Drinking & Nightlife
Kenyan nights are loud and energetic, if not always that discerning when it comes to setting and decor. Nairobi in particular has some of Africa's best nightlife, with a varied scene that encompasses live music, (often open-air) lounge bars, DJ-fuelled dance floors and sports bars and pubs. Kisumu is another lively after-dark city. Elsewhere, it's very loud, a little sleazy and Tuskers-drunk-on-plastic-red-chairs-kind-of-fun.
Tea & Coffee
Despite the fact that Kenya grows some excellent tea and coffee, getting a decent cup of either can be difficult. Quite simply, the best stuff is exported.
Chai is the national obsession, and although it’s drunk in large quantities, it bears little resemblance to what you might be used to. As in India, the tea, milk and masses of sugar are boiled together and stewed for ages and the result is milky and very sweet – it may be too sickly for some, but the brew might just grow on you. Spiced masala chai with cardamom and cinnamon is very pleasant and rejuvenating. For tea without milk ask for chai kavu.
As for coffee, it’s often sweet, milky and made with a bare minimum of instant coffee. However, in Nairobi and larger towns, there is a steadily increasing number of coffee houses serving very good Kenyan coffee, and you can usually get a passable filter coffee at better hotels. With all the Italian tourists who visit the coast, you can at least get a decent cappuccino or espresso pretty much anywhere between Diani Beach and Lamu.
Water & Juices
With all the fresh fruit that’s available in Kenya, the juices on offer are, not surprisingly, breathtakingly good. All are made using modern blenders, so there’s no point asking for a fruit juice during a power cut. Although you can get juices made from almost any fruit, the nation’s favourite is passion fruit. It's known locally just as ‘passion’. However, be wary of fruit juices watered down with unpurified water (tap water is best avoided) – double-check they're using bottled or purified water. Bottled water is widely available, even in remote areas for the most part.
Kenya has a thriving local brewing industry, and formidable quantities of beer are consumed day and night. You’ll usually be given a choice of ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ beer. ‘Why warm?’, you might well ask. Curiously, most Kenyans appear to prefer it that way, despite the fact that room temperature in Kenya is a lot hotter than room temperature in the USA or Europe.
The local beers are Tusker, Pilsner and White Cap, all manufactured by Kenya Breweries and sold in 500mL bottles. Tusker comes in three varieties: Tusker Export, Tusker Malt Lager and just plain Tusker. Tusker Export is a stronger version of ordinary Tusker lager, while Tusker Malt has a fuller taste. Locally produced foreign labels include Castle (a South African beer) and Guinness, though the Kenyan version is nothing like the genuine Irish article.
Nairobi in particular is witnessing a rise in craft or boutique breweries that increasingly offer an alternative to the long-standing mass-produced beers. Some of the better new kids on the block include Brew, Sierra Premium and Sirville Brewery; the latter clearly has an eye on the tourist market with beers like Mara Pils, Tsavo Lager, Amboseli Ale and Aberdare Bitter Ale.
Kenya has a fledgling wine industry, and the Lake Naivasha Colombard wines are generally quite good. This is something that cannot be said about the most commonly encountered Kenyan wine – pawpaw wine. Quite how anyone came up with the idea of trying to reproduce a drink made from grapes using pawpaw remains a mystery, but the result tastes foul and smells even worse.
You can get South African, European and even Australian wine by the glass in upmarket restaurants in major cities and tourist areas.
A popular Kenyan cocktail is dawa, which translates from the Kiswahili as ‘medicine’. Clearly based on the Brazilian caipirinha, it’s made with vodka, lime and honey. We suggest you enjoy a tipple at sunset in a bar overlooking the coast, or out on the savannah plains – both experiences can certainly have a therapeutic effect on mind and body.
Feature: The Dangers of Home Brew
Although it is strictly illegal for the public to brew or distil liquor, it remains a way of life for many Kenyans. Pombe is the local beer, usually a fermented brew made with bananas or millet and sugar. It shouldn’t do you any harm. The same cannot be said for the distilled drinks known locally as chang’a, which are laced with genuine poisons. In 2005, 48 people died near Machakos after drinking a bad batch of chang’a. A further 84 were hospitalised and treated with vodka to reduce the effect of methyl alcohol poisoning – such events are not uncommon. Perhaps the most dangerous chang’a comes from Kisii, and is fermented with marijuana twigs, cactus mash, battery alkaline and formalin. Don’t touch it.