The Oxford Companion to Beer definition of

Africa, traditional brewing in,

Africa, Traditional Brewing In, has a long history. The ancient Egyptians brewed beer and tribes throughout the African continent also brewed beer long before any European settlers brought their brewing techniques to Africa. Beer in Africa today has two main influences: tribal traditions passed down for centuries and European settlement. Europeans, especially the Dutch and British, brought different techniques and expertise to brewing starting in the 15th and 16th centuries. Traditional tribal brewing methods are, however, still a strong part of African brewing culture.

Traditional brewing methods have remained an important activity throughout Africa despite commercial breweries producing variations of traditional African beers. It is still a key aspect of the rural economy, where traditional beer is brewed for local markets. It is also brewed for all varieties of ceremonial and cultural occasions and gatherings.

Traditional brews go by many different names depending on the location. Southern Africa has chibuku, umqombothi, utshwala, joala, and doro, depending on the subregion, and western Africa shakparo. Kenya has chang’aa, Botswana khadi, Central Africa Republic hydromel, and Ethiopia araque, katila, and talla. Botswana, Zambia, and Malawi all have chibuku shake-shake (a commercial variety made from sorghum and maize). In Zimbabwe, shake-shake is called “scud.” Uganda has tonto, mwenge, murumba, marwa, kweete, and musooli. Ghana has pito, burukutu, and akpeteshie.

By any name, sorghum beer is the traditional beer of Africa. It is also referred to as opaque beer because of its cloudiness. It is made both rurally and commercially throughout the continent. Tribes continue to make their own varieties, using locally available ingredients for additional flavor. Commercial breweries also make different varieties depending on the subregion.

Historically, the Bantu-speaking tribes carried the art of brewing sorghum with them as they migrated south. Women were the traditional brewers of African beers and men the traditional consumers. Even today, women prepare the traditional brews for the market, weddings, ceremonies, and other celebrations.

African tribes have been brewing forms of sorghum beer longer than is recorded in history books. Sorghum malt and grain has been the main ingredient for centuries. As the availability of different grain and starch sources grew, maize (corn), millet, and cassava root were used as adjuncts to the sorghum beer to produce different flavors.


Sorghum, a genus of numerous species of grass, is widely grown throughout Africa, either raised for grain or used as a fodder plant. It is also used in pastures in tropical regions of Africa. Sorghum is native to the African continent, and most species of sorghum can survive high temperatures and drought.

Sorghum beer brewing is the one of the largest consumers of sorghum grain in Africa. Grains have been selected over centuries based on their malting qualities. High-tannin, soft endosperm, red, and brown grains were and are the most favored for brewing in Africa.

Sorghum beer is often cloudy and yeasty, with a sour lingering aftertaste. It is brownish-pink in color. Higher pH levels produce a more pronounced pink coloring. The alcohol content of traditional brews ranges from 1% to 8% alcohol by volume (ABV) depending on fermentation time. Most traditional sorghum beers, however, are lower in alcohol, 3% to 4% ABV. Many traditionally brewed sorghum beers still contain maltotriose, the last sugar fermented by yeasts during fermentation. Some amino acids and peptides are also usually present.

Traditional sorghum beer is consumed in an active state of fermentation, usually within a day or two of production. Today it is sold in various plastic containers or clay pots, still foaming. The more foam around the container, the fresher it is considered and the better for consumption.

The Traditional Method

The first step in traditional sorghum beer production is malt production. Traditional household malting takes place in open yards where the sorghum grain is either added to water or mixed with a slurry of wood ash, soaked overnight, and drained. The grain is then spread on grass mats, kept moist, and allowed to germinate. The resulting malt is then dried, usually between grass mats. The malt is then ground by hand to produce a rough powder. Sorghum malt is often used in porridges and other recipes, in addition to beer production. Today, it is also commercially available in powders.

The sorghum malt is then used alone or in combination with other malts and grains. Maize and millet malts and grains are the most commonly used in addition to sorghum. Cassava root is also used throughout Africa as a grain alternative in addition to sorghum malt.

The malt and grain mixture is soaked overnight in warm water. This overnight fermentation produces lactic acid and the characteristic sourness of traditional African beer. The mixture is then cooked again, cooled, vigorously mixed, and placed in a larger container. It is covered with a blanket and kept in a warm place to encourage further fermentation for several days.

Traditionally, no yeast is added to the final fermentation. Native yeasts present on the grain, malt, and brewing vessels are responsible for the alcohol production. The primary yeasts found in traditional African beer are strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Today, yeast from the previous batch of beer, or even purchased yeast, might be added to a new batch.

In western Africa, a sweeter, nonsour version of sorghum beer is more popular than in southern and eastern Africa. It is called by different names depending on the subregion: dolo, chapalo, pito, burukutu, bilibili, or amgba. The initial souring or lactic acid fermentation is avoided. Pito, common in Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo, is made from sorghum and varies from slightly sweet to slightly sour and is light yellow to dark brown in color depending on the malts, grains, and other adjuncts used.


Although sorghum is the oldest ingredient in African brewing, maize (corn introduced from the New World) is frequently used as an alternative and adjunct to traditional sorghum beer. Maize malt and grain are used to produce a lighter colored beer with a mellower flavor than typical sorghum beer. Most traditional maize beers also use some sorghum malt to achieve a slightly sour and darker finished beer.

Umqombothi is a traditional beer made from maize, maize malt, sorghum malt, and water (and wild native yeasts to produce the alcohol). It has a distinctive sour aroma from the sorghum malt and is usually low in alcohol (3% to 4% ABV). The beer has an opaque tan color and a thick gritty consistency from the maize.

Umqombothi is traditionally prepared with equal parts crushed maize, maize malt, and sorghum malt to which warm water is added. It is made outside and cooled outside, rather than in the home. The mixture is left overnight to begin fermenting and bubbling, producing the characteristic sour odor of sorghum beer. The mixture is then cooked, cooled, and poured into a larger container. It is stirred vigorously, covered, and left in a warm place to encourage further fermentation. A match lit near the fermenting mixture is used to determine whether the brew is ready—if the match blows out quickly, it is ready; if the match does not blow out, the beer will be left to continue fermenting. Once the mixture has fermented, it is filtered through large strainers to collect any excess corn and poured into a large drum, known as a gogogo. The local beer is sold at markets, served to visitors, and used in special celebrations and ceremonies.

Other Ingredients

In addition to maize, traditional brewers throughout African also use locally available herbs and fruits to flavor their beers. Some plants that are used make the sorghum beer bitter or give it floral notes. Starchy crops (cassava root and banana), which grow naturally and easily in some areas, are also used in addition to sorghum malt and grain to create a sweeter regional beer.

Tella is a traditional beer brewed in Ethiopia and surrounding areas. It is brewed traditionally with teff, maize, and gesho. Teff is a species of lovegrass native to northeast Africa. It is used as a wheat alternative in many parts of the region and as an alternative to sorghum in this traditional beer. Gesho (Rhamnus prinoides) is a bittering agent, with the stems used as hops would be during the brewing process. Tella is made using the same method as traditional African sorghum beer.

Oshikundu (in Namibia), or oyokpo (in Nigeria), is a traditional beer made from fermented millet, a cereal crop, sometimes with the addition of sorghum for a souring effect. The method of production is the same as for other traditional African beers. Millet is a popular crop in this region of Africa because of its ability to survive poor soil and heat. Millet produces a nuttier, sweeter flavor in the beer.

The cassava root, rich in starch, is also traditionally used in African brewing, particularly in the sub-Saharan and tropical regions of Africa. Cassava is widely grown and used throughout Africa. The tubers are cut up and boiled and then mashed and added to sorghum malt or other malts and grains. The mixture is then prepared and fermented in the traditional method, without the addition of yeast. The cassava root produces a sweeter, lighter colored beer. The flavor, aroma, and color vary depending on the grains and malt used to brew the beer from region to region.

In some parts of southern and central Africa, hibiscus flowers are also added to the traditional brewing process. Like most traditional brews, it has many different names, such as karkanj in the Republic of Chad. The brew has a tropical flavor and rose-like aroma. It is a sweeter version of the traditional sorghum beer and is not made with excessive lactic acid production in the initial fermentation.

Bananas and plantains are often used in east Africa to produce the traditional beer of the region. Bananas are mashed and mixed with malt and grains (often sorghum) and brewed in the traditional method, producing a sweet, orange-colored beer. The bananas used in these beers are not the sweet variety sold in supermarkets, but a starchier potato- or plantain-like variety.

Commercial Brewing of Traditional African Beers

Traditional African beers are an important part of the rural economy, sold at local markets and made at home for all occasions. Most commercial breweries in Africa focus on lager or English styles of beer. There are, however, a few breweries that produce sorghum beers to appeal to the traditional markets.

The most popular in southern African countries is chibuku, made by a subsidiary of SABMiller. This thick, brown, commercial version of a traditional ceremonial drink is slightly sour and has 4% ABV. In South Africa, chibuku is made from sorghum. In other parts, maize is also used and is often the primary ingredient. Consumers in Botswana, Zambia, and Malawi know it as chibuku shake-shake because drinkers have to shake it before drinking to mix in the maize sediment at the bottom of the container.

United National Breweries also makes a sorghum beer using maize as an adjunct, sold throughout South Africa. United National Breweries’ traditional beer is made in the Zulu traditions of the area and is drunk in a state of active fermentation. It is pinkish in color, sour, and slightly sweet.

In the United States, the Sprecher Brewing Company of Wisconsin produces a commercial shakparo, a West African style sorghum beer. It is made exclusively with sorghum malt and millet, keeping with the West African traditions. The company markets Shakparo ale as a gluten-free beer.

In 2009, SABMiller also began producing a light lager version of traditional African sorghum beer using cassava root. Cassava root is widely available throughout Africa and is a cheaper alternative to maize and millet. The company replaced the maize in its beer with cassava root to produce a reduced-price beer to appeal to consumers drinking traditional brews. The beer produced is a clear lager type beer, as opposed to the opaque versions of traditional brews.

See also porridge beers.


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Anda Lincoln