How water challenge almost derailed Kenya's first beer

Charles and George Hurst's rudimentary brewery in Ruaraka in 1922. [File, Standard]

Another battle is on to fight the demon drinks of the mountain which are so potent that they are fabled to reduce energetic young men into zombies who stagger home only to retire to their beds after day-long carousing on empty stomachs.

More than a century ago, two brothers, Charles and George Hurst, were forced to use tea to toast the allied forces victory in the First World War in 1919. There was a shortage of beer then and they embarked on a search for a brew that would be authentically Kenyan. The brothers were scandalised because they had to import German brew from Tanzanian to party in Nairobi.

But when they located their rudimentary brewery in Ruaraka in 1922, they had yet to contend with acute water shortage in a city that had ironically been situated on a swamp and was appropriately named 'a place of cool waters' by the Maasai.

Two years after the brewery started production, it encountered a series of challenges. There was a problem in mixing the ingredients and the resultant brew was a flop. People refused to take the beer and about 100 cases that had already been brewed were thrown away.

And as the brewers waited for electricity to be installed, they ordered 50 new barrels to be delivered from Britain.

At first the brewery had to employ labourers who had to draw water using buckets from a shallow well by the banks of a stream. When they realised this back-breaking work was not sustainable, the brewery was moved next to the stream. The demand for beer was such that a faster way of supplying water had to be sought.

It was against this background that the controversial settler, John Boyes, offered his pump to replace the buckets at a cost of Sh24. This was after the company's investment in a tank flopped as it was so incompetently done that it could not hold any water. But Mr Spurrier, a professional brewer, suggested that the company buy a neighbouring piece of land which had a spring. Spurrier was confident that this would solve their water problem and he would be able to produce 60 barrels of beer per week.

Although he had no cooling apparatus and he was forced to use a kiln powered by firewood, Spurrier laid the foundations of East African Breweries, as it is known today. Today, a century later, as Kenya battles the demon drinks and entrepreneurs still camp by rivers and streams to distill chang'aa, it also has to contend with another thirst: water is still unavailable in most parts of the city.