Get to Know Umqombothi, a South African Tradition

Easier to brew than it is for many people to say—it takes a click of the tongue—this ancient sorghum beer is unlike any modern style we know. Thick, tart, and creamy, it’s deeply traditional—yet it’s also open to a brewer’s own creative twists.

Lucy Corne Jun 10, 2024 - 13 min read

Get to Know Umqombothi, a South African Tradition Primary Image

“It’s kind of like chunky, sour pudding,” says the message in my inbox. It’s Day Three of our umqombothi brew, and this was the morning dispatch from Paul Telford, a homebrewer in Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Underground Brewers club.

Telford had stepped up to the challenge of brewing a traditional African beer in preparation for a talk I was giving at Homebrew Con 2022. It’s a five-day process; we’d mashed in together on the first day with the 15 kilos of sorghum malt and maize meal I’d hauled in my suitcase from South Africa. From Day Two onward, however, Telford was running the largely unfamiliar process by himself, updating me with photos and descriptions of each stage.

Umqombothi is an ancient beer from southern Africa, and it has little in common with the modern beers that we love to brew and drink. The finished product is hazier than any hop bomb to come out of New England, though it contains no hops at all. It’s a weird shade of beige with the slightest hint of pink, and it’s mildly fruity with an assertive acidity. It’s usually about 3 percent ABV, and it is thick—sometimes borderline chewy.

“It’s a little milkshake-ish as far as mouthfeel goes,” writes Telford in his daily update, after straining the beer. I reply that it sounds like he’s nailed the process.


We were following a recipe shared by Noluyanda Roxwana-Matiwane, co-owner of Ukhamba Beerworx in Cape Town and a longtime brewer of traditional sorghum beer. Like most who brew it, she has inherited her umqombothi knowledge through the female family line. In Africa, women have always done the traditional brewing—something that was again evident at 2023’s Umqombothi Brewing Competition in Johannesburg, where all 16 of the brewers who entered were women.

It was the fifth year of the competition, organized by brewmaster Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela, a passionate advocate for traditional African beer. Umqombothi’s popularity has been waning over the past couple of decades, largely because of a shift away from rural living. One of the main issues is that as young people move to the cities, they’re not around to learn the process, so the knowledge isn’t being passed down as it once was. Nxusani-Mawela is hoping to help instigate an umqombothi renaissance with her competition.

Open to those who brew umqombothi in the home, the competition has gathered some traction since it started in 2019—and it has changed at least one life.

Kicking off a Batch

When Thembi Ndlovu entered the Umqombothi Brewing Competition in 2021, she had only brewed the traditional sorghum-based beer once before, learning from one of her mother’s friends. When she saw the post on social media calling for brewers, she decided to try her hand. Her beer took third place, but more importantly, entering the competition kick-started a new business. Ndlovu now brews and sells traditional beer from her home in Soweto.


When I visit her, she is mashing in on a new batch that’s already been pre-sold. Umqombothi has a fast turnaround time compared to most beer; the batch she starts today will be collected and likely consumed before the week is out.

Here’s her process: First, Ndlovu adds equal parts maize meal and malted sorghum to a bucket, combining the grains by hand. Then she adds water—some recipes call for hot or boiling water, but Ndlovu says that’s a surefire way to get stubborn doughballs because the hot water makes the maize clump together. She doesn’t strictly measure the amount or temperature of the water, but because she also mixes the mash by hand, the water must be cool enough for her bare arm—she delves in, right up to the elbow. As for how much water, it’s something that she just knows by feeling the consistency of the mash. Once it feels right—like loose oatmeal—she adds half a carton of Chibuku, one of the few brands of commercially produced umqombothi in South Africa.

She will leave the mash for two days to sour, then boil it outside on the braai, or charcoal grill. There are two reasons for this: First, it’s traditional to boil over open flames; second, cooking the mash outdoors keeps the strong and sometimes unpleasant smell out of the home. I’m not sure of the precise chemistry behind a traditional brew, but there is undoubtedly butyric acid involved—its telltale vomity aroma causes some first-time brewers to think something has gone awry in the process.

The boil lasts for about an hour, during which time the starches are gelatinized for fermentation, then it’s time to cool the mixture. There are no counterflow chillers or bathtubs of ice involved—just a cool corner of the home and plenty of time.


The next morning, Ndlovu adds more Chibuku to kick-start fermentation. A day or two later—depending on the season and ambient temperature—she deems fermentation to be complete, and she lauters the beer with a traditional straw strainer or something like an outsized colander.

Once the beer is strained, she again leaves it overnight before packaging it in five-liter plastic containers ready for her customers to collect. Umqombothi is still actively fermenting when it’s packaged, so they never use glass bottles. Even commercial versions often come in milk cartons—complete with a CO2 vent on the side—while homebrewers package in PET, with plenty of headspace and regular loosening of the lid to let the gas escape.

Tradition Meets Innovation

“It’s mostly bought for traditional ceremonies,” Ndolvu says, although she’s also taken her brand to local markets. She’s trying to modernize her product, and she wants to introduce umqombothi to a younger audience. She’s had great success with her umqombothi shakes, in which the beer is blended with ice cream in various flavors. I have to taste this for myself—but first I want to sample the base beer.

Thick and creamy like a drinkable yogurt, the beer is slightly grainy with a clean lactic sourness; there’s a slight prickle of carbonation, created naturally as the beer continues to ferment in the bottle.


The texture is a perfect match for ice cream, in fact, and the ice cream tones down the acidity to make it much more approachable for the umqombothi novice. “At the markets, I definitely sell a lot more of it mixed with ice cream than the straight version,” Ndlovu says.

Since turning traditional brewing into a business, Ndlovu has adopted the title “Queen of Umqombothi.” The ‘q’ in umqombothi is a click, somewhat akin to the sound you’d make if imitating horse’s hooves. The word comes from isiXhosa language—a first or second language for about 20 million people in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho—but umqombothi is understood around the region.

“The name is the same across languages,” Ndlovu says, referring to the 11 official languages of South Africa, “but brewing styles are different across cultures. That’s what I want to learn—to brew in different cultures.”

From Left: Thembi Ndlovu adds cornmeal to the grist and mixes by hand; Umqombothi makers sharing samples at the 2022 competition in Johannesburg.

Intuitive Brewing

Ndlovu and I get a crash course in exactly that the next day, as we judge together in the annual Umqombothi Competition, held each September—Heritage Month in South Africa. The brewers are mostly from Johannesburg, but with everyone clad in the traditional dress of their people, it’s clear that they represent cultures from across South Africa. Whether their brewing styles are typical of their ancestral region or just a family quirk, I don’t know, but it’s quickly evident that there are many ways to brew a traditional sorghum beer.


Through translators, I learn that some brewers leave the mash to sour for three days before boiling, others for only one. For some, the full process takes just two days; for others, it’s as many as seven. Boil lengths vary from 45 minutes to two hours.

Some, like Ndlovu, add commercial umqombothi as a starter; others use baker’s yeast or brewer’s yeast, while some simply add a few handfuls of fresh sorghum malt to kick-start fermentation. (One brewer even freezes the spent grains to use as a starter in subsequent brews.) Some add Jungle Oats—a brand of rolled oats similar to Quaker Oats—and some ramp things up with sugar. One brewer has even used cake flour alongside sorghum, but that’s not a practice I’ll be adopting in my traditional brews—it leaves a paste-like texture and a flavor like raw bread dough.

The oldest brewer in the room is 64, and many have been brewing for decades, using the knowledge handed down from their families. But it’s not all about tradition. There are young brewers here, too, and they bring with them the sort of innovation that’s common to see in craft beer. There are flavored versions, enhanced with ginger, cinnamon, mint, mocha, and even juniper berries.

As we chat with each brewer, only a couple of things are constant: Everyone uses malted sorghum, and nobody fully understands or even thinks much about the science behind the brewing process. They’ve received the instructions and recipes passed down through generations, and it doesn’t really matter why a certain process is done as long as it works and as long as the product tastes good.


That’s something that can be challenging for a modern brewer, whether hobbyist or pro. On a traditional brew day, there are no pH meters or thermometers. Grains are measured, but water is often added “until the consistency is right.” I’m not sure how a hydrometer would cope with the texture of umqombothi, and certainly the average traditional brewer doesn’t know the strength of her beer.

Even commercial versions list their ABVs with a plus-or-minus 0.5 percent disclaimer, which may be conservative considering the beer is still actively fermenting when it leaves the brewery.

Tasting Time

Back in Pittsburgh, Telford does take some measurements, noting the pH to be 3.8 after the initial sour mash and 3.2 when it’s time to serve. Only when the final product is ready do we realize that we don’t have a way to transport and serve the beer.

Traditionally, people would decant the umqombothi into a communal clay pot called an ukhamba. Imbibers sit in a circle, each taking a few sips before passing the pot along. Kegs, cans, and bottles won’t work, so we simply pour it straight from the fermentor into people’s tasting glasses.

Our version is atypical—it tastes quite smoky because of some charred grains, a potential hazard of boiling a thick mash. (One person succinctly likens the brew to “tobacco-flavored yogurt.”) While most people weren’t lining up for refills, we did receive great feedback on the opportunity to taste something so very far outside the usual brewing box.

Since that session, a few North American homebrewers have contacted me with photos of the traditional African beers they’ve attempted to brew, using locally sourced cornmeal and malted sorghum. Perhaps there is hope for an umqombothi renaissance after all—and not just on a southern African scale.