Diverse, hospitable & intensely innovative: taking a look at the African bar scene
From Andrew Wilkins
The world of bartending has for so long been focused on the heavyweight regions of the US, Europe and Asia – but not for much longer. Many other centres of influences are emerging across the globe. One of these is in Africa, where a whole host of innovative bars, bartenders, distillers and brewers are making waves.
As we can’t travel as far and wide as before, it’s crucial to keep up contact and understanding across the entire bartending community. And that’s why the African scene made an apt topic for this year’s Pouring Digital online conference. Jody Francis, Brand Ambassador at Inverroche, was the moderator for the discussion, which included a cast list of some of the African bartending scenes brightest names. He spoke to names from behind the stick, including Sabrina Traubner, head bartender at Athletic Social Club (Cape Town), Terry Sowah, head bartender at Frontback Bar and Michael Stephenson, owner operator of Lucky Shaker (Durban). Completing the lineup were Dee Abudu, Nigerian brand ambassador at Almaca Tequila and Peter Lebese, an experienced bartender who is now beverage director at SIP exclusive. What a lineup!
Read on for the scoop on what they discussed, to find how the African bar scene stacks up on the world stage. Whether it’s impressing in prestigious competitions, the levels of service and hospitality, or the use of local ingredients to make innovative and creative drinks, it’s clear that the bartending scene on the African continent is no slouch.
Local ingredients are the ace in the pack
There is so much flora and fauna unique to Africa, and our speakers expertly conveyed how bartenders on the continent are using this to help them craft great, highly innovative drinks. “Africa is blessed with right climate and topography for spice and botanicals,” claimed Terry Sowah. “I feel if bartenders then apply the right techniques in making their drinks, we are going to blow the minds of the rest of the world.”
“Africa looks hardy, but there’s beautiful notes coming out of it,” smiles Peter Lebese. He highlighted the diversity of South Africa and the topography of its’ different regions. There’s the Western Cape, home to the smallest of the world's six floral kingdoms, the Cape Floral Kingdom. Here you can find huge amounts of fynbos and rooibos – both indigenous to South Africa. Rooibos is being used by bartenders to make spirits, infusions, and tinctures, for example. Then there’s Grahamstown with its confetti bush and the Durban region with its tropical and floral botanicals, including African ginger. Plus, the Highveld highlands with their florals, including black and red carrot. That’s a whole host of natural resources South African bartenders have at their disposal – and something that can’t be replicated elsewhere.
African hospitality is renowned for its warmth and welcoming nature
Alongside the unique flora and fauna, Africa is renowned for its welcoming and familial vibe. “Within Africa, we’re all naturally inclined to be hospitable. We’re closer to our families than people are in the West. And the African wedding is the biggest show of hospitality in our culture,” said Dee Abudu, referencing a wedding he attended with over 2000 attendees. This innate warmth and hospitality naturally translates into the continents’ bars and drinking establishments. For Sabrina, she notes how when she’s home, she gets that “homey feeling”. “We are family orientated, and when you come back and go visit the bar, everyone says ‘hey how are you doing’?” she says. “It’s personable and hospitable.”
These bonds and relationships will be crucial to help the bar biz recover from the impact of COVID-19. “This year you rely on the regular guests a lot more,” says Michael Stephenson. “It’s the most important element actually and we noticed the symbiotic relationship immediately when we reopened (after the lockdown)”.
However, despite this, they discussed the improvements in service still to come. He mentions how standards in service differ across the continent, with more developed standards in the likes of Ghana, South Africa and Senegal – something which is down to different factors. Dee notes a number of potential reasons, including a lack of investment in training and staff, a low minimum wage or the lack of a tipping culture in some nations.
Education is becoming more crucial – and it’s making an impact
One topic Jody posed to our guests was about education. How accessible is it in the African countries? Michael mentioned that many schools have launched in the region, from brands including the Diageo Bar Academy and Bacardi Varsity – but there’s also been movement from more independent operations. He noted the likes of Shaker, who have arrived in Africa offered focused programs, as well as a number of local-run schools. Furthermore, there’s been a surge in bartenders enrolling for digital programs, where they can receive official certifications. “It’s never been easier as an African bartender and this should continue over the next years,” smiled Michael.
But it’s not just about external certificates, but ensuring venues have learning and education embedded into their culture. “I 100% believe it starts at the top and goes down,” said Sabrina, who believes that there needs to be an active role played by owner operators in education. It’s great to see owners investing in new staff, but too many are relying on schools run by brands. Instead, they need to educate their staff in everything, from being a barback to playing with flavors and coming up with new drinks. “The more versatile you become, the better you will be,” she says. And according to Pete, it’s already becoming that way in South Africa, with more educated owners and educated bar teams springing up across the country.
And next up: it’s time for the rest of world to learn about African bartending!
Restrictions on imports are an opportunity for African bartenders
According to our speakers, African bartenders are thriving despite the fact there’s less imports of unique spirits and beverages from the rest of the world. “We’re always looking to see what we can do next and what types of weird combinations we can put together,” said Sabrina. She described how their situation enables them to be a “little more innovative and push creative boundaries.” Furthermore, there’s all the traveling bartenders who go abroad for competitions and come back home, sharing their knowledge and the products they bring back.
But there’s also a whole host of great local products coming out of the continent. Mike mentioned a host of award-winning brandies (the likes of Van Ryn and Oude Meester) and gins (the likes of Inverroche and the Woodstock Gin Company). There’s even a whole host of agave produced spirits! “South Africa, and Africa in general, are tapping into local produce in a big way,” he said. “And the world is starting to take notice.”
International competitions are taking note
Our final topic was on the international competition scene – and how African bartenders are faring on the stage. There’s been a whole host of successful entrants in recent years, including South African Travis Kuhn (Vicious Virgin, Cape Town) who made it to the 2018 Diageo World Class final and Johnson Wisdom Dogbe (Little Havana, Accra) who came third in the Havana Grand Prix in 2017. This is despite the fact that sometimes it’s difficult for competing bartenders in Africa to have the same access to bar tools and equipment, as those in Europe and the US for instance.
“(The recent successes) have motivated us further, telling us that we can go to the top,” says Terry. He spoke about his success and experience at the 2019 Rémy Martin global competition – which he won! “What I learnt was that there’s a strong bond between participants despite the distance in cultures and beliefs,” he said. “We still talk from last year! Whether it’s to ask for advice or discuss projects. It really showed me that bartending is a global community.”
For Dee, this is just the tip of the iceberg. “I believe we have the resources in Africa to fare a lot better in these int. comps,” he says. “We have so much to bring to give us the edge. Once we tap into that, we’ll do even better.”
Thanks to our speakers for the great chat at BCB Pouring Digital!