A love of beer starts at home

South Africans probably consume almost as much sorghum beer as they do lager, and roughly two-thirds of the traditional African beer is homebrewed.

More of a yoghurt-type drink than a beer, sorghum is consumed while still fermenting. As a result, it has a maximum alcohol volume level of about 4% — lower than many lagers.

The big breweries produce about 500-million litres of sorghum beer a year, but at least twice this amount is brewed at home. Between 80 000 and 90 000 tonnes of sorghum malt is produced for sale to home brewers every year. But sales have been falling over recent years as increasing urbanisation and higher incomes turns consumers towards lager beers, which are perceived to be more sophisticated.

The flavour in sorghum beer comes from lactic acid, the same stuff that makes yoghurt and cheeses, rather than hops as in traditional European beers. Both products are produced by yeast fermentation.

Though homebrewed beer is not subjected to any kind of quality control, its nature makes it intrinsically safe, says food science Professor John Taylor at the University of Pretoria. The lactic acid being produced during fermentation counters pathogens in the homebrew, and because it is consumed live, the problem of safe storage is avoided.

Safety issues arise if the beer is adulterated — not with the battery acid of popular legend, but with unsafe water. Taylor says he has not encountered poisons being added to homebrew — possibly because brewers don’t want to kill off their customers or themselves.

The solids at the bottom of the homebrew container were traditionally given to children as food. Cooked to a soft porridge, which would burn off the alcohol, the remains could be a relatively nutritious meal for a child. ”It’s more of a food than a drink. You get full before you get drunk,” Taylor said.

Before World War II, local municipalities started their own breweries for sorghum beer, which was for many years the only alcoholic drink black people were allowed to buy. Allegedly the move was to control the quality of the beer, and profits were supposed to go to black development; many football grounds were funded by sorghum beer. Effectively this move disempowered women — the famous shebeen queens — who were the traditional homebrewers.

The municipalities stopped brewing sorghum in the 1980s, when the industry was taken over by the Industrial Development Corporation before being privatised.

Other forms of homebrew from fruit are technically wines rather than beers. Such fruit wines and liqueurs are a subject of research and development as potential sources of jobs and income. For example, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has a pilot project in Manguzi looking at developing the commercial potential of local palm, marula and cashew apple homebrews.

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Belinda Beresford
Belinda Beresford
Belinda Beresford is an award-winning journalist and the former health and deputy news editor of the Mail & Guardian. She now lives in the United States.

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