Beer has played a role across a vast number of cultures for aeons, and South African cultures are no exception. Sorghum beer, umqombothi in Xhosa, plays a role in cultural occasions for Xhosa and Zulu people (as well as some other cultures) across the nation.
While customs vary slightly between regions and cultures, there are traditions to be observed both in the brewing of the beer, and the serving and drinking of it. The beer is traditionally brewed by women, and is made from maize, maize malt, sorghum malt, yeast and water, and has a distinctive sour flavour and smell.
One of the by-products of making the beer, isidudu, can be eaten as porridge, while the grains left over from the process are used to feed chickens. Traditionally, the woman scattering this grain for the chickens gives thanks to the ancestors while doing so.
Sorghum beer is fermented for several days in a huge drum covered with a thick blanket, and on the day of the traditional ceremony the beer has been brewed for, the beer is poured into the calabash (ibhekile in Xhosa or ukhamba in Zulu).
Before anyone drinks the beer, a small amount is spilt on the ground to share with the ancestors.
According to Zulu tradition, the woman who brewed the umqombothi drinks first to show that it is safe; the male host then drinks to test the flavour; and guests are then served in order of social status. Often guests who know the host well will bring a bottle of some other alcohol (brandy or vodka or the like, depending on the occasion) as a sign of appreciation.
Umqombothi is always consumed out of respect for tradition, not with the intention of becoming intoxicated. It plays a role in many special ceremonies in South African cultures, such as the ritual of contacting the ancestors (amadlozi), weddings, funerals and traditional meetings (izimbizo).
Another significant event at which umqombothi is drunk is the ceremony for young men retuning from initiation rituals, which usually involve a long time away from home.
Traditional ceremonies are often whole-day affairs, and guests are served breakfast before the formal proceedings kick off. The whole village can be invited to some ceremonies, so the host family will provide other drinks besides the umqombothi. Sometimes, people in the village are invited round to drink umqombothi for several days after the event.
SAB has recently released Indlamu, a modern version of traditional sorghum beer that has the typical sour taste, aroma and low alcohol content of the original, although it has been changed slightly to have a longer shelf life.