Hundreds of years before handcrafted artisan beers became fashionable, the Xhosa people had been brewing their own home made beer from ingredients and tools produced in the region where they lived.
The Xhosa settled in the region of the Eastern Cape after migrating Southward from the Great Lakes regions of Central Africa. They were primarily cattle farmers, but also had goats, sheep, and poultry. Their main crops were sorghum, millet, pumpkins, beans, and maize.
When European farmer settlers arrived in the region in the late 18th Century, wars broke out between the two groups who were competing for agricultural land and water. These wars lasted about 100 years, gradually the Xhosa people became impoverished, and migrated to urban areas in search of work. As a result, younger generations of Xhosa people have lost touch with their pastoral roots, and are developing a preference for fast food, and urban lifestyle resulting in health problems like obesity and diabetes.
Umqombothi is a traditional Xhosa beer made from a combination of maize meal, crushed corn malt, crushed sorghum malt, water and yeast – traditionally made from the fleshy root of the moerwortel plant, Glia gummifera . There are many root species that have traditionally been used in brewing beer or mead, depending on the region. It is an age-old technique that used to be fundamental to this kind of production. But today, it has almost completely disappeared, substituted everywhere with industrial selected yeast.
Umqombothi is brewed following traditional customs and these vary slightly between regions. The recipe is often passed down through the generations. A higher maize malt content produces a lighter-toned beer with a mellow flavor. A higher sorghum malt content produces a darker beer. It is very rich in Vitamin B and has a rather low alcohol content. In appearance, the beer is opaque and light tan in color. It has a thick, creamy, gritty consistency from the maize, and is known for having a heavy and distinctly sour aroma.
The beer is traditionally prepared over a fire outside of the house.
The ingredients are mixed in a cast-iron vessel, known in South Africa as a potjie. Four measures of warm water are added. The mixture is left overnight so it can start fermenting. A small portion of the wort (which is the liquid extracted from previously mashing the grain) is removed and put to one side. The remaining mash is cooked until a crusty sediment forms. This product is known as isidudu and can be eaten as a porridge. When making beer, the isidudu is left to cool for a day.
After the isidudu has cooled, it is poured into a clay pot. The wort that was set aside is added, along with a handful of sorghum malt and a handful of maize malt. The brew is stirred with a traditional wooden spoon called an iphini. The pot is covered with a lid and blanket (to retain heat). It is put in a warm place overnight, to encourage fermentation.
The traditional method of testing to see if the brew is ready is to light a match close to the pot. If the match blows out quickly, the brew is ready. If the match remains lit, the brew is not yet ready.
In order to remove the spent grain, the fermented mash is filtered through a tube-shaped, woven grass strainer called an intluzo. The sediment at the bottom of the cooking pot is known as intshela and it is added to the strained beer to give extra flavor. Finally, the grain left in the strainer is squeezed out and then spread on the ground for chickens. The brewer of the beer traditionally gives thanks to their ancestors while casting the corn.
The grass strainers are only made by elderly people, using a centuries-old technique. It is a complicated and time consuming technique that takes great patience to learn and pass along to others. Younger generations are not always willing to learn this art, meaning that it is in danger of dying out, which could contribute to a loss of knowledge in brewing beer the traditional way.
The strainers are made by sewing together many strands of carefully-prepared, twisted, grass-like sedge stems. Symbolically, the intluzo was a very important item in a traditional Xhosa household, it was for example given as a wedding gift to the newly married. Unfortunately, metal factory-made strainers are more commonly used today. Once the beer has been strained, it is poured into a large communal drum known as a gogogo, so it can be shared.
Umqombothi plays a very important cultural, social and spiritual role. It is used to celebrate the home-coming of young men known as abakwetha in Xhosa culture, after initiation and ritual circumcision. But it is also part of the process of contacting the ancestors (known as amadlozi) and plays a central role in many celebrations or life events like weddings, funerals, and imbizos (traditional meetings).
Image: © Malcolm Drummond