IN 1923, A GROUP of European investors founded one of Africa's first breweries, naming it Brasserie de Léopoldville after Belgian Congo's colonial-era capital. Primus, its inaugural brew, did not fare particularly well, with drinkers preferring better-tasting and cheaper Dutch and German beers until the 1950s, when the company -- in which the Netherlands-based Heineken purchased a minority stake in the 1930s -- began expanding production. Over time, Primus became Bralima's marquee beer and a source of national pride: a workhorse pilsner with a taste satisfaction directly proportional to the bottle's coldness and the degree of grime built up inside your sinuses from a day of breathing Congo's diesel-fume-laden air.
Following Congo's independence from Belgium in 1960, Primus played a central role in the new country, even basing its logo on the national flag. Bralima -- as the company was now called, for Brasseries, Limonaderies et Malteries Africaines -- brewed a whopping 145 million gallons of beer in 1974, the year Muhammad Ali and George Foreman duked it out in the "Rumble in the Jungle." When dictator Mobutu Sese Seko banned imported beer for a time in the 1970s, he kept the Primus flowing, making it a core policy to maintain local production while other services and infrastructure crumbled and the state went bankrupt. Beer, he believed, was the magic ticket to keeping his citizens happy: If it ever ran out, his days would be numbered.
Ultimately, it wasn't beer that toppled Mobutu, but a 1997 uprising supported by neighbors Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. The country was given a new name, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but its struggles continued. The current government, under President Joseph Kabila, has faced monumental challenges, from entrenched corruption and nonexistent infrastructure to raging conflict both within and around the country. Bigger than the U.S. Midwest, the DRC holds some 70 million people. But, by some estimates, nearly 10 percent of its population has died as a result of a series of fratricidal civil wars that began in 1996. Last year's mutiny by the M23 rebel group in the eastern city of Goma, as well as the ongoing violence since then, has displaced hundreds of thousands and killed hundreds. Rebel offshoots are now stockpiling weapons for a potential showdown with the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping force, which has been in the country since 1999 but has just been given an unprecedented mandate to take offensive action against the rebels.
Heineken, which bought out Bralima in 1982, has maintained its investment in the DRC throughout the turmoil, anticipating major shifts in the global spirits trade, as giant conglomerates like Belgium's Anheuser-Busch InBev and London's SABMiller have moved away from reliance on stagnant European and American markets to snap up foreign brands. Heineken doesn't report profits by country, but Africa and the Middle East accounted for $873 million in profits and 14.4 percent of the company's revenue in 2012. Frontier beers like Bralima are emerging-country lottery tickets, chances to buy into a market before the country booms and drinkers develop new, more exotic brand loyalties. China, the big success story, saw a 1,000 percent explosion in beer sales in the 1990s that led to local brands like Tsingtao and Kingway Brewery being acquired by foreign companies and later encouraged odd imports like the luxury Chinese version of Pabst Blue Ribbon that sells for $44 a bottle. Since taking over Bralima, Heineken has acquired major stakes in other national classics like Egypt's Stella, India's Kingfisher, and Mexico's Sol.
Under guidance from Amsterdam, Bralima's market share in the DRC has rocketed from 30 percent in 1987 to 60 percent today -- with Primus as the flagship brand. Bralima's main plant in Kinshasa, one of its six in the country, churns out up to a quarter-million of the football-sized brown, dimpled bottles every day, alongside Heineken, Coca-Cola, Sprite, and Fanta. (Bralima is also the country's biggest soda distributor.) In addition to its contracts with celebrities, the brewery has exclusive deals with many bars in Kinshasa, which are festooned with Primus-branded tables, chairs, and ashtrays. Hand-painted signs for Primus seem to paper every surface in the DRC, many with the slogan "Toujours Leader!" ("Always the Leader!").
GIVEN THE VOLATILITY of the country's politics, remaining the leader in Congo can call for some tricky maneuvers. But you wouldn't immediately know that from visiting Bralima's Kinshasa plant, where tall Dutch managers in crisply collared shirts oversee operations from the bird's-eye-view walkways and negotiate employee contracts at the plant's on-site watering hole. Inside the main brewing complex, Congolese technicians wearing lab coats inject hops into a row of massive copper vats. At the loading dock out back, the stacks of empty crates reach 20 feet high as an endless procession of trucks waits for refills.