Seven years ago, Rui Estevens started brewing beer in Bavaria with his company “Brewers and Union Brewery”. But you couldn’t buy it there. Esteves brewed beer for South Africa, England, and China. But now it’s Germany’s turn.
Rui Vieira Estevens is the head of a South African brewery. At the moment, he is sitting with his laptop in a café in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. However, he is doing typical head-of-a-brewery stuff. It’s great, says the native of Portugal, closing his laptop: He’s totally flexible and is able to work from wherever he wants, because the South African brewery doesn’t actually physically exist. Estevens founded “Brewers and Union Brewery” seven years ago as a sort of gypsy-brewery. Long distance-gypsy. From the get-go he was brewing his beer in Belgium and Bavaria, but first sold them in South Africa, then in England, and later in China – and now, he wants to bring his beer to the German craft beer market. To work on his distribution network, as well as just to enjoy being in this city, Rui moved to Berlin a few weeks ago. He likes it. As long as he is still able to fly back to Africa every now and then – to go surfing.
Esteves orders an espresso. He gets the house blend. Coffeebeans from Kenya. Freshly ground, of course. Here in this café, Bonanza Coffee Roasters, they take coffee very, very seriously. They buy beans directly from the farmers, roast them themselves, offer a large variety of brews (talking coffee for a moment), value filter coffee, and don’t offer large lattes with added syrup. And that’s a good thing. The recent transplant to Berlin contentedly looks around and says: “All these people who specifically come to this place for the coffee will buy my beer as well.” He is confident, because he knows both well: the specialty coffee business and the craft beer market.
You’re the founder of Brewers and Union Brewery but not a brewer, are you?
No, I studied business psychology and consumer behavior, after which I worked in the coffee business for several years. We built a chain of coffee shops in South Africa and then sold it. Back then it was eight shops. Today I think it’s more than one hundred. In 2007 I started with beer. I like it more. Even though they both work pretty similarly, to be honest. When we first started in the coffee business, coffee was as bad as beer before the craft beer revolution: it was a product for the masses that people would consume daily without even thinking about it or setting a high value on quality. We began to sell coffee as a quality product that you consume and enjoy consciously. At the beginning you had to explain a lot, but eventually it ran itself. I think this happens naturally. The whole world is going in that direction: we’re against big corporations that impose their products on customers and sell tasteless crap. I actually think this could happen to any everyday product. Maybe bread is next.
Does it work the same, even in different countries? For instance, how about South Africa and the craft beer boom – when did it arrive?
Actually we initiated it by founding Brewers & Union Brewery in 2007. Back then there were only four breweries in the whole country that you could even think of labeling as “craft”. Today there are about eighty. Or take the UK for example: four to five years ago, there basically wasn’t any craft beer, but in the last two years this trend has gone through the roof. At its most basic level, I think craft beer succeeds in the same way everywhere; there are simply some countries in which it occurs faster than in others. In Germany you still have to overcome some barriers of diehard beer drinkers – and even they have lost that prejudice that German beer that needs to be brewed in a specific way to be the best beer in the world.
Why did you decide to brew in Germany long before it came into consideration as a distribution market? Why such a long road?
In fact, we started in Belgium and brewed there for three years. I only went to Germany every now and then to have a look around but in doing that I noticed something: I love working with Germans. It works fantastically. 100 percent reliability. Germans, or to be precise, German brewers occasionally are accused of lacking creativity. I don’t know if that’s correct for the majority, but I know if you find the right people, you can get very creative with them and they immediately are ready and open to brewing beer differently. And bare in mind, for them this brings a certain risk of scaring away their regulars. I have to point out: you can’t accuse only the brewers of lacking creativity. It also rests on the customers that for a long time only wanted to drink the same beer. Furthermore, I think our concept of brewing here works perfectly: there are a lot of small to medium sized breweries in Germany that can’t utilize their maximum capacities by themselves and therefore are perfectly suited to rent out part of their space.
And what about the German craft beer market? Just as awesome?
Yes, even though there are, of course, some challenges. At the moment, I don’t have any distribution yet. Which, by the way, is complicated for small breweries everywhere in the world, since the corporations with their monopolies and contracts pretty much ruined the market. Then we have the German bottle deposit system, which we have to somehow deal with. And of course keeping the balance in supply and demand. Again, the same problems for everyone everywhere: on the one hand you don’t want to overproduce. On the other hand, if business really takes off you don’t want to tell your customers, sorry, there’s no more beer. So all in all it’s not an easy business, but we know our biggest obstacles. We aren’t starting from scratch, we’ve had our business running for seven years and we have good sales in three countries.
China sounds interesting. Do you also sell it there as “craft beer”?
Yes, they are already catching up. Dark beer sells really well, better than anywhere else, and of course IPA. At the moment – and I think this will work in Germany as well – we sell our Sunday Easy IPA pretty well. It seems to be a trend in general: the beers that are a little lighter are more in demand.
- Brewers and Union Brewery
Rui Esteves, Berlin
- Most popular beers:
Sunday IPA, Handwerk IPA