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Recipe: South African Umqombothi

This traditional, spontaneously fermented sorghum beer is like nothing else you’ve ever tasted—thick, tangy, rustic, and meant for drinking within a few days.

Lucy Corne Mar 4, 2024 - 6 min read

Recipe: South African Umqombothi Primary Image

Photos: Lucy Corne

Made from cornmeal and malted sorghum, umqombothi is a traditional South African beer that undergoes a natural, spontaneous fermentation to wind up fairly thick, opaque, and low in alcohol, with a notable acidity and slight barnyard character. The women who brew it also sell it fresh and uncarbonated, meant for drinking within a few days.

They don’t typically measure their mashes precisely—they just have a feel for how much they need. Let go of your usual brew-day habit of measuring everything—in fact, below, we’re leaving out vital stats such as gravity and ABV. This is not about aiming for specific targets; it’s about instincts. If it feels right, add more water. Don’t worry much about temperature control. Just keep everything clean and trust your senses.

(How to say “umqombothi”? The "q" is a click, somewhat akin to the sound you’d make if imitating a horse’s hooves.)

For much more about the ancient umqombothi-brewing tradition and how it continues today, see the Style School article in our Spring 2024 issue.


Batch size: about 5 gallons (19 liters)

8.8 lb (4 kg) maize meal/cornmeal
17.6 lb (8 kg) malted sorghum

Ambient yeast and bacteria; the sorghum malt kickstarts the fermentation.

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