Through coups, conflicts and other upheavals, one constant for many West African countries has been the presence of a national beer. After going years without one, Guinea-Bissau is now hoping to revive its own local beer tradition following the reopening of its only beer factory.
The sound of clinking bottles echoes in the humming Pampa beer factory, Guinea-Bissau's lone brewery located along a long, dusty road in the country's sleepy capital of Bissau.
The former Portuguese colony of 1.6 million people is now in the midst of a slight identity crisis when it comes to beer. Pampa resumed production in March after a long hiatus but has yet to recapture the market it once enjoyed against Portuguese competitors, as well as the highly popular seasonal drinks of cashew juice and wine. Guinea-Bissau's chief export is cashews, making it something akin to the snack nut capital of West Africa.
Pampa's marketing director, Ben Nair Lopes da Costa, does not think they have much to worry about, though.
She says the group that is now in charge of Pampa is more stable than previous owners, the quality of the beer has improved and the factory's technicians have better experience.
Pampa has had quite a bumpy history over the last few decades, not unlike Guinea-Bissau itself. The brand was founded by Portuguese investors just as the country gained its independence in 1974, only to be nationalized and purchased by Guineans a few years later. The company changed hands a few more times after that, before the brand had to shut down completely in 1998 when the country's economy broke down due to a two-year civil war.
Yet somehow, surviving near bankruptcy and wars, Pampa has persisted. At the end of 2010, a group of Moroccan investors under the title Holding ABC, Incorporated bought the company outright and rebooted the brand.
Inside the factory, a large copper vat contains all the ingredients that give Pampa its crisp and tangy malt flavor. Da Costa says the key to Pampa's unique, if slightly acquired flavor, is the water.
She says they use Guinea-Bissau's natural mineral water pumped from 160 meters below the ground.
According to market research, Guineans consume, on average, 15 to 20 million liters of beer annually. Pampa's target is to sell three million liters by the end of the year and 10 percent more each year after that.
In its pre-war heyday, it sold about five million liters annually.
But competition still poses challenges for the company. Portuguese import Cristal is pervasive in cafes and bars around town. And cashew wine, in season right now, is a potent and bitter fermented contender that retails on the street for less than a $1.
Da Costa says Pampa's biggest obstacle is it has to import 90 percent of its materials from abroad, including malt, sugar, bottles, caps and shipping cartons. Da Costa adds that Cristal has a competitive advantage over Pampa because it doesn't have the problem of import taxes, as well as interruption in supply.
In fact, the malt Pampa has to import comes from Belgium by way of Portugal. Still, Pampa's owners think Guineans will slowly come around and hope to capitalize on this thirst for a hometown brew. After all, Senegal has Flag and Gazelle, Ghanians drink Star, and Gambians can chill beachside with an icy Julbrew.
Da Costa says Guineans prefer Pampa when they try it and are very nationalistic and proud of local products. They want to support their own economy.
Guinea-Bissau's Lone Brewery Hopes to Tap National Pride
A visual survey of one of Bissau's popular nightclubs showed most of its patrons drinking Cristal. A waiter named Alberto says people are aware that Pampa is available again, but they still gravitate toward imported beer. Both Cristal and Pampa sell for around $1 or $1.50 depending on the spot, so the price factor just isn't that significant.
And what about Guinea-Bissau's high ranking officials and elites, will they drink a local brew over imported? When asked his preference, Guinea-Bissau's Attorney General Amine Michel Saad wrinkled his nose before diplomatically stating he's a "whiskey man."