Umqombothi: The original craft beer
Years ago, before craft beer hit our pubs, restaurants, and bottle stores, South Africans have been drinking a beer that has stood tests of taste and time. The original. The best. Umqombothi.
Before being made internationally famous by South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka, and before craft beer became the trendy option for South Africa's beer drinkers, Umqombothi has been drunk by our people for centuries. Passed down for generations, this intoxicating brew is still made with the same recipe as was done so long ago.
In Langa, Cape Town's oldest township, around a corner and down a certain alley, beer is prepared as it has been for years: over an open fire. Made from maize meal, maize and sorghum malt, the ingredients are mixed together with boiling water, and left to ferment overnight, in a big, blue drum. Every so often, the maker of the beer, a small and feisty woman, pours boiling water from the fire into the drum, covering it with old meal bags and a wooden board. Once this mixture begins to ferment, a small portion of wort is put to one side. The remaining mash is cooked until sediment called 'isidudu' is formed, which can be eaten as porridge.
The wort that was previously set aside is added to the mixture in the 'ifayti' or barrel, along with a handful of sorghum and maize malt, and stirred with a long traditional spoon called 'iphini'. It is necessary that the mixture retains its heat, and so the drum is covered and left in a warm place, usually indoors, to encourage further fermentation. This process can take up to five days, and will determine the alcoholic content of the beer. In Langa, where the beer is sold for R20 a pail, the beer is often left for just one or two nights, or as long as the demand for it will allow. This means that the taste is milder and the level of alcohol lower than had the beer been prepared for traditional purposes, such as when someone contacts their ancestors, for weddings, funerals and traditional meetings.
When ready, the mixture is strained through a large sieve, to remove the grains. These grains are then squeezed out to get as much beer as possible, and are then thrown out or fed to the chickens. This process is all done by hand, the brewer up to their elbows as they swirl the liquid around in the giant sieve.
The beer is then decanted into a small metal pail or 'bhekile', and placed on the ground.
Drinking the beer is a matter of hierarchy and so the eldest and most important person tastes the sweet-sour drink. They do so by first gently blowing the foam from the surface, and then taking a series of glugs. Unlike when drinking most beers, sipping is not normally practised, but when done, is called "kissing the bucket". So make sure you don't embarrass yourself, and be sure to take a few gulps of the beer that really has stood the test of time.