By Alicia Erickson, Epicure & Culture contributor
After a morning of walking along the staggering Victoria Falls, soaking up the sun, the spray, and the invariably glorious views over Zimbabwe’s side of the falls, I head to River Brewing Company to cool off with one of their coveted craft brews.
Just a short walk from the main strip of Victoria Falls town is Zimbabwe’s first craft brewery — and it offers some of the best African beer available.
The doors of the Victoria Falls brewery open up to high, vaulted ceilings, long wooden tables, exposed brick, and a sleek row of taps with rotating craft beers.
The space offers a touch of modern, minimalistic Pacific Northwest aesthetic mixed with the tropical, laid-back, warmth of Zimbabwe.
For craft beer enthusiasts, there might be nothing better than sitting back and enjoying a cold pint of some of the best brews south of the equator while overlooking one of the natural wonders of the world.
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Is The Best African Beer In Zimbabwe?
As a Pacific Northwest native, microbrews are in my roots.
From major cities like Seattle and Portland to small towns along the Pacific coast and nestled into the Cascade mountain range, microbreweries are in abundance and beer-enthusiasts are spoilt for choice.
The complex, innovative brews ranging from mango-infused sours to citrus, hoppy IPAs, to rich, chocolaty-stouts, have even convinced the taste buds of this wine enthusiast of the vast potential of beer; however, that also means that my palette was largely spoilt when traveling to regions where light lagers are the rule of thumb.This craft #brewery in #VictoriaFalls is changing the beer scene in Zimbabwe
Having lived in sub-Saharan Africa off and on for the better part of the past decade, drinking locally more often than not meant drinking local brews pale in color and even paler in flavor.
To be blunt, the beers in the general region—South Africa aside— are underwhelming and uninspired.
For me, the joy in a drink or food is the complexity of flavors and the innovation that goes into creating a unique product with depth.
As I was exploring the budding microbrewery scene in Cape Town, I happened upon Woodstock’s Drifter Brewing Company.
I found myself engaged in conversation with Nick, one of Drifter’s owners, sampling beers and helping to pour toasted coconut into one of their barrels of the delicious “Coconut Ale”.
From Nick’s recommendation, I heard about a relatively new brewery in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe of all places.
Since I was heading to Victoria Falls in a few weeks’ time, I knew it was a place I had to visit.
History Of River Brewing Co., a Victoria Falls Brewery
The idea for a craft brewing company in Victoria Falls is more than a century old, originating with British explorer Aubyn Trevor-Battye, an ancestor of one of River Brew’s founders.
Upon arriving in Victoria Falls after a long journey from Cape Town, he’d built up a keen thirst for a cold ale, only to find that a true ale in Victoria Falls was nonexistent.
A century or so later, Battye’s descendants finally turned his dream into a reality.
Beer enthusiasts living in Zimbabwe would throw the idea out from time to time.
River Brew’s master brewer, Lionel, fell in love with Zimbabwe while teaching at an international school in Harare, where he brewed on the side.
Combining his brewing experience in Alaska and Norway with his love for Zimbabwe while collaborating with a number of other beer enthusiasts with backgrounds in design, architecture, and business, and a common passion for peer, River Brewing came into fruition.
The brewery was not built for the tourists flocking to Victoria Falls but rather as a gathering space for locals and residents of Victoria Falls.'The #brewery was not built for the tourists flocking to #VictoriaFalls but rather as a gathering space for locals.'
The tight-knit community consists of Zimbabweans who had migrated to Victoria Falls for work in the tourism industry and transplants from around the world involved in tourism and community development endeavors.
The ultimate goal of River Brewers’ founders?
To create a place to meet, exchange ideas, host community-centric events, and of course, enjoy a quality pint or two.
From Local Lagers To Tasty Microbrews
Opening and running a brewing company in the thick of the Zimbabwean wild is no easy task.
As supplies and machinery are simply not available in-country as of yet, equipment, hops, yeast, and malt — among other products — are trucked in from South Africa or shipped in from Europe and the USA.
It is not uncommon for a truck to be stuck at a border crossing for days waiting for customs to clear, putting at risk the product sitting in a hot truck.
The team at River Brewing hopes one day to produce an all-Zimbabwean beer, including using locally-grown grains.
At the moment, the water used in the beer all comes from the Zambezi River, placing the heart of Zimbabwe at the heart of the beer.
The brewing takes place in the same building as the brewery and restaurant, providing a small but sufficient space.
I found Riley, one of the assistant brewers hard at work, experimenting with new combinations of ingredients.
At the moment, most of the beer stays in-house, though some kegs are shipped to bars in Harare and elsewhere in Zimbabwe, as well as sold to private events.
One of my biggest questions regarding the opening of the beer was the reception of craft beers by locals, where light lagers are the norm.
Incorporating new tastes at a new price point isn’t always easy but it made the challenge of the brewery that much more interesting from the founders’ points of view.
In the beginning, the brewery offered samples of the craft selections alongside a Zimbabwean beer. Lionel hoped to encourage locals to try the range of beers and grow accustomed to the new tastes.
River Brewing eased it’s Zimbabwean customers in with moderated, less intense craft ales and stouts and gradually overtime incorporated more and more of the unusual, vibrant notes of American microbrews.
“Reception has largely been positive,” Lionel notes fondly. “Locals are the brewery’s biggest customers. Zimbabweans now crowd the tables of River Brewing, sloshing down pints of Golden Jackals and Jack Tar Porters.”
Political Complications In Zimbabwe & Community Giving
Over the couple of years since it’s opening, River Brewing Company has fluctuated alongside the ebbs and flows of the tumultuous Zimbabwean political and economic landscape.
At the time of my visit, Zimbabwe was in the midst of an economic crisis.
The country was without a local currency and ATMs had been out of cash for months.
In addition, demonstrations protesting the hike in fuel costs had greatly impacted the costs of goods, which in turn impacted the cost of brewing beer and running the restaurant attached to the brewery.
Running a business with such a fluctuating, unpredictable economy with customers who were short on cash is also no easy task.
Prices were marked based on different currencies and methods of payment by customers.
Therein lies not only the challenge but the excitement of running a microbrewery in the most unlikely of places.
Through both the positive and negative, River Brewing has not only survived but has managed to be a pivotal center for the community.'Through both the positive and negative, River Brewing has not only survived but has managed to be a pivotal center for the community. #Zimbabwe #politics
When asking Lionel his favorite memory of the brewery thus far, his eyes light up.
“The night Mugabe was overthrown,” he says without hesitation. “The brewery was packed beyond capacity with people standing on chairs, buying everyone rounds of pints, and celebrating.”
After thirty years of dictatorship and largely unpopular rule, Robert Mugabe was overthrown on November 21st, 2017 following a week of mass protests.
In Victoria Falls, River Brewing was at the center of celebrations marking a new era for Zimbabwe, a reflection of the exact intention the founders set out to achieve when conceptualizing the brewery.
On that night and in the days that have followed in the year and a half since the coup, River Brewing Company has continued to grow as a pivotal place among the Victoria Falls’ community.
Weekend evenings showcase local musicians, introducing the rhythm of Zimbabwean beats to locals and tourists alike.
The brewery is dedicated to understanding and being a central contributor to community needs.
They donate beer to fundraising events to support local schools and wildlife conservation through fundraisers.
River Brewing intends to create a special beer named after different animals, from which some of the proceeds are used to support the protection of the endangered species.
The Future Of River Brewing
Although River’s founders have settled into their space, the work is constant.
The team — inclusive of the founders and a couple of assistant brewers — is small yet ambitious.
They are constantly seeking to innovate and experiment with new flavors of beer in small batches, to accommodate the ever-changing political and economic climate of Zimbabwe, and to be a constant support to the community.
Experimenting with craft gin is also on their list of upcoming goals.
As I continue to taste my way through the numerous current beers on tap, making my way from the easy-drinking “Painted Dog Ale” to the “River IPA” — perfect for a relaxing Zambezi beer day — I find myself almost transported back home to the Pacific Northwest.Yes, please! Floating down the Zambezi River with a craft #VictoriaFalls brewery #beer sounds like the perfect day. #Zimbabwe
The concept of taking a specialty from another part of the world and using it as a means to mobilize the community and to make an impact socially, economically, and politically, is quite a feat, and one that River Brewing has accomplished.
The true heart of a microbrewery lies in the creativity and the ability to continuously experiment with new processes and flavor palettes to develop a unique product.
Innovation, community, and a passion for brewing lies at the heart of River Brewing, evidenced through both space and the product they have so intentionally crafted.
And with the roaring Victoria Falls cascading over the Zimbabwean jungle as the backdrop, the location might be just as close to perfect a microbrewery could dream of.
Have you visited this Victoria Falls Brewery?
Any other spots you think could contend for the beer African beer?
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