Beer pioneer sees profits on tap in sparkling Georgia

Football fans arriving in Tblisi today will be able to sup locally- made English ale, reports Hugh Pope
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The Independent Online
Tbilisi - Entrepreneur Nick Carratu is only 29 years old. But that is just the twenty-something age you need to make it in the bustling new atmo-sphere of peace and business in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

The youngest provincial governor of this Caucasus mountain country is now 26. The president of its most successful private company is 29. President Eduard Shevardnadze's, hottest heir-apparent, Parliamentary Chairman Zurab Zhviad, is 32

However, Mr Carratu is British. And he is doing very nicely with an enterprising export: a microbrewery from Warrington. With its three tastefully exposed vats, he ferments a thick porter that used to win Camra prizes as "Blunderbus", but has been renamed "Black Panther".

"Goes down well, doesn't it?" said Mr Carratu, offering a pint drawn from a bar in a courtyard garden just off Tbilisi's main boulevard.

The unique pub is not only for English fans coming to watch today's World Cup qualifier against Georgia. Locals are also soaking up the unusually tasty beer, which sells cheaper than the dominant imports of canned Turkish lager.

For Mr Carratu, his Georgian partners and a whole new generation of investors in everything from tea packaging to power stations, this is just the beginning. "The investment climate here is fantastic," Mr Carratu said. "There are all the opportunities of Russia a few years ago but without the competition and, for now, without the mafias."

However, not all foreign investors in Georgia are so upbeat, especially those who lived through the years of paramilitary anarchy. Back then, pistol-toting mafia bosses fought battles through the lobby of Tbilisi's main hotel and gunmen raided foreign-owned wine bottlers, demanding payoffs of 100 cases at a time.

Because of Georgia's old reputation - and the fact it has just five million people - big investors are still rare. Many are waiting to see the symbolic vote of Western confidence: the start of work on a trans-Georgia oil pipeline from Azer- baijan. It is now almost certain to be completed in the next 18 months.

Georgia has attracted an idiosyncratic bunch of investors of the kind who have sought their fortunes all over eastern Europe this decade. Mr Carratu, for instance, was trained by the British army to speak Russian for work in Cold War Berlin. There is a former German MP and television filmmaker who has turned travel agent with an ambition to travel every one of the country's pot-holed roads.

An American consortium including former US Secretary of State George Shultz is moving into the wine business.

An enigmatic Swiss-Israeli concern may have stumbled on to large reserves of natural gas.

The queen of the foreign investors is Betsy Haskell, a Washington political lobbyist invited to Georgia in 1991 and who never really left. Now she runs an estate agency and a guest house, whose 'rough deck' restaurant overlooking the flickering lights of the capital is the Rick's Bar of Georgia, attracting spies, diplomats, aid workers and even a few businessmen writing e- mail letters home to their families.

"There are about 10 of us investors here now," Mrs Haskell said. "The moment Shevardnadze got elected, $10,000 apartments shot up to $50,000. It's all booming. This place is really taking off. People really believe it is going to work."

If Mr Carratu's experience is anything to go by Ms Haskell's bar should soon be filling up. He and his partners decided to invest in March and and their brewery was up and running by July. "The main delays were manufacturing the brewery in England, and the biggest problems with corrupt officials was transporting through Turkey. Now our only problem is to sell as much beer as possible," he said.

Football: sport, page 30