A Brief History of African Sorghum Beers
How this simple brew was used by the state, but claimed by the people.
Sorghum beers have had a very long and, at least of late, fairly complicated history in some nations of the vast African continent. From playing a part in village economics to racist restrictions and state control, traditional opaque beer has been used for hundreds of years through a wide variety of African cultures to celebrate special occasions and to relax after a hard day of work, regardless of local political and social upheaval.
This pinkish-brown, cloudy beer is made from fermented sorghum grass, a native plant that grows throughout Africa and that lends itself to the fermentation process particularly well. Specific cultivars of the plant have long been chosen based on the quality of the malt that they produce. Sorghum grass itself is rich in protein, which results in a foamy head for the final beer product, a slightly sour, slightly fruity, but much loved drink with a variety of regional tweaks that are very distinctive. From the sour taste of pombe in East Africa to the milder flavor of burukuto in Nigeria, unique local versions of sorghum beer can be found all over the continent.
The drink is relatively easy to brew and recipes for it have been passed down for generations through families in towns and villages across Africa. Independent brews are commonly sold from homes and along the side of the road, particularly in more remote areas where commercial brands aren’t as readily available. In fact, some estimates put the production of home brews in some parts of the continent at close to the same amount as that of commercial sorghum beer producers. Although they are illicit, Zimbabwean beverages like Zed and Blue Diamond are some of the best-selling brew in the country. Scud, as local sorghum beer is called there, makes up a substantial part of some local economies.
One thing that’s generally consistent among different brews of sorghum beer is the relatively low alcohol content – normally falling somewhere between only about 1% and 8% – and that factor has played a part in its availability to black Africans in recent years. For many years during South Africa’s apartheid regime, black citizens faced a prohibition on almost all alcohol, as a means of control by the white government. But umqombothi, the version of sorghum beer that had been produced by local Bantu tribes for centuries, was excluded from the ban due to its exceptionally low alcohol content. At only about 3% alcohol at its most potent, umqombothi was seen as the only alcoholic beverage that black people could drink without losing control.
The state also used production of umqombothi in order to fund the segregationist policies of white lawmakers who sought to create “native locations” outside of the main cities and towns where white people were living. Because the government was the sole maker of commercially made umqombothi, they could use the proceeds made from selling it in these black communities to pay for keeping the races separate.
The fact is, sorghum beer has roots in African culture stretching back for hundreds of years. Regardless of whether you are drinking bil-bil in Cameroon or chibuku in Zambia, the sorghum beer that you’re consuming is part of the rich tradition of the local people and their customs.