Sunday, January 17, 2016

Leopoldville 1957 - Battle of the breweries

On September 8, 1957, the Bracongo Brewery in Leopoldville hired an ex-convict named Patrice Lumumba to work in its accounting department.  Securing employment was a condition for his release from prison and his selection for this particular position had support at the highest levels of the Colonial government, including the office of then Colonial Minister Buisseret. Bracongo was considered to be more liberal than the church-leaning Brasserie de Leopoldville (renamed Bralima via merger in that year) (See June 12,2015). Within a year Lumumba was promoted to Commercial Director, the first Congolese to hold such a position.
Patrice Lumumba around the time he was hired at Bracongo
The brewery recognized that an articulate, charismatic Congolese who could go into the cité and meet with its customers would be more effective than a white man.  In addition, such promotion of a Congolese to a level of responsibility – and salary – of a European could only improve the brewery’s image in the eyes of African consumers. For Lumumba, it was also an opportunity to make contacts to support his political aspirations.
The competition - Bralima's Primus on order (Photo Jean Depara)
Polar poster at a bar in Leopoldville
Lumumba began promoting Bracongo’s “Polar” beer.  He frequented bars in the African cité and handed out chits for free beer. He hired other promoters to tour the bars, created both male and female “Friends of Polar” clubs, sponsored meetings of ethnic associations (the proto-political parties of the time) and provided the product for funeral wakes.   Polar began to make inroads in the Leopoldville market, particularly among Congolese from Kasai Province (where Lumumba was from) and the upper Congo River (Lumumba had been a postal agent in Stanleyville, today’s Kisangani).
"Mamans Polar"
Polar beer coaster
After 15 months on the job, Lumumba quit to actively engage in politics.  Many of the bars he’d supported now served as meeting places for his party, the Mouvement National Congolais. He remained highly identified with the beer, and bar patrons were known to order in Lingala, “Pesa ngai Lumumba” (Give me a Lumumba).  Polar was bottled in a slender green bottle, and as the political contest to become leader of Independent Congo sharpened between him and shorter, stouter Joseph Kasavubu (See June 30, 2015), Congolese pundits lost no time in linking the latter to Bralima’s squat round bottle.
Polar publicity at the Grand Marche
Leopoldville bar patrons - Primus or Polar?
Lumumba was murdered in Katanga January 17, 1961 -- less than 7 months as Prime Minister.  After Lumumba’s assassination, Bracongo replaced Polar with a new brew called SKOL, pundits again made politics out of poculation asserting SKOL stood for “Solo Kasavubu Obomaki Lumumba?” (Is it true, Kasavubu, that you killed Lumumba?).
SKOL bottle label
During the difficult economic times that followed Independence, the breweries remained a mainstay of the local economy.   By the end of the 1960s, both Bralima and Bracongo (now Unibra) completed plant upgrading and expansion programs.  Unibra increased production to 10,000 hectoliters per month and trained Congolese staff for increased responsibility, including a master brewer. 
Unibra beer coaster
During the mid-1960s, Unibra received unsolicited publicity when the CIA’s “instant air force” staffed by anti-Castro Cubans (See Jan. 27, 2014) adopted the brewery’s black buffalo logo as its mascot. The Cuban force was known as “Makasi” (“strong” in Lingala).
US-supplied B-26 at a forward airfield
At the beginning of the 1970s, Bralima decided to get into the retail business and procured materials from the UK for an English Tudor-style pub, which opened as “Kin’s Inn” in 1972 on Blvd. du Trente Juin.  Kin’s Inn became the Orangeraie in 1988, but Kinois can still enjoy the faux Tudor décor at this venerable eatery.
L'Orangeraie interior - 2000s
In October 1973, a new contender appeared on the brewery scene, the Société des Brasseries de Kinshasa (SBK), owned by the French Castel group.  SBK produced luxury brands Regla, Okapi and Super Bock.
SBK's finest
November 30, 1973 Mobutu announced the Zairianization measures (See Mar. 20, 2015), which had significant effect on the economy. SBK, developed under the 1969 Investment code was exempt, but Bralima and Unibra, as colonial companies, were fair game. A Mobutu crony, Litho Moboti, (See Sep. 12, 2011) obtained a seat on the Bralima board. As the Zairian economy began a downturn (the 1973 oil shock did not help), Zairianization was seen as the primary culprit.  When in September 1975, soldiers of the Forces Armées Zairoise (FAZ) were not paid, they threatened to loot Zairianized stores in the capital. An order went out to find cash, and Bralima, among others made payroll.  An attempt by the government to nationalize Bralima in 1977 failed. Strikes wracked the city that July, and both Bralima and Unibra offered to raise wages 20%. Wildcat strikes hit the breweries in 1979, as well.  The pillages in 1991 and 1993 largely devastated the commercial and industrial bases of the city, but the breweries were largely spared.
SKOL beer coaster from the 1990s
In February 1996, the Brasseries et Glacières Internationales (BGI), part of the Castel Group, bought Unibra. SBK and Unibra were merged in April, though the Unibra brand was maintained in the Zaire market. The previous year, BGI acquired significant shares in the Katanga brewery, Brasimba, making it a significant player in the national market. Heineken was by now a majority shareholder in Bralima.  The firm acquired the Coca Cola bottling company assets in Congo. Bracongo produces Skol, Nkoyi, Doppel Munich, 33 Export in Kinshasa as well as Simba and Tembo in Katanga. Bralima attempted to enter the Katanga market, but Katangans were inured to the supposed cachet of the Capital’s premier beer, remaining true to their home brew.  Bralima recently introduced “N’Tay” (“eagle” in KiSwahili) for the local Katanga market.
Bracongo's Nkoyi targeted at the Kinshasa market
Publicity for Bralima's N'tay in Lubumbashi, Katanga
In June 2004, Bralima established a museum at its complex on Ave. du Drapeau (Kabasele Tshamala) in Kinshasa.  At the same time, the company demolished the 1920s era Art Deco structure which fronted the street for decades. In 2009, the 1946 VanNeuten building was abandoned, while retaining the brewing vats.
Bralima brewery headquarters - Ave du Drapeau, Kinshasa
Bralima's 50th Anniversary of Independence label
Omasombo, Jean & Benoit Verhaegen, 2005.  Patrice Lumumba Acteur Politique, CEDAF.


  1. amazing - teaching aime cesaire's season in the congo and this does such a great job in helping me teach the politics of beer in the early acts of the play. Thank you so much for the work!

  2. Hello, there’s a brewery in Venezuela, created in 1941, who’s name, as well as the beer, is Polar. I wonder if there’s any connection between the Polar beer in Congo and the one in Venezuela. Would anyone know?