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Secrets of a distinguished beerman

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Originally Published: May 9 ,2009

At six feet plus, Donald Macdonald, 85, is head and shoulders above most men who walk the streets of Nairobi. If his towering height does not strike you, his hair — grey, shortly cropped, and standing on end like bristles on a paintbrush — most probably will.

But the real story of this Kenyan mzungu (white) is in a unique certificate he holds. Issued 50 years ago by the East African Breweries Limited (EABL), the certificate declares him Honourable Beer Taster Class 1.

Macdonald is the sole survivor of the 13 people awarded such certificates back in 1959. The distinction came with a fitting prize; a lifetime supply of a beer brand of his choice. All he needs to do is collect a crate of his preferred beer at the end of every month.

7,200 litres

To date he has collected 600 crates of beer, which translate to 14,400 bottles of the frothy drink or 7,200 litres.

“This might seem excessive, but I am a man of moderation. I do a bottle a day which helps with my digestion,” Macdonald said during an interview with Lifestyle on Tuesday.

“He has never missed a collection. If he stays for four months without coming for his crate, he backdates them when he eventually shows up,” said Wanjiku Mugo, a marketing executive with EABL.

Macdonald, or “Mac D” as he is fondly referred to by the EABL staff, said he initially found this routine hectic.

“I had to go queue at the beer factory with all the major beer distributors. There I was with my Chevrolet eagerly waiting for my crate while sandwiched between Ford trucks collecting truckloads. A whole day could easily get swallowed at Ruaraka.”

In subsequent years, he managed to convince the brewers to let him take his lifelong prize after several months. A deal he has enjoyed to this day. In return, EABL staff say in true African spirit, he never shows up empty-handed.

“He always has a basket of fruit cake or mangoes for us,” said Ms Mugo.

Born in Nairobi’s Westlands area in 1924, Mr Macdonald has lived the life of an adventurer.

Drafted into the army

At 19, the Nairobi School (it was then known as the Prince of Wales School) alumnus was drafted into the Army to help the British empire repel the advancement of Adolf Hitler’s Germany on her African colonies.

“Along with many other boys my age, we were shipped to Somaliland to halt the supposed advancement of the Germans but all we saw were Italians. But we couldn’t ask questions that would make others uncomfortable. That was the Army. You get in and follow orders. If not, someone might accuse you of mutiny and shoot you,” he joked.

He, however, admits that he saw little of the battlefront in his five years at His Majesty’s service.

“I was enrolled in the engineering brigade owing to my experience at an engineering firm,” he said. He had served for one year on attachment at Caterpillar, a company that deals with earth moving equipment.

“My involvement with the company guaranteed me an Army slot in the engineering brigade in relative safety from the war field gunpowder and bayonets,” he said.

For him, the Army was a learning experience that helped shape his later life. From the battlefields, he said, he derived self-discipline and respect for human life.

“One wrong move, one act of indiscipline and the only memory your family would have of you is a wartime medal. You had to stay the course charted by those you were entrusted to. Amid that sadness of death and destruction, you still had to maintain a sense of joy and happiness,” he added.

Thus, once in a while he and a number of friends in the Army would venture into River Juba and spend a day off work sport-hunting.

“One day while we were on the river chasing hogs, I ran out of breath and fell to the back of the pack. I was a pretty fit lad. I had no joint aches or pains elsewhere but I had a lit cigarette on one hand. I took a look at it and figured it was doing something wrong to my body. I threw it in the water. That was the last cigarette I ever lit,” he said.

At the end of the war, he returned to Kenya and picked up where he had left with the company he was working for before.

The company then transferred him to Tanzania (then Tanganyika) where he worked as an engineer in the woods high up on Mt Kilimanjaro.

After the brief stint in Tanzania, he returned to Kenya, got married and changed jobs. Although, as he put it, his first love was engineering and the second his wife, he soon discovered a mistress that took up a big part of his working life — his award-winning palate.

“I discovered that I could distinguish tastes other people found hard to differentiate. There was an opening for a coffee taster at Dorman’s Coffee Millers. I applied and got the job and stayed on for 23 years until my retirement in 1983,” he said.

After retirement, he discovered joy in restoring antique cars. If differentiating coffee tastes gave him a job, another kind of taste would give him a lifetime distinction.
On October 10, 1959, he heard of a beer tasting competition in Nairobi.

“Other than the idea of free beer, I am a natural beer drinker. In combination, these two elements provided quite a temptation,” he said.

Wedding anniversary

However, there was a problem. As if fate was conspiring to make him miss out on what he thought would turn out to be an interesting evening, the date coincided with another important date in his life.

It was his 12th wedding anniversary. He figured out that going for the beer fest would not endear him to his wife.

“Timidly, I mentioned the beer tasting festival to her in the middle of a conversation. I quickly told her that I could not attend it because it was our anniversary and that I wanted to take her to a nice cosy place,” said Macdonald.

His wife simply told him that she thought it would be better if he went and that they would make other arrangements later. And off he went.

“I was just going for the free beer but once there I found a pretty different atmosphere. The pub had a competitive air to it,” he said.

The beer tasting competition was in different stages. Participants were put in small rooms presumably to prevent them from cheating. With them they had a questionnaire, a pencil and coloured glasses filled with different brands of beer.

And the task? Drink from each glass and answer related questions on the questionnaires like which of the beers is the strongest? Or, which of the beers is imported?

Only those who answered all questions correctly proceeded to the next round, which was similar to the first, but with different beer brands. Macdonald proceeded and once again got all questions correct.

“I had a few beer basics. Normally, the more bitter of the brands is the more expensive. Which translates to the more intoxicating one,” he said.

But the judges had one more test for him. They asked him how he knew all the answers.

“I became a bit cocky. I told them that all I knew was that if they laid out more glasses and subjected me to the same test, I would be spot on once more,” he said. “But I had an upper hand since at that time, only I knew that I was bluffing.”

Twelve other beer tasters were given the Honourable Beer Taster Class 1 certification that came with a lifetime’s supply of beer.

Macdonald says for the first few days he collected his crate just for kicks since he didn’t know if the brewer would keep its end of the bargain.

Simply a pledge

“There was no contract, it was simply a pledge and as the years went by, they kept honouring it,” he said.

The 85-year-old has seen managements at the brewer come and go. He has passed through the doors of the brewery more times than some of the most loyal of employees at the firm.

“In the past, he would come in at certain times and find a new employee who had no idea what the pledge was all about and he had to explain why he had come to collect a certain amount of crates,” said Ms Mugo.

Nowadays, that has been made simple. The company gave him a letter instructing whoever markets his brand of choice to give the gentleman his crate once.

Macdonald is the sole survivor of the original 13 winners. He is sad that he never got to meet any of the others but he believes he has ridden his luck to exhaustion. He told Lifestyle that it is time for him to raise his glass of Allsops Lager one last time and toast to a life well lived.

He is opting out of the 50-year old deal between him and East Africa Breweries.

“The pledge only holds on the condition that I am a Kenyan resident. Since I will be moving out of the country visiting family and friends, I thought it would seem unfair to come and claim my prize six months after I was last in Kenya,” he said.

He has lost his parents, an elder brother and two sons. He said he thought it was time he reconnected with the rest of his family of two daughters, a son and an elder brother, all of whom reside outside Kenya. But this does not mean he will stay out forever.

“Kenya is in my blood. Only a fool runs away from himself,” he said.

Almost 40 years ago, he said his older brother was convinced by a group of Canadians to migrate to the North American country promising him unlimited career opportunities.

Home is best

“He ended up working in an underground iron ore mine for two years. This was hell for someone who was used to the rolling Kenyan plains. Home is always best,” he said.

But on the occasions that he will be away from Kenya, he said he would miss many things from the land of his birth, except his Kenyan beer because it is available in many places where he travels.

On a trip to the American city of New Orleans, the capital of the Blues genre of music, he said he once enjoyed a bottle of Tusker Export on one hand while his other hand was tapping along to the sounds of Louis Armstrong’s crooning.

“I will miss the ‘Kenyanness’ most,” he said. “I have travelled widely but there’s no place like Kenya. Here life is not in black and white. It’s more of a rainbow. Elsewhere, things get pretty boring pretty fast.”

Just as he has seen the taste of locally brewed beer change and mature to what he calls “fine quality” he has also seen Kenya, in particular Nairobi, march on in a journey to embrace modernity.

“There was a time Nairobi had only five taxis. Three opposite the General Post Office and two outside The Stanley Hotel. You knew everyone you met on the streets. Now every face you see is a stranger’s,” he said.

He will also miss restoring old cars some of which he has showcased at several editions of the Concours d’Elegance motor show. “I’m not a perfectionist so I never won the first prize. But whatever positions I managed came with a wallet full of money,” he said with a wry smile that characterised most of the conversation.

Is there anything he would do differently if given the chance? “I would choose the same path I chose then. Make similar decisions that would result in the same outcome. Nowadays people carry too much physical and emotional baggage around. The body was designed for light travel, so keep it that way,” he said.

And the secret to longevity? “Moderation”.

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