The first time I ever heard of Moses Lubega Musisi was a few weeks to this interview. He had been hosted on one of those Sunday evening radio programmes that only hosts the crème de la crème of the country’s achievers. I was shocked that I had never heard of this particular A-lister.
As a rule, individuals that are hosted on this particular programme are known by everyone owing to their incredible accomplishments and fame. I would soon learn that he was the brew master at Nile Breweries, the mysterious character that was always mentioned in snazzy beer ads with undertones of mysticism.
Meeting the brew master
And so I arrived for the interview in a panic. I had so much reverential fear of the man I was about to meet that I was at loss of how to conduct myself. But the moment I entered the room where he was seated, everything changed. He stood up from the expensive leather couch on which he was sitting, smiled and shook my hand in such a way that calmed my nerves and made me feel at home.
While I had pictured a mysterious man probably with a long samurai moustache and piercing eyes, wearing an Armani suit and a gold Rolex, the brew master in person keeps it simple. When he smiles, it is genuine and friendly.
From how he talks to how he dresses, an unmistakable aura of humility and level-headedness is conveyed. No airs, no snootiness, no self-importance. I have to admit, this slightly disappointed me. I mean, he’s the brew master himself!
Where it all started
His background in academia could be the only explanation for this modesty. Before joining Nile Breweries in 1999, Musisi was a biochemistry lecturer at Makerere University. His leanings to academia had been with him from a young age for as soon as he finished his undergrad degree in botany and zoology in 1986, Musisi had got himself a job in Eldoret, Kenya as a biology teacher in a secondary school. He had done that for about two years until he came back to Makerere in 1988 to work as an administrator in the the Faculty of Science, now renamed School of Science.
His love for academia would not allow him to work that job for long. In 1990, he won a scholarship in Europe and went off to Vienna University for a master’s degree in biochemistry and microbiology. Because the language of the lecture room was German, Musisi would spend the first four years of being at Vienna to learn and muster German before embarking on the degree. He would complete the master’s degree in 1998.
Joining the beer industry
That same year, Musisi returned home and immediately got a placement in the faculty of science as a lecturer.
“I had barely taught for a year when an advert appeared in the media in 1999 that caught my attention. A new company called SABMiller had just bought the majority shares of Nile Breweries from Madhvani and they wanted to improve the quality of the products. They wanted someone to set up a microbiological lab to help them in that effect. So I applied,” Musisi says.
Musisi got the job. His assignment consisted of two things: setting up a microbiological lab and assisting in checking the beer, microbiologically, for safety and consistency. Prior to this, beer was never tested this meticulously, and as such, it was hard to ascertain its constancy in taste and chemical properties. Quality assurance was his job at the company.
“During my time as a quality controller, I was fortunate to train as a brewer. I had gained some knowledge about industrial applications of microbiology from my studies abroad and brewing was one of them. So it was only natural that I apply some of that knowledge in a practical way,” he says.
The more he trained as a brewer, the clearer it became to him that there were some serious opportunities for innovation. He started researching sorghum beer. While Ugandans had been brewing sorghum beer for a long time, there was no modern equivalent of it on the market. His self-assigned job was to create a clear beer, where traditional skills had only managed an opaque beer, and at best, a translucent brew. Those were the beginnings of Musisi’s call as a brew master.
In 2001, after two years of working as a quality assurance manager while training as a brewer, and one year into his work on a sorghum beer, Musisi would be fortunate enough to work under the then technical director as a personal assistant. This only widened his repertoire of skills in the brewing industry and two years later, in 2003, Musisi’s invention was launched onto the market. Eagle Lager, a beer he had worked hard to create, was born.
He says, “It was the first clear beer made out of sorghum in the region, and the first sorghum beer by SABMiller.” Musisi became brew master for Nile Breweries soon after that.
What is a brew master?
“A brew master is the technical brand custodian. It means that you are making sure that the integrity of all brands is always intact and consistently the same. As brewers, we make specific promises for different brands. If we promise that a certain brand gives an easy drinking experience, my job as brew master is to make sure that the brand delivers exactly that,” he explains.
At the time, Musisi became brew master, almost all the raw materials used in the brewing of beer were imported. But because of his work with sorghum (coupled with other factors), the company’s stance on the matter changed.
Today, 90 per cent of all the materials are locally sourced. Which begs the question, why isn’t the beer cheaper today?
“It would be much more expensive if we had continued importing most of our materials,” the brew master answers.
He adds, “The two most important ones are barley malt and maize. Both these are grown in the country today in sufficient amounts. Our extensive agricultural programmes in Kabale and in Kapchorwa ensures that. Of course sorghum and sugar have always been grown by our people.”
Rising to the top
Six years after the brew master had created the Eagle, the maestro created another beer, Nile Gold. After this, Musisi was on top of his game.
The company’s flagship brand would go on to win three consecutive Grand Gold awards at Monde Selection competitions, in 2008, 2009 and 2010. These are competitions for quality awards where expert judges taste beers from around the world.
Beers are analysed chemically but also tasted the same way a consumer would. The beer is brought in glasses marked with numbers so that no judge knows what beer they are tasting.
They test the overall taste of the beer, its drinkability, and so on and give points. The accumulation of points makes it possible or impossible for you to win. Musisi would pick the award from Venice in 2009.
In 2012, Musisi was recognised as a brewing legend in South Africa for the contributions in the brewing industry. Musisi surely has a knack for creating beers that capture the imagination.