Author: Lucy Corne

Africa’s craft beer culture is young. Even South Africa’s speciality beer scene – the most established on the continent – barely stretches back a decade, and elsewhere, small breweries are often no more than two or three years old. But there are African beers that have endured for centuries and possibly even millennia. Largely unchanged, these are some of the oldest beer styles on Earth.  

Across Africa, traditional beers may vary in their ingredients and processes, but they do have common traits. More notably though, they share almost nothing in common with what most of us visualise when we hear the word ‘beer’.

For a start, many of these age-old beers are opaque. And I’m not just talking about the hoppy murk of a New England IPA, or the iridescent haze of a well-made Weissbier. If you held up a glass of South African umqombothi or Kenyan busaa to the light, you would see no highlights at all – that’s if it was served in a glass, of course. The thick, porridge-like brews are often presented in communal clay drinking vessels that are passed from drinker to drinker to sip from – or at least they were in a pre-Covid world. As well as being opaque, traditional African brews tend to be thick, thanks to rudimentary straining methods still largely employed. It’s quite common to find yourself wiping small particles of grain from your lips after each sip, or to realise you’re subconsciously chewing the beer before you swallow.

These beers are typically made much as they would always have been, although surprisingly little has been written about the history or origins of traditional brewing throughout Africa. Recipes are passed down orally, often from mother to daughter, since in many parts of the continent brewing remains a role traditionally performed by women.

Age-old processes

“The first time I brewed umqombothi, I had just started working at SAB (South African Breweries),” says Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela. “My father had asked me to come home to give thanks to the ancestors for having finished university and started a job.” Apiwe gained her formal brewing training while working for South Africa’s largest brewing company and now runs a successful microbrewery in Johannesburg. While she had grown up around umqombothi brew days, she had never really participated – until she became fascinated by the science of brewing that is. These days, Apiwe is a prominent cheerleader for traditional African beers. She is also worried that the historical beer is in danger of extinction. “As people leave their rural roots and move to the cities, fewer and fewer are learning to brew sorghum beer,” she says, although she actively tries to get young people interested in their brewing heritage.

Umqombothi is made using malted sorghum and crushed maize. After an initial souring process, the grains are boiled and cooled, much as they would be for any other beer, except that in this case the process takes five days rather than five hours. The beer is spontaneously fermented and contains no hops – it is the sort of beer you read about when you delve into historical tomes detailing the early porridge-like beers of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. And true to its long-standing roots, there is a notable absence of scientific equipment involved in the process – temperatures aren’t measured and alcohol content is merely assumed, at least when the brew is made at home.

The end product looks a little like a strong cup of milky tea topped with large off-white bubbles almost reminiscent of those you get on a freshly-run bath. The aromas and flavours might be somewhat familiar to a fan of Belgian Lambics, but for the average lager drinker, this is something of a shock for all the senses. Along with the murky appearance and lumpy texture, there is a notable lactic sourness, sometimes backed up by a barnyard-like character and a whiff of green apples.

These days, South African umqombothi is typically brewed at home and often only for a special occasion such as a wedding or coming-of-age ceremony. There are still large breweries that produce the beer on a mass scale though. The beer is packaged while young – so young in fact, that it is still fermenting. Instead of glass or even plastic bottles, which would likely shatter or blow their lids under mounting pressure from the actively fermenting beer, it is packaged in one-litre cartons, the like of which you’d most likely associate with milk. The carton comes with a vent that allows CO2 to escape while the beer reaches its drinking peak on the liquor store shelf.

Inspiring a new craft

In Botswana, the traditional brew is called Chibuku, but colloquially it is more commonly referred to as Shake-Shake, for you need to agitate the carton before you take a swig. Also made from sorghum and maize, Shake-Shake is a fairly smooth brew and a good place for the traditional beer novice to begin. Much like in South Africa, the beer isn’t found abundantly in the city, but it remains popular in rural regions. Shake-Shake is produced by Kgalagadi Breweries Ltd, now part-owned by AB-InBev, and versions of the opaque brew are of course brewed in homes throughout the country. The traditional beer is also providing inspiration for Botswana’s first microbrewery, Big Sip Co. “We have considered producing traditional Chibuku and are working towards something that is a bit cleaner, something that looks a bit more like “normal craft beer”,” says Big Sip operations manager Angelique Punt.

They’re not the only craft brewery to take inspiration from traditional brewing techniques. In South Africa, some craft brewers have blended and barrel-aged umqombothi while others have taken the ingredients and married them with barley, hops and modern brewing practices to try and create a craft reinterpretation of the traditional brew. At Nigeria’s pioneering craft brewery, Bature, local and traditional ingredients are a key part of their brand. Some of the beers contain proudly Nigerian products such as coffee and locally grown hibiscus flowers, while every beer in the range features Nigerian sorghum malt in the grain bill alongside malted barley. Sorghum is the main ingredient in the traditional beers pito and burukutu, which are still brewed over an open flame, just as they have been for generations.

As craft beer culture around the continent grows, brewers are constantly searching for ways to add variation to their range, in the past, that had often involved looking to the more developed beer cultures of Belgium, Germany and the USA. But now, the brewers of Africa are proudly taking inspiration from a beer culture that predates even the oldest of existing European beer styles; a beer culture that began right here on their home ground.