By now, the amazing story of Zulu Blonde is well known – how the craft beer perfected in a back room of the George Hotel in Eshowe was voted the number-one brew at a major British ale festival.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of litres of Zulu Blonde have been sold internationally by brew master and entrepreneur Richard Chennells, who is still in Eshowe, running a range of projects aimed primarily at drawing tourists to the George Hotel.
It is not the usual place from which to build an international beer brand, but Chennells is not one for doing things in the usual way.
Growing up in Eshowe in a family of sugar cane farmers, he never had any doubt that he would become an entrepreneur. At school – Michael House in the Natal Midlands – he ran a tuck shop and sold Dr Martin shoes to pay for his parties. “It was all about making money and drinking beer. So nothing’s changed,” he jokes.
He tried studying business formally for a few months after school, but decided to rather do it his own way, and headed for London where he landed a job as a waiter. He worked his way up to become a chef at a top London restaurant while working as an accountant by day and ended up as an investment banker specialising in credit derivatives despite his lack of a degree. In a few years, he had moved from one of the lowest paying jobs in London to one of the highest. He was there for the money, he says, and now that he had made it, he got bored.
Chennells quit banking and went to study beer brewing in the United States and visited as many breweries as he could all over the world. When his mother fell ill in 2005 he came home to Eshowe, where he bought the George Hotel from his father.
He has been busy ever since “putting Eshowe on the map” with a mind-boggling array of projects, including Zululand Eco-Adventures, aimed at international tourists, birding tours, walking safaris, golf-and-beer weekends aimed at drawing South Africans to the George Hotel, the Inyezane Collection of designer furniture which started when he asked local artist Peter Engblom to help refurbish the hotel’s furniture, and of course Zulu Blonde.
It started off as the hotel’s house ale, perfected by Chennells in a small back-room brewery at the hotel in the days before the craft beer movement took off. International guests consistently raved about it, and Chennells started punting the recipe and brand, first to the local beer giants and then to European breweries. He had so many rejections that most people would have given up, but Chennells’ style is to knock on door after door until one of them opens. “I should change the name (of the George Hotel) to the Perseverance Hotel,” he says.
The break came when he got a call from one of the breweries in the UK to brew a batch of Zulu Blonde for the JD Whetherspoons International Real Ale Festival in 2010. The beer was sold in 800 pubs, flew off the shelves, and was voted the best ale out of 50 entrants in the competition.
Since then the challenge has been to find brewery capacity for orders that keep streaming in, resulting in sales of more than $1m so far.
How does he manage to run a budding international beer brand, a hotel, several tourist projects, and, by the way, another guest house called Sugar Hill Manor in Eshowe?
Good staff, says Chennells. “My passion and drive is not managing, which I’d say is my weakest point. I’m good at marketing. My drive is to get business in.”
Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) spotted that drive when Chennells approached them for finance in 2011, and it became an important consideration in giving him a loan which he needed to upgrade the hotel.
Chennells at first thought he had successfully arranged a bank loan, but the bank pulled out at the last minute. He subsequently knocked on the door of every bank, but got nowhere. “The minute you say ‘hotel’ and you’re not part of one of the big groups, they’re not interested,” says Chennells. “And when you say ‘Eshowe’, they’re even less interested.”
BUSINESS/PARTNERS, he says, looked at the potential of the venture and was willing to take a risk by giving him the loan, which he is about to pay back in full.
It is difficult to predict what the next big thing is for Chennells, who says he tends to “try twenty things, and maybe five of them work”. One major current project is to try to buy what he calls the best beer making machine in the world, which he wants to install at the George Hotel. But to meet the R130m price tag of the German turn-key brewery, he has to convince several investors and brewers first, so he is back to knocking on doors again. Given his track record, chances are that one of them will open.