This says a lot about political and cultural imperialism. When European colonisers settled on the African continent, there was a juxtaposition of cultures, but no real integration thereof. Westerners continued to brew (and import) beer the way they knew and liked it, and the Africans did the same.
In fact, during the European missionaries’ drive into Africa for converts, a Belgian Trappist monastery was established in what is today known as The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). The Trappist monks are famous for their fine and potent brews, but the monastery, Notre Dame des Mokoto, only produced beer for its own consumption. If the holy brothers had shared their dubbels and tripels as well as their faith, there might have been a smoother political transition, and an eighth Trappist brewery in the world. As it happened, the monastery was destroyed in 1996, during central Africa’s spate of civil wars.
Traditional brewing methods continue into the 21st Century, despite what some analysts describe as a gradually declining demand and the efforts of some governments to discourage and even outlaw the practice. The real reason for the persistence of this ‘underground’ brewing is poverty. Most people simply can not afford the commercial lagers and stouts on sale at liquor stores. In East Africa, some 80 percent of the beer consumed is produced by illicit or at least non-commercial means.
One of the more dangerous symptoms of the informal brewing of traditional beer is the lack of quality control. Towards the end of last year in Kenya, hundreds of people died and others were permanently blinded after drinking a toxic batch of illegal chang’aa (sorghum beer) containing either methanol, battery acid or formalin. In South Africa, the cheap but legal red-and-white cartons of Joburg Beer—mainly sold in the bustling micro-economy of Johannesburg’s sprawling, teeming taxi ranks—are nicknamed takunyisa (‘running stomach’).
Nevertheless, umnqombothi (pronounced oom-kom-bo-tee) remains a firm favorite among southern Africans in particular. Neither commercial nor illegal and brewed by individual households, this smooth, rich and slightly sour indigenous sorghum beer is made by adding sugar, water and corn to soft-cooked sorghum-meal porridge, allowing it to stand, then repeating the process to taste. The natural fermentation process gives the beer a thick and creamy head of various-sized bubbles. Umnqombothi is traditionally drunk from a communal calabash.
This beer has a long and proud history. It was first brewed in the grass-hut kraals (tribal villages) on the Southeastern tip of the African continent, and fuelled the indomitable imperial armies of the Zulu nation in the mid-nineteenth century. This is the preferred alcoholic beverage of the nation that delivered the British Empire its biggest defeat ever at the Battle of Isandlwana—still a selling point among the more heritage-conscious people of the humid KwaZulu-Natal coastline, I’m sure. Not to mention the reason for the famous, rock-hard potbellies of so many of the Zulu kings.
The South African Goliath
Africa itself only represents some 5 percent of global beer production, but of this South Africa constitutes about 54 percent. This means that one country comprises half of an entire continent’s commercial beer market. The reason for this is that the African beer market is virtually monopolized by the corporate giant South African Breweries (SAB), the fifth largest brewing company in the world.
SAB was established in 1895 by Charles Chandler, Anders Ohlsson and brewer Charles Glass, and became the first industrial share to be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. It filled what was more a yawning abyss than a mere niche in the market during the South African gold rush. Thirsty miners were drinking raw potato spirits mixed with tobacco juice and pepper before SAB opened the first proper bar in the northern gold prospecting regions of the country.