Category Archives: Alcohol

African Sorghum Beers

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.

Sorghum

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.

Opaque Beer

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.

South Africa

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.

Asian Sorghum Spirits

The Popularity of Sorghum-Based Spirits in Asia

This ancient drink has become more popular than ever thanks to a wide variety of brand names that are bringing the beverage to the masses.

Distilled spirits have been used in China for centuries as a way to celebrate and wish the efforts of one’s friends and neighbors well, and sorghum-based alcohol and wine are still some of the most popular drinks on the Asian market to serve this purpose. Across cultures, sorghum-based alcohol drinks may go by many different names, but whether it’s called baijiu, firewater or white lightening, this ancient distilled spirit has become the go-to for Asian cultures from China to Taiwan to Korea throughout the years.

Baijiu

Baijiu is a common Chinese alcohol that has typically been derived from sorghum, a type of grass which can easily be distilled into a clear and relatively smooth tasting drink. It is frequently referred to as the “Chinese vodka” for its similarities in clarity and consistency to traditional vodka. Chinese connoisseurs of baijiu place a heavy emphasis on the aroma of the alcohol, describing the differences in relation to the unique fragrance of each beverage. Some will offer a noticeably lighter or darker fragrance, while others provide a distinctive honey, sauce or rice fragrance. The drink is also often referred to as shaojiu and it generally contains a much higher alcohol content than other types of distilled spirits, with anywhere from 40% to 60% alcohol content considered to be standard.

Brand Names

One of the most recognized name brands selling baijiu these days is Wuliangye, which offers a clean and freshly fragranced drink that is commonly sold in countries throughout Asia. Moutai, a popular brand of baijiu sold across mainland China, is a sauce-fragranced variation of the beverage that is made in the town Maotai and is said to derive its distinctive qualities from the regional climate and vegetation where it is produced. Fen ji, meanwhile, presents a light fragrance and pristine clarity that is virtually unmatched by most other brands.

Throughout China, Taiwan and Korea, consumers enjoy a type of baijiu called kaoling or gao liang, which has an especially light fragrance and mellow feel. A commercially-available Taiwanese brand of kaoling called Kinmen Kaoling claims to have perfected the art of aged kaoling for commercial production, making it widely available and one of the top sellers of baijiu in the world.

Regardless of where it is produced, it appears that sorghum-based baijiu is certainly here to stay. With its generally low price tag and smooth, mellow flavor, this distilled spirit is sure to continue to gain popular favor not only in Asia, but across the globe.

Gluten Free Sorghum

The Rise of Sorghum Beers & Alcohols in the U.S.

Gluten-free sorghum options have been a big hit in the states

While sorghum-based beer and alcohol have long been staples in Africa and Asia, beverages that use this grassy plant as a base have only just started to develop a real following in the U.S., thanks to the increased demand for gluten-free products over the past decade. The fact that these drinks also often have a more mellow flavor than many of their barley-based counterparts has certainly contributed to their growing popularity across America as well.

Because sorghum can be brewed to create a drink that is completely free of gluten, beer and alcohol drinks that are sorghum-based can be readily enjoyed by those who suffer from celiac disease or who have sensitivities to glycoproteins. It can be brewed into beer or into a distilled spirit that is similar to traditional whiskey, but either way, it offers a nice alcohol option for anyone trying to avoid gluten.

Sorghum Beer


Ever since Anheuser-Busch introduced their Redbridge sorghum-based beer on a national scale in 2006, sales of this type of brew have grown steadily and there are now a number of small brewhouses across the U.S. and elsewhere who are now producing their own varieties. Dogfish Head Tweason Ale out of Delaware leads the way with a beer that is fruity and mildly sweet, while Bard’s Original Sorghum Malt Beer, produced in Minnesota, offers the scent and flavor of malt and sour apples.

In Oregon, Ground Breaker Brewing, formerly known as Harvester, uses a special white sorghum syrup produced locally to create their Pale Ale, which also features chestnuts and plenty of hops for flavor. Colorado’s New Planet Brewery makes all sorghum-based beers, from a citrusy Pale Ale to their spicier Belgian, while Lakefront Brewery in Wisconsin has introduced New Grist, a smooth and crisp sorghum-based alternative. Meanwhile, Shakparo is a “Fire-Brewed African Style Ale” from Sprecher Brewing that lives up to its name with a crisp and slighty sour taste that is sure to keep your attention.

American breweries aren’t the only ones getting in on the sorghum-based trend, however. Sorgham Beer, produced by St. Peter’s Brewery in Suffolk, England is reminiscent of a German Pilsner and it’s quietly become one of the most popular gluten-free import beers available in the U.S.

Spirits


There are other gluten-free alcoholic drinks that you can make from sorghum grass and two distilleries in Wisconsin have proven to be winners in the market. Queen Jennie is a silky sweet sorghum whiskey with a nutty aroma and flavor, while Brown Dog offers up a delectable apple and oak combination. Both are sure to delight anyone who thought they could never have whiskey again because of its gluten content.

Although sorghum-based beer and spirits may only be catching on in America recently, there can be little doubt that these gluten-free options will continue to gain in popularity over the next several years.