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Umqombothi The Traditional South African Beer Of The Xhosa Tribe
Over the past ten years, South Africa experienced a boom in craft beers in its major cities. According to the Beer Association of South Africa (BASA), there are over 200 smaller craft brewers that meet the demand of South Africa’s beer lovers. Despite the success of Pale Ales and Lagers, there is one type that is gaining momentum in the country’s brewery industry— Umqombothi, a traditional South African beer.
Many years before craft beer gained popularity around the world, the Xhosa culture already had its own way of brewing beer at home.
Umqombothi is an ancient beer that is made from a combination of maize meal, crushed corn malt, crushed sorghum malt, water and yeast. It is a light brown beer, quite opaque and with a low alcohol content. Because of the corn, it is a dense and creamy drink. It has a remarkable aroma and is strongly acidic.
Its fermentation comes from a special yeast obtained from the root of the moerwortel Glia gummifera plant. Those who brew the beer at home usually add other ingredients, such as ginger and pineapple, to soften the sour taste.
Umqombothi is usually made outside the house and usually takes four to five days to produce. Traditional production techniques are taught from generation to generation, and it may vary slightly from one region to another.
One thing in common is the filtering process.
The Xhosa people filter the liquid with an object called an intlus. It is a handmade filter with twisted herb strands that requires a lot of patience.
The drink is often used to celebrate the return of young people coming home after initiation ceremonies. This beer is also used in rituals of connection with ancestors and served at parties and community gatherings.
The beer was once seen as an endangered drink. This is because its complex techniques involved in the production process make teaching to younger generations a great challenge.
Despite this, some craft breweries have been resuming the traditional Xhosa way of brewing beer and bringing visibility to South African culture.
Ukhamba Beerworx, Cape Town’s first Black-owned brewery, is one of many following this trend. The brewery offers their umqombothi-style Utywala Sorghum Saison, which is a modern version of umqombothi brewed with sorghum (amabele) and a special yeast to capture the essence of umqombothi.
“I noticed that modern beer as we know it has its origin in different European countries, I felt the need for an African brewery that tells African stories through beer. I wanted to have something different for foreigners who visit Africa and something that hits home for local people. I started home-brewing in 2014,” Lethu Tshabangu told Taste, a South African website.
In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African government banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in the country. The South African Police Service’s (SAPS) zero-tolerance approach to alcohol during the lockdown period has extended to the home brewing of liquor and traditional beer. Because of this, many people are rediscovering traditional ways of making Umqombothi, at home.