By Melissa Oxenham
Melissa probably fell into a wine barrel as a child! Soon after graduating from Varsity College, South Africa, with a Masters in Marketing and Communication, she completed a Diploma at Stellenbosch Cape Wine Academy. As head of the Marketing and Communications department, Melissa has played an instrumental role in building Oxenham’s successful brands, namely Le Connoisseur Boutique, Bougainville, Oaks&Ames, Divine and Thirsty Fox. She contributed to revitalise some of Oxenham’s legendary brands and led the company’s rebranding in 2016.
How passionate Mauritians are about their beer compared to other countries is debatable, but as beer sales continue to grow, what is undeniable is that their tastes are becoming more sophisticated, leading to the emergence of local craft beers. Although internationally this age-old brew, which has been around for more than thirteen millennia, has long been merely regarded as a popular thirstquencher, the global craft beer movement in the 2000s added a sexy and trendy burst in sales. It reached its apogee in 2012 after the buzz provoked by the then US President, Barack Obama, and his famous White House ale.
Mauritians have not been left behind by this trend. While initially perhaps merely curious, they have shown increasing interest in foreign brews and flavours. Sales of imported beer grew from 102,000 litres in 2006 to 1.2 million in 2018. By 2023, the annual growth rate is expected to reach 14%. The Oxenham Group was sure that there was a local market for new Europeanstyle beers and, riding the global wave for craft beer, decided to enter that market.
Thus, begins the story of the Thirsty Fox. After having sampled craft beers from all over the world, two cousins, Fabien and Cedric Oxenham, colleagues and friends, united by a thirst for real beer dreamt of creating distinctive, consistently delicious brews that reflected the easy-going Mauritian lifestyle without ever compromising on quality. With the support of a passionate and knowledgeable team, they set off on an adventure to create Mauritius’ finest craft brewery.
This is not the first time the family run Oxenham Group has diversified its activities. Winery has been the 85-year-old Group’s core business since its establishment, and it has launched around thirty new brands over the years, ranging from sparkling wines and table wines to aperitifs and vermouth. In 1989, the group entered the wine import market to cater to the needs of the hospitality sector. Today, it currently has more than 650 listed products and is the exclusive representative of major labels from South Africa, France, Argentina, Australia, amongst many others. The year 2010 marked the year the Group started the Oxenham Craft Distillery, and it launched the rum Bougainville, a brand which is contributing significantly to the positioning of Mauritian rum on the international spirit’s market.
The Thirsty Fox was launched more recently in 2019, but it can be regarded as the fruits of several years of hard labour. The product development process represented a major challenge and took seven years of research, patience and effort to turn Fabien and Cedric’s dream into reality. The characteristics of a craft brewery are not just being an independent family business and small production volumes. The brewing method also required more time than for industrial beers. Contrary to industrial beers, where the preparation process only takes a dozen or so days, craft beers need six to eight weeks before they are ready to be pasteurised, to give them a shelf-life of only about three months.
The raw materials also had to be of excellent quality, as six or seven top-grade ingredients are needed to create a beer. With the support of master brewer Jörg Finkeldey, Oxenham Craft Brewery’s brewmaster and consultant, the Oxenham Group created craft beers of European standard but with a Mauritian flavour. Jörg, who was trained in Germany heads Brew Africa Consulting and has more than twenty-five years’ experience in brewing internationally and received several awards. According to him, “All beers are made from malts, which give them their aroma, sweetness and colour, from hops which give flavour and bitterness, and 96% from water. A great beer is a perfect balance between hops and malts – plus a great deal of creativity and passion. In my recipes, I use six German malts and four kinds of hops.” To give each of their European-style beers a different identity, the brewer and Oxenham’s oenologists have adjusted each recipe to take into account the local climate and local tastes. “It’s exciting to be involved in the creation of a properly Mauritian savour and to introduce new tastes,” says Jörg. “Rather than importing beers, we’re importing something of the traditions of the famous brewing regions and creating products adapted to the climate here.”
Launched in March 2019, the Thirsty Fox brews are now on many supermarket shelves, the first Mauritian craft beers to be so commercialised. The brand’s distinct colourful label with a dapper fox is an eye-catcher and makes it instantly recognisable. The range of flavours consists of seven beers: Lager, Weiss, Pale Ale, Amber Ale, Raspberry Weiss, Strong Lager and LO-CAL. Brewed in the midst of lockdown 2020, the LO-CAL is an innovative concept that meets the demand for “light” beers. Refreshing and delicate, this craft beer is “low” in calories and alcohol and is the first of its kind ever produced in Mauritius. “It is very difficult to produce a non-alcoholic beer in Mauritius.” explains CEO Brian Oxenham. “Creating a beer with less than 3% ABV (Alcohol Beverage Volume), while retaining all the flavor present in a standard beer, has been extremely satisfying,”. “We are happy to have been able to develop an original product for our local market. In these times of border closures, it is important for us to express our commitment to “Made in Moris” .”
From time to time, brewers have fun creating special editions. Be it blonde or light amber, light or strong, mellow or bitter, fruity or spicy – the beers varieties can be drunk on their own or to accompany particular dishes. Exotic and flavourful, the Ale goes well with curries, the Weiss with fish, while the Lager tends to be drunk as an apéritif. Whatever your preference or the occasion, there’s a Thirty Fox for everyone and for every occasion.
Thirsty Fox’s success is not just limited to Mauritius, it has also found love in international competitions. Since its launch, it has won a Bronze Medal at the African Beer Cup and a Gold Medal at the Asia Beer Challenge (Hong Kong) for its Amber Ale in 2019, a Silver Medal and a Gold Medal for its Lager at the Asia Beer Challenge (Hong Kong) in 2020 and 2021 respectively and a Double Gold for its Saison Ale at the Asia Beer Challenge (Hong Kong) in 2021. Most of all, the Oxenham group is proud of the recognition given to the LO-CAL: the most recent addition to its range of beers which won the Gold Medal at the prestigious European Beer Challenge in 2021. “This recognition on two continents, in markets with very different profiles, gives us courage and reinforces our conviction: when we do something with passion, we always reap the rewards,” says Jörg. With Thirsty Fox, we are at the beginning of a great adventure. We are certainly honoured that our recipes have been appreciated by the greatest international specialists in beer techniques, but we are especially reassured that they meet the expectations of the public. This is essential to continue to innovate.”
Though much has been revealed about the history and heart of the brand, one thing remains: the origin behind the name. It is as close to the heart of the brand as it could possibly be. A testing vat had been labelled with Fabien Oxenham’s initials and thus, “Fox” was born. As for the Thirsty bit, the drive to create a range of Mauritian craft beers is what led the brand here today, a thirst which is far from being quenched. Another interpretation of the name is that it comes from the fact that both Cedric and Fabien are crafty fellows who are always in the mood for a good beer. Which of the origin stories are true? Well, if you ask them, they’ll be happy to share the truth over a glass of beer.