Walking past the stands of soap, canned tomatoes, and onions for sale on her porch, Madame Rita enters the cabaret where she and her family sell their homebrewed beer. “Good morning,” she says, smiling broadly. “Are you well in arriving?”
Inside the small concrete room, the percussive guitar of a Côte d’Ivoirian artist blares through a speaker as dozens of flies flit around the room’s low concrete benches, searching for traces of spilled beer. The room is dim except for a band of sunlight coming through the back door. Today, like every day, Rita and her family have been brewing in the hard-packed clay courtyard behind their cabaret. Rita’s sister, Brigitte, is inside serving the beer, which many locals consider some of the best in the area. A middle-aged man in a faded American T-shirt, tired-looking slacks, and flip-flops steps into the room. He is the day’s first customer, and Brigitte offers him a sample of the day’s batch. Here, as in all cabarets in this small West African nation of Benin, the server always offers each customer a free bowl of beer upon his/her arrival. If the quality is satisfactory, the customer might stay and continue drinking; others take advantage of the tradition and wander from beer house to beer house, drinking free samples all day.
From the corner where the still-fermenting beer sits in plastic buckets and large cooking pots, Brigitte calls out to the customer, “Well-fermented or sweet?”
Since the beer is fermented with a blend of environmentally harvested microbes (namely lactic acid bacteria and wild Saccharomyces), customers have the choice of drinking younger sweeter beer or slightly older beer with a more pronounced acidity. The man opts instead for a blend of the two. Brigitte places a metal stand at the man’s feet, then ladles a few ounces of the fizzing orange beer into a calabash (a bowl made from the dried fruit of a tree). She places the bowl on the rack, then covers it with a round slab of wood to keep out flies. The man drinks the bowl quickly, then pours a small pile of snuff into the crease between his thumb and index finger and inhales it absent-mindedly. Apparently satisfied with the quality of the beer, he demands another bowl. While her sister refills the customer’s beer, Rita is busy outside.
As Rita prepares to brew, her brother, Martin, enters the courtyard. He is tall with broad shoulders and is wearing a freshly pressed boomba (a traditional suit consisting of a long shirt and pants made from the same brightly colored fabric). He has dropped in for a drink before tending to some personal business, but before entering the cabaret, he stops to watch as his sister hauls a metal basin of crushed grain into the yard. His gaze settles on a number of concrete slabs set in the dry red earth a few feet from where he is standing.
“You see those? Those are the graves of several generations of our ancestors. We’ve been living and making beer here for a long time.”
As he turns back toward the cabaret, Martin pauses to look through the gate toward the bottom of the hill where the house is situated. There, the market grounds of Natitingou are teeming with people.
A Beer Steeped in Tradition and Lore
Nestled in the Atacora Mountains, the small city of Natitingou is home to one of northern Benin’s largest open-air markets. A few times a week, people travel from dozens of nearby villages to navigate the sprawling market’s many neighborhoods. There, the smell of fried food is pervasive, and in the packed alleys between stalls, the sounds of buyers and sellers haggling over colorful fabrics, imported produce, and second-hand clothes bleed into a loud murmur.
When I arrive, it is late in the morning, and several women are selling their beer in tin huts and wooden lean-tos a few meters from the market. Aristide, a lifelong resident of Natitingou and an amateur local beer historian, is relaxing in a nearby bar, nursing a bottle of La Beninoise (Benin’s flagship adjunct lager).
“It’s been hot today. When it’s hot during the day like this, it’s sure to rain at night,” he tells me before taking a long draw of his beer.
In a country with a stagnant economy that offers high school and college graduates alike few opportunities outside of driving taxis or work as a day laborer, Aristide managed to become one of Benin’s only native archaeologists. He speaks about twelve languages, including French, English, German, and a slew of local languages from around Benin. His mother tongue is Dittamari, the language of the Ottamari people. His family is one of the largest and oldest in the region, and he claims that they were the first people to develop the brewing process here.
“In my language,” he explains, “we call our beer tchoukoutou. There are people from several ethnic groups who make beer around the area, but tchoukoutou was the first, and it started right here, with the Ottamari people. We’ve made beer since before French colonization in the late 1800s.”
Like many of the dozens of ethnic groups in Benin, the Ottamari practice polygamy. Aristide recounts a story about an ancestor who, ready to take a second wife, married a beautiful young woman. Then, as now, the inhabitants of northwestern Benin ate sorghum as a cornerstone of their diet.
Aristide explains, “While storing a portion of the year’s grain harvest, the new wife allowed one of the sacks to become wet. The grain began to germinate and, realizing her error, she sought the help of the first wife.”
Together the two wives spread the grain to dry in the sun. They used this grain to make a batch of porridge and later that evening were astonished by the intoxicating effects of the fermented leftovers.
Aristide’s eyes light up as he says matter-of-factly, “In this way, tchoukoutou was created.”
Today, as with that accidental inaugural batch, tchoukoutou is made only by women. However, Aristide claims that virtually all Ottamari, male and female, are familiar with the process.
“I helped my mother make our family’s beer throughout my childhood. My father did the same thing with his mother.” Aristide smiles, then mentions off-handedly, “Growing up, [my father] was good friends with Mathieu Kérékou. They would help my grandmother and her sisters brew. When they got older, they quit school to start farming, and if it hadn’t been for Hubert Maga, who was their teacher at the time, things would have been a lot different. Maga came to the farm and told them both they had to finish at school, and they listened.”
Some context: Hubert Maga eventually became the first president of Benin after the country declared independence from France. Aristide’s father and Mathieu Kérékou both became high-ranking officials in Maga’s military, whereupon Kérékou, along with a small group of dissidents in the upper echelons of Maga’s military—including Aristide’s father—staged a coup and displaced Maga. Kérékou then served as the leader of Benin for almost three decades, from 1972 to 1991 and again between 1996 and 2006. Aristide recounts these facts nonchalantly, as if everyone’s father had, at one time or another, been implicated in a hostile takeover of a government.
Aristide sips his beer and adds, “Early on, tchoukoutou was only for culturally important events, such as funerals or weddings. It was so important that if someone were to die before the year’s grain harvests, their funeral would be postponed until the harvest was finished so that a sufficient quantity of beer could be brewed for the ceremony.”
Today, however, people brew beer in order to sell it, and its commercialization has some unfortunate consequences. Because brewing demands strong wood fires, the process contributes to deforestation—a problem plaguing much of West Africa—on a scale not seen when brewing was restricted to socially significant ceremonies.
“Ironically, the commercial demand for the beer itself is a threat to its existence. It’s getting more expensive. People have to travel farther and farther to find wood all the time.” Aristide sighs, then orders another beer.
As Local as Local Beer Gets
Back at the cabaret, Rita feeds half a dozen logs into a small fire at the base of a clay oven.
“I’ve just added one part crushed sorghum to five parts water,” she says, gesturing toward a jug containing a soupy mixture of grain and room-temperature water. She must wait for 30 minutes while the grain soaks, and she steps away to catch her breath. Since Benin is a developing country, the diverse assortment of pre-malted grains that homebrewers and professionals enjoy in wealthier countries does not exist here. Rita’s family grows all of their own grain, and Rita acts tirelessly as the house maltster. Her process is simple, albeit time-consuming.
“Many brewers use a blend of sorghum, millet, and corn, but I use only sorghum,” Rita says as she turns over a pile of grain with her hand.
After the grain soaks overnight, Rita places the grain in a pile about 10 cm (4") thick in a small storage room. She covers the pile with a tarp, and once the grain germinates, she dries it in the sun, then grinds it into a coarse flour. Occasionally, the grain germinates unevenly due to an unbalanced distribution of water. However, she has another, more frequent, issue with her malting.
“A big problem for me is that goats wander in and eat the grain while it’s germinating,” Rita laughs as she walks back toward the clay oven.
The 30 minutes are up, and the fire is ready. Rita starts by decanting the top third of the jug’s liquid—which is now a hazy orange wort—into a shallow metal basin, which she places to the side. Rita tops the jug off with water to replace the removed wort, then transfers all of its contents into a large cooking pot she has placed on the clay oven. As the grain-wort mixture boils, light-colored foam forms on its surface. After about 45 minutes, the foam darkens and dissipates. Rita removes the pot from the fire and filters the boiled wort from the grain. Once the boiled wort begins to cool, she consolidates it with the unboiled (and as such, bacteria-rich) third of the wort she set aside earlier. She moves the cooking pot to a storage room, then waits. By the evening, the beer will have developed a mild acidity.
At this point, Rita will boil the beer again. As it cools, she will make a starter by pouring a small amount into a bowl containing pieces of dried yeast cake from a previous batch. Rita will then place the beer, followed by the starter and its submerged yeast cakes, into a loosely-covered plastic bucket. Once fermentation begins, the beer will be ready to drink. The beer is served still fermenting, and its prickly carbonation complements the bracing acidity that develops as the beer ages. Its thick chewy texture is reminiscent of thin porridge, and its flavor is comparable to a mildly sweet cider, with notes of vinegar, orange, and a yogurt tanginess. By blending younger and older batches, one can achieve a surprising depth of flavor, even though the beer is drunk the same day it is brewed.
The quality of Rita’s beer is evidenced by the crowd of men and women who trickle in for a bowl as the market’s activity slows. With the bulk of the day’s brewing done, Rita can finally sit to drink and talk with her customers. A few men take turns buying rounds for each other, which inspires Rita’s brother to buy a round for the house. After several bowls of beer, the loud music is no longer abrasive. Instead, the bright guitar and warm vocal harmonies fill the room and drive one customer—an elderly Ottamari woman wearing a blue-and-white skirt and a headscarf—to dance, jumping from one leg to the other, arms outstretched. At the cabaret, afternoon is giving way to evening, and the beer will continue to flow well into the night.