Umqombothi, the handcrafted traditional Xhosa (South African) beer, has claimed its spot as the 4 000th passenger on the Slow Food Ark of Taste, an international online catalogue of near-extinct food products that aims to preserve indigenous foods across the globe.
This marks an important milestone for Slow Food’s project and no small feat for this humble home-grown beer, which has clearly stood the test of time.
At SAB World of Beer we're doing our part to ensure that our unique local beer is preserved for future generations. As part of our beer tour we have the Beer in Africa segment that features a video documenting the umqombothi brewing process, coupled with a beer-tasting session (for adults only).
Made from maize, maize malt, crushed sorghum malt, yeast and water, and rich in vitamin B (with a low alcohol level), umqombothi is described as being opaque and tan in colour with a distinctly sour aroma, a thick and gritty consistency, and a uniquely bitter flavour.
The recipe for this beer is passed down from generation to generation and it's brewed following traditional customs (but this varies slightly from region to region). Some favour a lighter-toned beer with a mellow flavour, which calls for a higher maize malt content, while others prefer a darker beer that is created with a higher sorghum malt content.
The beer is prepared in a cast-iron vessel or potjie over a fire outside the home, and the making of umqombothi is considered "women's work". The ingredients are tossed into the potjie, warm water is added and the mixture is left to ferment overnight. A small portion of the wort (the liquid that’s extracted from the mashed grain) is collected and kept aside for later. The grain-mash is then cooked until a crusty sediment called isidudu is formed. This isidudu is left aside for a day, poured into a clay pot once cool and eaten as a porridge.
The wort that was set aside is added to the brew, along with a handful each of sorghum malt and maize malt. A traditional wooden spoon called an iphini is then used to stir the brew, a lid is placed on the pot and it is covered with a blanket to retain heat. The pot full of brew is then put in a warm place overnight to encourage fermentation.
So how can you tell when the brew is ready? The traditional testing method is to light a match close to the pot. If the match goes out instantly (due to increased levels of carbon dioxide created by the fermentation process) then your beer is ready; but if it remains lit then your brew needs to ferment a while longer.
Preserving more than the beer
There's more to the umqombothi story than just the beer itself. There's a host of skills and cultural knowledge that surrounds the making and partaking of this traditional drink – skills and knowledge that desperately need to be preserved.
The elderly within the community are tasked with making the intluzo (grass strainers). Here a complex and laborious centuries-old technique is used – involving the stitching together of several strands of meticulously constructed, twisted, grass-like sedge stems. It's a painstaking process that requires patience to both learn and teach. However, over the years, younger generations have been less inclined to acquire this skill, meaning that this art form is in danger of being forgotten. This could contribute to a loss of knowledge in brewing beer the traditional way.
Symbolically, the intluzo was a very important item in traditional Xhosa households and was often given as a wedding gift to newlyweds. Over the years mass produced metal strainers have become more commonly used.
Umqombothi plays a crucial cultural, social and spiritual role in the Xhosa culture – it's a celebration drink in the homecoming of young men known as abakwetha following their initiation and ritual circumcision. Life events such as weddings, funerals, and imbizos (traditional meetings) have umqombothi at the core, as the drink is a factor in contacting the ancestors (known as amadlozi).
Slow Food winning at conservation
The Slow Food Ark of Taste is a kind of conservation initiative for endangered foods, preserving and promoting food products and varieties that are at risk of disappearing, along with the traditions and knowledge to which they are linked. The Ark receives nominations from all over the world, and currently has passengers from 140 different countries.
Slow Food’s network in South Africa has been working vigorously to preserve traditional foods that are part of local culture. And no doubt getting umqombothi on the list has been cause for celebration ... so roll out the beer barrels!