The first time I tried a banana-based spirit that blew me away was when a bartender poured me a shot of Giffard Banane Du Bresil, a delicious liqueur (sweetened spirit) made from distilled bananas. The liqueur was bursting with flavor and the fragrance of banana and toffee – the truly delicious treat spoiled me. I haven’t been able to find anything alcoholic that has both Giffard’s quality and distinct banana flavor since, but I’ve been obsessively trying to.
It’s through this heated search that I discovered banana beer. While banana beer might sound like something being concocted by the latest craft brewery, it’s actually an East African staple. Why bananas? Simple, they’re plentiful and can ferment like any other fruit. Take Rwanda, for example, Bananas are a staple of the diet, so urwagwa – banana beer – is too.
The process of making banana beer seems simple on the surface: you ferment bananas but it’s actually a bit more involved and time consuming. Though there isn’t one strict way to make the concoction, the basic process entails leaving unpeeled bananas in a pit for several days to ripen. The meat is then removed from the skin, kneaded, juiced, filtered, and diluted. Next, wild yeast is added to the mixture in the form of millet, maize, or sorghum – a type of grass also used to make baijiu. Once that yeast eats the sugar – the process we call fermentation – you have banana beer.
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While most banana beers are homemade or sold by small makers in local African communities, mainstream, mass marketed banana beers are available – kind of. They’re few and far between, but they can be found. Netherlands-based importer Mongozo creates a banana beer as does Tanzanian based Banana Investments Ltd, who makes Raha. According to Ratebeer.com, Raha has an ABV of 8% and is 240 calories a bottle, but that’s all the official information listed.
So what does it actually taste like? Unfortunately not like the Giffard Banane Du Bresil liqueur that’s haunted my dreams. Canadian news producer Jim Handman tasted the “wild beer” several years ago in Rwanda, where he had the pleasure of sampling the “thick, opaque, yellowish-brown liquid” made by nuns – that’s right, Nuns were brewing the beer. The taste? “Both sweet and sour, with a very strong alcohol flavour….a bit like unfiltered apple juice combined with a healthy dose of vodka.” So more gritty moonshine than decadent flavors of banana and toffee.
But in East Africa, banana liqueur isn’t the goal, and for many, banana beer will do just fine. It’s not only a dietary staple, but one with much cultural significance. Christoper Bendana, writer at Ugandan newspaper New Vision, writes that tonto (banana beer), “has been a traditional drink for over 13 million people of…Uganda. Its [sic] non-negotiable presence at weddings, cultural rituals, rites of passage, and other celebrations like Christmas made it the drink of the occasion.”
Emphasis on made. Bendana explains that due to the time consuming, physically taxing and often expensive process of making tonto, it’s dying out as the Ugandan celebratory drink of choice. Making tonto apparently takes weeks, and people have opted for the cheaper booze, waragi – the general Ugandan term for a distilled beverage that can be made from banana beer mash.
Waragi has a much longer shelf life than tonto, and batches of the banana beer are now being made purposefully thick and left to ferment for longer to produce more of the distillate. East African Breweries Limited sells the product commercially, classifying it as a gin and the gin blog The Gin Is In has actually tasted the spirit, describing it as smooth but fairly tasteless, a contrast to Handman’s colorful and more intriguing review of authentic banana beer.
With U.S. brewers and distillers all vying to create fresh, spectacular products, I’m hoping that someone will be up to the challenge of brewing banana beer stateside in the future. Perhaps a phenomenon similar to Sorel will take place. Sorrel, a traditional Caribbean hibiscus liqueur, was long drank before Jackie Summers, i.e Jack From Brooklyn, crafted and marketed his own version, Sorel, to astounding success. The same could happen with banana beer.
In the meantime I’m sure someone in the states is making banana beer in their backyard. I hope that person will share some with the rest of us, soon.
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