Page last updated at 11:07 GMT, Saturday, 9 July 2011 12:07 UK

Irn-Bru aims to be Algeria's 'other national drink'

By Chloe Arnold
Algeria

Algerian cafe

Ask an Algerian what his favourite cold drink is, and chances are he will answer without hesitation, "Hamoud."

A cloudy, primrose-coloured lemonade, Hamoud is sold in thick glass bottles with old-fashioned labels, and drunk by the gallon.

Bottle and can of Irn-Bru
The secret recipe for Irn-Bru is known by only three people in the world

No wedding party, birthday celebration or picnic is complete without half a dozen bottles of the stuff, and Algerians will tell you, proudly, that Hamoud has been around for a great deal longer than Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

But Othmane Bencheikh, an entrepreneur with a penchant for all things sweet, is hoping to change that.

Earlier this year, he started importing a new soft drink to Algeria, one he hopes will one day be as popular as Hamoud.

What is it? Irn-Bru, that amber-coloured potion born in Scotland at the turn of the 19th Century and beloved of Scots the world over.

It is said that Scotland is the only country in the world that does not have Coca-Cola as its top-selling soft drink.

In Algeria, I imagine Coke sales must be neck-and-neck with Hamoud.

I arrange to meet Othmane on a sweltering summer day in the capital, Algiers - exactly the sort of weather for a long, cold, fizzy drink.

Othmane collects me in a huge van painted orange and blue, the colours of an Irn-Bru can.

In the back are dozens of crates of the drink, which clink every time we turn a corner.

"So, why Irn-Bru?" I ask him. We're heading towards a suburb where a supermarket has started selling the drink.

"Because I love it," he says. "And everyone I've tried it out on loves it, too."

But how did he come across it in the first place, I ask, as we hurtle around another roundabout. And so he tells me his story.

Escape to Britain

Twenty-four years ago, Othmane left Algeria to escape a civil war unfolding in his homeland. Nationwide rallies sparked by price rises led to the government calling fresh elections.

But when the Islamists won a resounding victory, the government annulled the results of the election, triggering a decade of violence.

What is Irn-Bru?
Woman drinking Irn-Bru
Bright orange, carbonated drink with citrus flavour
First produced in 1901, in the Scottish town of Falkirk, and named Strachan's Brew
Forced to drop the word "brew" in 1946 as it is not actually brewed
Irn-Bru is phonetic spelling of Iron Brew, as spoken with Glaswegian accent
Irn-Bru describes itself as "Scotland's other national drink" - the first being whisky

A quarter of a million people lost their lives in bloody fighting between security forces and Islamist rebels - and anyone who could get out, did.

Othmane travelled to Britain, where he had contacts, and began working in restaurant kitchens in London.

He loved the catering business, and anything to do with food and drink. A few years later, he completed a catering course at Westminster College.

Soon he was working in Michelin-starred restaurants and, around the same time, he met his future wife, a British-born Italian.

After two decades living in the UK, he now has British citizenship. But he regularly comes back to Algeria to see his family - he has seven brothers and sisters - and his import business means he can work in both countries.

"My neighbours in London were Scottish and they first introduced me to Irn-Bru, innit," he says.

He speaks perfect Cockney and, like many Algerians who have spent time in Britain, he ends most of his sentences with "innit".

At the supermarket, Othmane leads me to the soft drinks aisle. Nestled on the top shelf are two dozen cans of his Irn-Bru, jostling for space with colas, iced teas and, of course, Hamoud.

Irn-Bru is available in other parts of the Arab world, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but sold primarily to expatriates (often Scots pining for a little taste of home).

Here, it is different. Expats are thin on the ground. That decade of civil war has put paid to the tourist industry, and the security situation - still ranked as serious by most embassies here - means a lot of foreigners stay away.

Love it, hate it

For Othmane, it is the domestic market he is targeting and, as we stand chatting about the drink, I corner a customer and ask him if he will taste it.

He looks alarmed, but we open the can and he takes a wee sip.

"Not bad!" he concludes, though he cannot pinpoint the flavour. "Is it lemon?" he asks. "Orange, strawberry?"

Jar of Marmite
Marmite is probably not going to catch on in Algeria

In fact, it is none of those things, just a long list of flavourings, colourings and E numbers, but there is a tiny percentage of ammonium ferric citrate, which puts the iron in the brew.

A long time ago, an advert for the drink used to announce it was "Made in Scotland, from girders" (though I suspect EU regulations calling for all ingredients to be named may have been the reason that campaign was shelved).

As we leave the shop, Othmane tells me he is planning to bring other British goods to Algeria in the near future such as lemon curd, orange marmalade, peanut butter and digestive biscuits.

"What about Marmite?" I venture. "Nothing could be more British than Marmite."

We climb back into the van and Othmane shakes his head. "Algerians like sweet things," he says, wrinkling his nose. "You'd never get an Algerian to touch Marmite, innit."

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