Author: Lucy Corne

It’s a brew that is reminiscent of the earliest beers on record; a piece of drinkable African heritage. Thick and porridge-like, murky, uncarbonated and sour, it is drunk at celebrations up and down the continent, but to the untrained palate, traditional African beer can be tough to swallow. However, as craft beer culture begins to spread across Africa, brewers are determined to find a way to honour traditional African grains in a way that’s more approachable to the average beer drinker.

One of the first brewers in South Africa to incorporate sorghum into so-called “clear beer” was Zimbabwean-born Lethu Tshabangu. Lethu‘s brand, Ukhamba, is named for the communal drinking vessel used for traditional umqombothi – a thick brew made with sorghum and maize. Despite the fact that Lethu grew up seeing traditional beer being brewed at home, it was actually a visiting Australian brewer that suggested somehow incorporating it into his craft ales. “I started toying with the idea of using sorghum,” says Lethu. “Then one day I was tasting some beers at a local bar and I had my first sip of saison. I knew that this was the style that was going to work best with sorghum, not least because it too had undergone a wild fermentation, just like umqombothi does.”

Ukhamba’s Utywala Saison uses 40% malted sorghum in the grain bill alongside malted barley. It’s a magnificently drinkable beer – crisp and dry but with a misleadingly sweet aroma. The use of sorghum in the style was so admired it inspired another sorghum saison, this one from Afro Caribbean Brewing Company, also based in Cape Town. The beer, Quick Hands, was a collaboration with US brewing legend Garrett Oliver. Garrett had already been experimenting with African grains and back in Brooklyn had recently released Teranga, a pale ale using the West African grain, fonio.

Swapping barley for sorghum

Less dry and more full bodied than Ukhamba’s saison, Quick Hands more resembled umqombothi, but the brewers wanted to take it further. “Our initial batch was only 10% sorghum,” says brewing consultant Shawn Duthie, who set up the collab brew, “but we weren’t getting any sorghum character so we upped it to 30%. Then we thought – why stop there? What if we could make a craft beer using only malted sorghum?”

Although no one in South Africa has yet released a 100% sorghum ale commercially, elsewhere on the continent, one brewer has perfected the process. Clement Djameh is the brewmaster at Inland Brewery in Accra, Ghana. With a brewing education gained in Munich and decades of experience in the brewing industry, Clement turned his attention to brewing with sorghum. The hardy grain is widely cultivated in Ghana, unlike barley which has to be imported. Clement has spent years completing extensive research into the sorghum malting process. He has also developed his own brewing regime for producing “clear beer” from sorghum. Indeed, all of Inland’s beers, including a stout, use only malted sorghum in the grain bill.

Clement spoke at a brewing conference in Johannesburg in 2019, where he shared his own malting and mashing techniques with a room full of brewers hanging onto every syllable. One of those brewers was Shawn Duthie, who took copious notes and began to plan Afro Caribbean’s 100% sorghum experiment.

Brew day tweaks

The brew day started well. Shawn, along with Afro Caribbean’s brewers Rochelle Dunlop and TJ Solomons, dusted off their old 50-litre pilot system for a test batch of single hop sorghum pale ale. Malted sorghum is easy to find in South African supermarkets, where people buy it to produce homebrewed umqombothi. The grain has a slightly nutty, slightly biscuit-like aroma not entirely dissimilar to malted barley. But in other ways it is completely different. According to Clement’s research, malted sorghum is low in beta amylase, therefore creating a high proportion of unfermentable sugars and extracting these sugars is a complicated process. Clement’s statistics show that malted barley has around six times the diastatic power that malted sorghum has.

All of this calls for a distinct and detailed process – one which Clement Djameh has mastered. It begins with an extra step in the malting process – a caustic steep to eliminate tannins that hinder the conversion of starch to sugar. Mashing likewise has a couple of extra steps in order for the grain to give up its sugars. “Before we could get to mashing, we had to do an enzyme rest,” says Shawn. The sorghum sat at around 30 degrees for an hour to help extract alpha and beta enzymes, which would be drained from the mash prior to gelatinisation, and then added back to convert starch to sugars.”

 The process was a new one for all of the brewers at Afro Caribbean and as the brew got underway questions were being posed that you wouldn’t typically hear on a brew day: “What’s happening now?” and “What do we have to do next?”. Best of all is the utter surprise when Shawn takes an early gravity reading during the enzymatic rest. “Oh – there is actually some sugar in there then!” he says, not expecting conversion at this early stage.

Once the enzymatic rest is complete, the mash needs to be gelatinised – a step that is need to soften the grain and facilitate the conversion of starch to sugar. As the wort thickens, WhatsApp messages are hastily sent to local beer groups: “Woah, this got really thick. Is this normal??” but a reassuring reply from Clement tells the team they’re on the right track.

Tasting time

From here, the process becomes more familiar, other than the fact that sorghum has no husk and poses a real risk of getting a stuck mash. Luckily though, the Afro Caribbean team manage to get away with the mash, despite not using rice hulls in lieu of the grain bed.

At his talk in Johannesburg, Clement highlighted the importance of choosing the correct cultivar of sorghum since some are better suited to brewing than others. In that respect, Shawn thinks that they got lucky. “I think the South African malted sorghum is actually able to convert starch to sugars without gelatinisation,” says Shawn. “We were able to have conversion as we stepped up to gelatinisation, but there was no further conversion after we cooled the gelatinised sorghum and added back the enzymatic liquid.”

It’s a long brew day, but one with plenty of interest. A week later I stop by to see how it’s tasting. It is peculiar. “The flavour has been changing daily,” says Shawn. “So far we’ve noticed a solvent-like flavour, but thankfully that has passed. We’ve also noticed some chlorophenols and sourness, although under it all it kind of tastes like umqombothi.” The hop additions don’t feature at all in aroma or flavour and there is little that you’d expect from a pale ale, but then this isn’t a pale ale as you know it. Still, the team is already wondering whether pale ale was the right style for a 100% sorghum brew and are planning a second version, this time as a kettle-soured sorghum ale.

Supporting local farmers

Sorghum is not the only grain African craft brewers are experimenting with. Some 2000km north of Cape Town is Maun, a dusty town at the top of Botswana. Here, the country’s second microbrewery is gearing up for their early 2020 launch. The Okavango Craft Brewery was basically born because of millet. Millet is the staple crop in the country’s north – a region where low and unpredictable rainfall coupled with poor soil makes for some very challenging farming conditions. Dr Graham McCulloch has been at the helm of Ecoexist for more than a decade, along with his wife, Dr Anna Songhurst. The NGO focuses on the human-elephant conflict in a region with the largest population of elephants on the planet.

“About seven years ago we started an elephant-aware farming programme, showing the farmers how to work around the elephants,” says Graham. “Since we started the programme, the yield of millet has increased about six times. Suddenly, the farmers are dealing with a surplus and we asked ourselves, ‘how do you turn that into a tangible economic value?’ And that’s where beer comes in.”

Graham was looking at possible uses for the excess millet when he was introduced to Heine du Toit, a South African food scientist. “I went to him with my millet and asked ‘what can I do with this?’” laughs Graham. Gradually, the idea of brewing a craft beer with millet developed. Over three years, Heine has worked on the process, trying everything from using unmalted millet to adding enzymes in the mash. He eventually developed his own malting process and now has a range of malted millets in his arsenal, including biscuit, caramel and roasted versions. He opens up a packet of the biscuit millet for us to taste – it is slightly hay-like and does indeed have a biscuity quality. The initial sweetness of the grain gives way to a nutty, slightly astringent aftertaste – something which Heine has battled with in the beer.

Mashing with millet

Much like sorghum, millet comes with its challenges. “If you just look at it the wrong way, it sticks!” jokes Heine, referring to millet’s lack of a husk and tendency to clump in the mash. The grain is also high in beta glucans, which will increase wort viscosity if the brewer doesn’t adjust the mash accordingly.

We sample two prototype brews, produced in a Cape Town contract brewing facility using Heine’s malted millet in place of barley malt. The pale ale has a slightly sour, citric note and an undertone of honey. The astringency I picked up in the grain does follow through to the beer but it’s not overpowering. When you taste these beers, you have to put away your BJCP guidelines and your preconceptions of what beer “should” taste like. This is a whole new style in itself, and just as drinkers had to get used to the new flavours brought by their first sip of Lambic or stout or imperial New England IPA, so must they get used to the unique character of millet beer.

When the brewery launches, there will be two separate ranges: one will comprise beers made from 100% millet, while the other range will use millet as an adjunct to malted barley. “Maun is ripe for a brewery,” says Heine, “but we need to produce beers that will sell. Sure, people will find a 100% millet beer interesting and will undoubtedly order one, but will they go back for a second? This is a beer that is quite a leap from your usual lager so we want to give people something a little more familiar as well.”

Heine, Graham and their brewmaster, Juste Destin LeCoeur Bidzouta Zola, are still deciding on which beers will appear in the 100% millet range and are currently experimenting with Belgian yeasts, which Heine feels will play nicely with the fruity character of the millet.

Whatever they decide on, when their brewery opens early next year, you can be sure that Okavango, like an increasing number of craft breweries elsewhere on the continent, is helping to carve a uniquely African beer identity, championing local ingredients and honouring a brewing heritage that dates back millennia.

Pictures: Lucy Corne