Sankofa Beer Company is a D.C.-based brewery showcasing beers that reflect the founders’ West African upbringing. After successfully raising startup funds via Kickstarter the final week of 2017, Sankofa expanded from a homebrewing operation to 30 BBL production and released their first commercial offering in July 2018. Their flagship, Hypebiscus Pale Ale, is a crisp, exceedingly drinkable, hoppy brew infused with hibiscus flowers, and is now distributed to multiple restaurant and retail venues in D.C. Dried hibiscus is ubiquitous in West Africa, where it is frequently brewed in crimson-tinged teas.
According to the brewery’s website, Sankofa "is a word from the Ashanti/Akan people in Ghana and translates to ‘go back and get.’ It is visually represented by either a mythic bird with its head turned backwards with an egg in its beak or as a stylized heart. Sankofa is a symbol for the understanding that in order to ensure a strong future you must return to collect and understand your past. This understanding resonates with us and has truly inspired us as we write the story for Sankofa Beer.”
We got a chance to chat via email with Sankofa co-founder Kofi Meroe about how their first year has been, as well as their plans for the future. What follows is a transcript lightly edited for length and clarity.
Sankofa got its commercial start through a Kickstarter fundraiser. How has this affected your strategy starting off?
Funds are limited, so we've had to be very smart about how we use our money and prioritize some of our upfront “brand building” costs, understanding we get much of a return on it in the early days.
How have you been finding the DC market in terms of opportunities, collaborations, and the community's willingness to try your new offerings? Are there any obstacles you have found?
The community has been great. Everywhere we have gone people have enjoyed our beer and connected with our story. There are definitely lots of creative people in DC, which leads to a lot of cool collaborations. The biggest obstacle we've found is just making sure we are gaining the "right exposure” when we collaborate. We've found that although brand awareness is always good, we do want to come more in contact with the craft beer lovers in the city, and we know there are a lot of them. We believe we have a great product that any avid craft beer drinker will love.
You have noted that you are big fans of the craft industry as is. How have you seen yourselves uniquely contributing to this community in DC?
I would say our contribution, if any, has been small so far. We're still a company people are discovering. However, I think when people do discover us, they are pleased to see the diversity in the industry. Not just of the people behind the brand, but also in the beer they are consuming, and if you've ever been to one of our events, we have a vibe and energy unlike any one other brand in the area at the moment. I think consumers realize this and support us for it. At the end of the day it's great for the consumer. It's a great time and place for craft beer lovers.
How did you choose Hypebiscus as your first commercial beer? In the age of Untappd, we have seen many breweries begin with and maintain a large portfolio of different beers. Why did you choose to start off with just Hypebiscus?
It's all about the quality of brand awareness for us. In some sense we wanted to curate the growth of our brand by releasing certain beers at certain times. We want to show the versatility of our products, but mostly the quality and time and attention that is put in to the beer and the brand. We felt taking a risk to dump a bunch of beers on the market would not benefit this strategy. Additionally we spent a lot of time “showcasing” our beers prior to our lunch, and Hypebiscus has always been the beer that most people like, even if you're not a typical beer drinker. We felt it was a good place to start.
I've noticed your path of expansion has been a bit different than that of many new area breweries. Beyond starting with the one beer, you've chosen two West African restaurants to be among the first to carry your beer, a couple retail establishments alongside them, and other bars and restaurants that may not be associated with the craft beer boom. How has your background and experience informed this path and your decisions or opportunities around DC?
We've started down a non-traditional route partially because we are a bit different. However, we've not been shy to approach some more traditional locations. We had our launch at Midlands Beer Garden, and they carried our draft for the better part of the summer, and we had a significant pop up at Wunder Garten during their winterfest.
Most of the locations you can find our beer at today are frankly places that we personally as individuals have supported for years. Again, without having a brick and mortar location of our own just yet, we have to be very picky about where you can find our beers because in our experience that location is an extension of our brand. Our followers are a lot more diverse than you will typically find for a craft beer brand. Keeping that in mind, we need to be aware of not putting our product in places that may not appeal to a large part of our following. We've had to branch out to what you would call non-traditional spaces. I think the West African restaurants like Appioo's and Bukom make sense simply because our brands share the same foundation. All of our other locations have been great locations that are easy for craft beer drinkers to identify and find, yet attract non-traditional consumers as well.
You are currently contract brewing in Maryland. Do you have any plans to open up a brewery or tasting room of your own?
Yes, we are looking into opening up a tasting room now. No further details at the moment.
Beyond Hypebiscus, are there any other beers we should be looking out for, either in cans or draft, in the near future? Any events or releases you are (and we should be) looking forward to?
We just did a special release cask beer with Saints Row Brewing out of Rockville, MD. Hopefully we can do a few more collaborations with breweries in the area this year – they are always fun. We will release a few more of our staple beers this year as well. We're planning for a chocolate milk stout and a wheat ale release for 2019.