Mr Yimam, you were born in Ethiopia and came to Switzerland when you were ten years old. Apparently, Emperor Haile Selassie I played an important role in that. What was it like finding yourself in the midst of a different culture?
It really is a fascinating story. Before I was sent off on my big adventure, I was one of 200 children in an Ethiopian orphanage. By a quirk of fate, I was chosen together with 12 others for a special mission. We were sent to Switzerland to get a good education, the idea being that we would return to Ethiopia later on and help with the country’s development. The trip was sponsored by Emperor Haile Selassie I himself, so we were invited to the imperial palace. This was his way of giving the project his official seal of approval and showing that he would support it.
So you were to receive a decent education in Switzerland. Where exactly?
When I arrived in eastern Switzerland in 1974, my new home was the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen in the canton of Appenzell-Ausserrhoden. It housed children from around 15 nations, so I didn’t experience any major culture shock or psychological distress. This meant that I felt at home and settled in quite quickly.
Moving to Switzerland must have been a big challenge for a young boy from Africa. How did you cope with it?
The Pestalozzi Children’s Village was an international place where each nation was given its own house, and there were 15 other Ethiopian children sharing the same fate, the same environment and the same challenges as me. Living there had a positive effect on me in many respects, giving me a multicultural, liberal and cosmopolitan worldview.
The Ethiopian house was called Lalibela. It felt like home, and we were well looked-after there. It was like I had 15 Ethiopian brothers and sisters. The adults who ran our house were like our parents. They took good care of us and taught us Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language, as well as all about our country’s cooking and culture. It was our home from home in Switzerland. While this was certainly a safe environment for me, it was also rather isolated. I didn’t experience very much of Switzerland at all until I was 16.
After finishing school, you trained to be a brewer, later qualifying as a master brewer at the University of the Brewing and Beverage Industry in Munich. Is there a particular reason why you opted for this traditional occupation?
My mission was to learn in Switzerland and then take the knowledge I had acquired back to Ethiopia to help with the country’s development, so it became my dream to start a business in Ethiopia.
Training as a brewer was my foster dad’s idea. He suggested some work experience at a brewery. I was immediately hooked, and I still am to this day, so I decided to set up my own company. Our vision is to use traditional methods and ancient crops together with the latest brewing standards and produce beers that appeal to modern tastes. We aren’t reinventing beer, but we do want to offer the beer scene something new and exciting using the unique aromas of ingredients that have been around for thousands of years.
You intend to brew African-style beers under the Nubia Brew brand. Can you tell us more about this?
I wanted to start my own firm 15 years ago, but the time wasn’t right. My business partner and I formed iMizan GmbH a few months ago. We wanted to import gluten-free cereals, spices and coffee from Africa and sell them in Europe and America. Unfortunately, strict import laws and endless red tape proved to be almost insurmountable obstacles. We did some research online and discovered that there were already a few European firms trading in Ethiopian commodities.
I already had some cereal samples, and one day I came up with the idea of using them to make beer. And so it was that I started experimenting with ingredients and concocting a handful of trial batches based on African recipes. It soon became clear that these gluten-free millets were capable of producing tasty, easy-drinking beers. Since we use malted barley in the brewing process, however, our beers aren’t entirely gluten-free (CAH1). They are thus classed as low in gluten, although the Coeliac Disease Society of German-Speaking Switzerland does certify our craft beers Mulu Amber and Amsal Premium as gluten-free.
The finger millets Dagussa and Maschela are ancient and especially high-yielding crops that are now being cultivated in Europe, Africa and large parts of Asia. They’re still used as foodstuffs and ingredients in regional beers. Using these in conjunction with Swiss water and quality standards, we’ve succeeded in developing local beers steeped in African heritage. We hope our products will strike a chord with Switzerland’s discerning beer drinkers as the unique flavours of sorghum are something any true lover of beer should be keen to try. Every once in a while, things come full circle, and so it is that we’ve ended up making our beer in the very same venerable brewery where I did my apprenticeship more than 30 years ago.