Wine, palm oil, cocoa, and coffee are among the agricultural products Americans consume from Africa. But pity the American beer geek and craft brewer bereft of the ancient, heterogeneous, and gloriously innovative source of wisdom and knowledge that has suffused African beer culture for centuries.
According to the Western paradigm, the basic building blocks of beer are universal: water, hops, malted barley, yeast. But over in Africa, it’s a different world. Beer is made from sorghum and maize, flavored with cassava root, hibiscus, and banana.
Two tributaries of knowledge and tradition flow into the taps of African brews today. One is tribal. Ancient Egyptians brewed beer, as did tribes throughout the African continent, long before Europeans settlers arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries.
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But along with colonialism and political upheaval, settlers – especially the Dutch and British – introduced their beer brewing techniques and recipes to Africans, some of which were adopted on the continent. Settlers did not adopt indigenous techniques until centuries later, when large-scale brewers like Guinness came in and fused European and African beer recipes and techniques.
While tribal traditions vary significantly country to country throughout Africa, the ongoing humanitarian crises and political upheaval make truly exploring them logistically – not to mention ethically – challenging.
Needless to say, every country in Africa is different. But some generalizations for the entire continent can be made when it comes to beer. Women are often the brewers of beer in Africa, while men are typically the consumers. Sorghum, a type of grass, has been used to brew beer in Africa as far back as time records. The indigenous plant can survive high temperatures and extreme drought, and over the centuries, sorghum strains have been selected for their auspicious qualities related to brewing (high in tannin with a soft endosperm).
One of the most well-known, fascinating, and influential beer traditions in Africa hails from the Zulu. Thought to be the largest ethnic group in South Africa, numbering in the 10 million-plus range, Zulu people led an agrarian life until recently. It was a life that centered on farming and animal husbandry. While colonialism and a series of natural disasters decimated their traditional lifestyle, much of their inherent cultural tradition remains an important part of their life today.
Beer drinking in Zulu homes, even in the 21st century, is highly ritualized, with beer being offered to ancestors and guests. Also, beer is consumed in stunning (and now highly collectible) ceramic beer pots that Zulu women make. There are four types of vessels — imbiza, uphiso, ukhamba and umancishana – all with different uses in the beer-making, storage, and presentation process. They are laboriously handmade, richly decorated, and vary dramatically region to region. The process of making the beer pot – the ukhamba – is especially arduous, starting with a walk to two different rivers to dig clay out of the banks. The clay is then dried, pulverized with a grinding stone, sieved, and reconstituted with water, then formed by building coils of clay and smoothing them down with a stone. The pots are fired twice to achieve their trademark black sheen.
In addition to being an important part of ceremonial life, beer is embedded in the everyday, so naturally, there’s a lot of suds being guzzled. Africa’s beer market is expected to grow faster than that of any other region in the world over the next five years, according to beverage trend forecaster Canadean. Urbanization, a skyrocketing population, plus increased GDP, are contributing to the rise.
Nigeria alone is set to become the third-largest population by 2050, according to the U.N., and the continent as a whole will boast the largest working (and drinking) age demographic by 2050. Growth in beer consumption is expected to continue at 5 percent year-over-year from 2015 to 2020, outpacing Asia, the Middle East and North Africa (all pegged at 3 percent) and far ahead of crickety old markets like Western Europe and North America (pegged at 1 percent or less).
The vast majority (about 90 percent) of the beer being consumed in Africa is monopolized by four global companies: SABMiller, Heineken, Castel, and Diageo. And counterintuitively, the African market is in turn monopolizing some major brands’ global marketing strategies.
Take Guinness. In 2007, Africa surpassed Ireland as the second-largest market for the Diageo-owned Guinness worldwide. Guinness arrived on African shores in 1827 where the British Empire had colonies or soldiers. When locals overthrew the Brits in the 20th century, the beer stayed. In 1962, two years after Nigeria gained independence, Guinness built the first brewery outside the U.K., in Lagos.
Now there are 13 Guinness breweries throughout Africa, but they’re not churning out Irish Guinness. Instead of barley, African Guinness is brewed with maize or sorghum. It also clocks in with a higher ABV, about 7.5 percent versus the 4 to 5 percent in Guinness Draught and Extra Stout. The company introduced Guinness Africa Special, made with local herbs and spices, including cola nut, chili, and lemongrass.
All the major brands also make beers specifically for the African market: Primus and Bralima from Heineken, Kilimanjaro from SABMiller, etc.
Some are better than others at environmental stewardship and a commitment to responsible production. In Nigeria, Heineken sources sorghum locally for its beer (this started in the 1980s when the Nigerian government banned the import of raw materials) and makes high-maltose syrup from local cassava instead of imported sugar. About 60 percent of the ingredients brewed in Nigeria are made from local ingredients. Heineken works with local farmers to increase their crop yields and aims to limit their use of water and reuse it whenever possible.
While it’s laudable, and quite frankly refreshing, to see that some of these corporations are taking steps to utilize local ingredients and know-how, it would be nice to see Africans capitalizing on their grand tribal brewing history. A movement is afoot to retake the beer space from foreign congloms, but many of the more successful craft brewers are flipping the script. These brewers are importing wheat from Europe and aggressively embracing European and American beer brewing techniques and ingredients.
Here is a brief snapshot of African brewers that excel at what they do and embody a certain archetype of the growing craft movement there:
Mitchell’s (The Godfather of Craft in Africa)
Lex Mitchell of Mitchell’s Brewery kicked off the craft brew movement in 1983 in Knysna. He started small, brewing Forester’s Lager (inspired by the indigenous forests and the elephants in the region) and Bosun’s Bitter (named for the 18th century port in town and the captains and crew who toiled there for centuries) for distribution and sale locally. Growth exploded and Lex opened up branches in Gauteng and Capetown in 1989 and beers were added, including 90 Shillings Ale, Raven Stout, and Millwood Mild. While Lex is no longer at the helm, Dave McRae, a partner and brewmaster remains, and now Mitchell’s is South Africa’s second-biggest brewery (second only to SABMiller), beloved for its refreshing, high-quality and low-alcohol brews.
Flying Dodo (May as Well Be Brooklyn in Africa)
Oscar Olsen, of the wee island Mauritius, studied in America and in Germany and fell in love with all the varieties of beers he encountered. Back home, he decided to hop up the island, opening a beer restaurant and shop called the Lambic Beer House in 2009 and then going all-in with the Flying Dodo Brewery in 2011. The beers here are classic: think Blonde (an American-style blonde Pale Ale with Polaris, Sladek and Galaxy hops) and Belgian-Style Wit (a traditional Wit beer brewed with orange peel, coriander and Perle, Saphyr and Cascade hops). The brewery is stationed on the ground floor of a restaurant and bears all the hallmarks of hipsterdom (exposed wood beams, industrial chic, strawberry beer soap for sale).
Inland Microbrewery (African Craft)
Located outside Accra in Ghana, Clement Djameh and Fash Sawyerr brew beer at the Inland Microbrewery using sorghum and plantains. YAAASSSS. Djameh grew up surrounded by beer culture, but most of it was influenced by Germany (the country previously occupied Ghana’s Volta Region). He studied beer in Germany, returned home, and worked for commercial breweries for decades before going the field-to-bottle route. The only non-African ingredient they use are hops. While they currently only brew to order, their focus on traditional African recipes (as opposed to the more Euro-centric brews favored by most larger craft brewers in Africa) is gaining a wider audience among locals and tourists keen for a taste of authenticity.
For now, most of the legitimately “craft” brewing utilizing local ingredients and indigenous know-how is happening in rural areas for home consumption. Ginger beers, honey beers, and Chibuku or porridge beer are frequently made by home brewers (often women) and consumed by the men they live with. Chibuku is meant to be part food, part drink, and is brewed from whatever grain is local to the area (usually sorghum or millet); the cooking and fermentation process is usually done over a fire in a large pot. When the wort is partially removed, the remaining mash is cooked until it reaches a porridge consistency. Known as isidudu, it is often consumed separately. (Drunken oatmeal!) The final product has a definite sediment that some would even characterize as a chunky consistency. It has a shelf life of about five days. SABMiller, of course, has its own version.