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The Sandbank Brewing Co.: A once-a-year (or lifetime) experience

Photos by Owen Green

After a long day in the saddle, do mountain bikers really like the taste of an original craft beer or are they happy to kick off their riding shoes and relive their adventures over another Coors Light? This was a question my wife and I had to answer back in 2015 when we were planning the first ever FQM 1Zambia MTB race, a three-day mountain bike (MTB) stage race originating at Lilayi Lodge in Lusaka, Zambia and finishing at Kiambi Lodge on the Zambezi River. What we came up with as a reward for finishing is that riders would receive free homebrewed beer shortly after crossing the finish line. Both mountain bike riders and homebrewers are dedicated enthusiasts, pushing each further . . . so it seemed like the perfect pairing.

Zambia in south-central Africa only has one registered craft brewery in the country and few dedicated mountain bikers. However, as a community we have a desire for adventure and for trying something new. We are not afraid to step out into the unknown. So after seeing craft beer and mountain bike stage racing gaining popularity around the world, it was only a matter of time before the FQM 1Zambia MTB stage race was born. As local Lusaka residents, my wife Ilke and I are the race directors and hosts for this small boutique-type race with a limit of 120 participants to maintain a more genuine, personal feel.

The route for the race is brimming with undulating cattle and goat tracks; local village foot paths; custom-built, bench-cut, single-track traverses; remote jeep tracks; and open district roads through the African bush. To complete the race, riders must navigate through +/- 250 km (155 miles) of scenic terrain with only GPS tracks to guide them. The terrain is made up of rolling hills, ancient miombo wood forests, and crystal-clear streams as it drops from Lusaka through a remote escarpment and ever down into the Zambezi Valley, 500 km (310 miles) south of Victoria Falls.

Alas, these beers can only be found on only one day of the year on a sandbank of the Zambezi River.

Since craft beer is hard to come by in Zambia, we decided to homebrew the beer. It all started in 2014 when craft beer was only really starting to gain popularity in southern Africa. Prior to brewing for the race, the most I had ever brewed was a pot of tea, so luckily I had a couple of friends who had brew kits and I leaned on them for advice. We ordered some Mangrove Jack’s ingredient kits and brewed up eight buckets of Pilsner. From there my hobby quickly progressed to an all-grain brewing kit using the Grainfather as the brewery and I have four Grainfather fermenters as well as a Grainfather glycol chiller. I gave my homebrewery a name I saw fitting — The Sandbank Brewing Co.

Once the last rider is in after the final stage, a flotilla of boats ferry riders and supporters to an island on the Zambezi River that serves as the venue for the sunset awards ceremony. Each rider receives a locally hand-crafted, hardwood bottle opener, their tool to explore a selection of beers and ciders diligently brewed by my wife and myself on our Grainfather system. In 2019 there was everything from IPAs and fruit beers to a Belgian strong ale and an English mild. The Sandbank Brewing Co. branding has proven so popular that there has been hope among locals that a new craft brewery was on the scene. Alas, these beers can only be found one day of the year on a sandbank of the Zambezi River.

Our world is crammed with excessive overlaps where lines are blurred between clever marketing and true authenticity. This is a special moment when adventure MTB meets homebrew bliss in a truly unique environment.