Traditional African beer goes by many names. It all depends on the country you’re in and the region. In South Africa’s Western and Eastern Cape provinces where the predominant African language is Xhosa, traditional artisan beer is called Umqombothi. The commonality between countries and regions is that this home-brewed concoction is made with maize (corn), maize salt, yeast and warm water. It’s light in colour, incredibly dense and has a decidedly bitter taste.
Having your beer and eating it
Apparently, home brewed beer dates back thousands of years. As custom would have it preparation has changed little since the early days. Ingredients are mixed in an earthen pot over an open fire, and stirred watchfully for hours with a stick. The mixture is allowed to cool and left overnight so that it ferments. With the fermentation process comes the pungent telltale aroma or odour; some say it smells like lemons. Others, less inclined towards the stuff, say it smells overpoweringly sour. A small amount of the wort (before the mixture ferments) is removed and put aside. The remaining mixture is cooked until crispy sediment forms. This sediment is called isidudu and is eaten as porridge.
Central to African culture and customs
Making and consuming Umqombothi has always been a way of life for Xhosa people, particularly in the more traditional rural areas. It features at weddings, funerals, rites of passage, and imbizos (traditional meetings). It’s also a customary part of making contact with the ancestors. Naturally, too much homebrew will result in drunkenness although umqombothi is said to have a lower alcohol content than commercially bottled beers.
That said, it has a short shelf life. Lasting about five days, the longer it’s left from production to consumption the more the alcohol content increases and the more bitter the taste. In traditional African culture, Umqombothi is associated with respect for customs and traditions and not with intoxication.
Commercial production and distribution
In many African countries, artisan African beer is moving from pots on fires to metal vats in breweries. It’s becoming a modern enterprise; a little sad perhaps when you consider that Umqombothi is becoming increasingly associated with urban shebeens (township taverns), and less so with African custom and tradition. Luckily though, age-old brewing traditions and cultural customs survive and even thrive particularly in rural villages where secret family recipes are passed down from generation to generation.