By Louis Livingston-Garcia

Nestled in the Great Rift Valley of Central Africa, Rwanda is famous for its many hills, highly-lauded coffee beans, and mesmerizing mountain gorillas. And in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, craft beer is pouring through draft lines at Kweza Brewery at a pace that might soon make it another point of pride. 

Licensed in 2021, Kweza began with a Kickstarter campaign in 2016 thanks to Fina Uqineza, a Rwandan; and Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co. Being women-owned and women-led makes it a particularly rare and important venture in craft beer globally. Kweza, which means harvest and purity in Kinyarwanda, is on a mission to empower women and ensure they succeed in positions throughout the industry. 

American Jessi Flynn, Managing Director and Co-Founder of Kweza Craft Brewery, was a Craft Maltsters Guild scholarship recipient in 2022. These scholarships provide an opportunity to attend the Craft Malt Conference and join the Guild as members for free, and are overseen by the Guild’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion task force. Flynn’s drive to learn more about malt and ability to apply new knowledge to a real-world challenge made her a particularly competitive candidate.

Locally sourced African ingredients such as sorghum malt are used in Kweza’s beers. Sorghum grains are traditionally malted by women in Rwanda, and Kweza uses upwards of 80 percent of sorghum malts as a beer base in beers like its Belgian Honey Blonde Ale, named Ubuki. The brewery’s beer is inspired by local ingredients, and historically, Ikigage beer is an opaque sorghum beer often brewed with honey. With malt being such an intricate part of Kweza, the scholarship was a boon for Flynn and those rooting for Kweza’s success. 

“Participating in the program impacted in expanding our network and cultivated valuable contacts in the malting community, as well as learning technical information,” Flynn says. “The program enabled me to connect with some of the best maltsters.”

Flynn was able to follow up with these maltsters and nurture important relationships regarding equipment, sorghum varieties, and malting techniques. 

“In Rwanda, there is no commercial malting facility,” Flynn explains. “This program gave us the information needed to work with Rwandan women who are traditional maltsters, and apply more technical knowledge to develop a higher quality and consistency of our supply chain.”

Kweza’s malt project was developed with the Rwandan agricultural company, Kigali Farms, who has infrastructure needed to malt sorghum. The program is currently producing 10,000 kg, or 22,000 lbs of malt a year. 

For Kweza’s grand opening, Flynn and the brewery’s team wanted to share the day with others; so they invited brewers from several countries who helped them develop the business plan, equipment scale, supply chains, and more.

“Once we saw the amazing crew of brewers we would have together in Rwanda for our grand opening on Umuganura/Harvest Day, we knew we wanted to do something special together – like make a beer,” Flynn explains. 

Brewers from South Africa, Nigeria, Botswana, and other countries joined a Zoom call to kick off ideas. Kweza’s brew team of Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela, Tapiwa Charosa, and Brian Magee developed a Belgian wit inspired-style beer for Umuganura, which is the annual celebration of Rwanda’s sorghum harvest. The collaboration was sweet and malty, with a faint note of honey and sold out in a short time in the taproom this past summer. 

“(It’s) a grain so important to the country it’s on the national crest, and was traditionally celebrated with the drinking of sorghum beer,” Flynn explains. “The recipe and brew were led by female brewers from South Africa, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, with other brewers from Kenya, Canada, and Botswana joining with interest in how to brew with sorghum. We celebrated this day along with the Grand opening of our new brewery.” 

While hops hog the spotlight with beer, African tradition is paving the way for malt— specifically sorghum. It may not yet be a grain you see in other countries often, but Flynn is confident Kweza will be able to help spread the ingredient as others learn more about it from them. 

“We have seen more and more interest in African grain based beers in the current day brewing industry since we started,” says Flynn,“which is part of our mission.”

While beers like Silverback Oatmeal Stout at Kweza might remind you of the animals many see yearly in Rwanda, very soon Kweza will be known for something else: leading women into the craft beverage space, and paving the way for sorghum to be an ingredient more breweries use around the world in their beers. 

Photos courtesy Kweza Craft Brewery