the cap of the oldest brewer in the country who has weathered many storms.

Ironically, a few years later after the failed entry into the American beer market, EABL had to fend off South African Breweries who too stormed the country. The beer wars lasted three years and the South Africans were kicked out of Kenya.