He was living the London dream—dining in the best restaurants and wearing Armani suits, while he worked as an investment portfolio manager at the London Stock Exchange, without any qualifications. He gave it all up to become a small-town brewer in the sugar cane fields 115km outside of Durban, South Africa.
This is the life of Richard Chennells, a journey that began and ended in Eshowe, a small town of 14,000 people in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. His father’s hotel business was struggling, after he graduated, Chennells helped build a backpackers lodge behind the hotel to revive the business, and then introduced tours to attract tourists.
Chennells got on well with the backpackers who came to the hotel, and they sparked his interest in travel. One day, he took R1,000 ($100) from his father’s till and headed to London. After converting his cash at Heathrow Airport, he headed to a friend’s house.
“After I got to my friend’s place from the airport in a taxi, I had £40 ($61) in my pocket,” says Chennells.
To make money, he waitered at a restaurant and then, when two of the chefs resigned, he became a reluctant chef working in the kitchen. After a while, he dropped his day shifts and took on work at accounting firms. Then, he got a lucky break and took a job at the London Stock Exchange’s finance and accounting department for a few months.
This started his career in banking and for the next four years he worked at various investment banks. For most of his banking career, he dealt mainly with payments and trades. He says they paid good money but he found everything a bit of a bore.
“You are just another number in a cubicle. I was matching trades, authorizing massive payments and doing a few… currency exchanges, looking after big clients, nothing too special. I didn’t have a clue about banking but I learnt as I went. I was doing relatively well, money was not a problem. It was all fun and games, but it didn’t make me tick,” says Chennells.
His search for adventure and purpose saw him take off the Armani suit after work and get his hands dirty at a brewery in London. He spent his weekends visiting pubs and breweries to learn more about beer.
“My friends thought I was crazy. They were climbing the corporate ladder, but I was doing a complete U-turn,” he says.
And then he took a bold step. He gave up his job to go to the United States to study at the American Brewers Guild in California. He planned to further his studies in Germany—the beer capital—but had to return home because his mother had been diagnosed with cancer. He initially thought that he would stay by her side through a few weeks’ course of chemotherapy, but she passed away suddenly.
A few weeks became a few years and saw the creation of a brewery that is as unusual as the career of the man who runs it. It is housed in the premises of the old Zululand Stock Exchange and is also the smallest brewery in South Africa. It produces 3,000 liters of beer a month, from six canisters—two for fermentation and four for storage.
Chennells says the idea behind the brewery was to get people to visit Eshowe and to encourage them to drink at the George Hotel. He says he never thought the idea would take off. Then, somebody took notice.
Chennells was on holiday with his family when his phone rang. It was an events manager from the United Kingdom, asking if he would be one of the guest brewers at the 2010 JD Wetherspoons Real Ale Festival. It is one of the giants of brewing in the United Kingdom, with 833 branches.
Chennells says the phone call was surreal and his family didn’t believe him. But he accepted, and at the festival, his beer sold faster than he could pull a pint. His Zulu Blonde beer was crowned the ‘Nkosi’ (king) beer of the festival. Within three hours, at three different JD Wetherspoons pubs, the beer sold out.
“I wanted to get some mates to have my beer with me. We went to the first place, and it was sold out, and at the second, and the third. Eventually I called a guy at another pub where they had a keg available but he hadn’t put it on tap. He kept it for me so I could drink my beer with my friends,” Chennells says.
After the festival, he returned home thinking he could rest on his laurels. Little did the brewmaster know that he would take center stage when the 2010 FIFA World Cup came to South Africa.
While the footballers were heading to Africa, he flew out to London. He had been invited to brew a further 120,000 pints of Zulu Blonde at Everards Brewery, in Leicester, to supply JD Wetherspoons’ 833 pubs, with an African beer during the FIFA World Cup. In 2012, he went back to the JD Wetherspoons Real Ale Festival, where he brewed 100,000 pints at the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh. To this day, Zulu Blonde is drunk and talked about throughout the United Kingdom.
When the dust settled after the FIFA World Cup, Chennells balanced his books. He had made a turnover of R10 million ($1 million) in less than eight weeks.
“After that, we started getting orders from Australia, Canada and Portugal. They were ordering 40 containers a month but there was no beer. This is when I started to realize that something is going on here. They hadn’t tasted it before but they wanted it. I realized that this is bigger than me. How do I make it work?” he says.
When demand exceeded supply, Chennells spoke to a few Russians who had connections with a brewery in the Czech Republic, another brewing nation. But the deal stalled when the brewery in the Czech Republic was sold, putting an end to the possibility of brewing and selling his highly sought-after beer in Eastern Europe. Chennells lost an anticipated monthly income of R4.8 million ($480,000).
This was not Chennells’ only disappointment. He once staged a beer festival in Eshowe, featuring every beer brewed in South Africa. The Great Zululand Beer Festival cost him R50,000 ($5,000) and only 400 people turned up for the weekend. In 2007, he put together a television show, which was aimed at promoting locally brewed beer. The 12-part series, titled the Wandering Keg, also went flat.
“The idea was to get the message of beer across South Africa—trying to get people to try other beer brands instead of what is in the mainstream market. The entire thing of the television gig cost me around R250,000 [$25,000] from my own pocket. The show never saw the light of day because I didn’t have producers,” he says.
Setbacks have failed to kill his entrepreneurial spirit, they date back to the days of the Armani suit. One of his biggest mistakes, as a portfolio manager, fortunately came with a bit of luck.
“I remember buying £150,000 ($230,000) the one day and selling euros, instead of buying €150,000 and selling pounds. Luckily, the market moved in my favor and I made the desk £9,000 ($13,562) in a few hours instead of losing… Also, once by mistake, I made a payment of about $180 million a day late that cost the company about £24,000 ($36,165) worth of interest. I got into big trouble for that one,” says Chennells.
Chennells has resilience. He used to take his Land Rover loaded with beer barrels and a tap installed between the tail lights, to golf days in Johannesburg, where the golfers would queue, club in hand, for a drink. This exercise brought golf days to Eshowe, where Chennells offered unlimited volumes of beer for the weekend. His beer is also being packaged in the United Kingdom for distribution abroad. And in September, Chennells plans to open a bar in the buttoned-up business district of Sandton, near Johannesburg.
The Chennells family is trying to give back some of the fortune made from the hops. They have donated funds to help build more than 3,000 classrooms near Eshowe. In 2008, Chennells and 15 of his friends raised around R1 million ($100, 000) for Rotary International, where his father served as president, by cycling from Eshowe to Cape Town.
Chennells’ dream does not end at beer. He plans to start producing Brazilian rum called Cachaça, which is made from the sugar cane that grows around his brewery. A distillery and cane sugar crusher will be delivered in September.
He lives by this motto: “Your fortune is on your door step.”
He says he has learned from other people’s mistakes—especially that of his grandfather who was a farmer in Canada and sold his farm for pittance, only to find out later that underneath it was an oil field.
“He was the first Chennells to make that mistake and it won’t happen again,” he says.