Outside of Antarctica and places taking themselves too seriously, beer is a specialty product that plays a part in every culture, popping up with a regional twist no matter where you are. Africa is no exception, but their beers vary remarkably from European brewing nations to the north. Storied brewing traditions in Africa are about as long as any place else on earth, with ancient Egyptians and autonomous tribes brewing and consuming beer centuries before Europe, or other imports and corporations, came calling.
According to beer writer Anda Lincoln, while the Dutch and British brought their expertise to African brewing as far back as the 15th century, the tribal traditions passed down for hundreds of years are still prominently infused in African beer. Traditional African beer, integral to certain rural economies and brewed historically by women, is typically brewed for the market, and special ceremonies. It is made primarily from Sorghum — an African grass species capable of withstanding extreme heat and dry weather — often in combination with ingredients including maize, cassava root, and millet. Flowers such as hibiscus are incorporated into central African beer, while fruits like banana are often used in the east. The final product results in a hazy, light brown beer with notes of sweet and sour, color and flavors varying from region to region dependending on ingredients.
Never ones to miss an untapped market, even brewing conglomerates have honed into the African market, producing their own cloudy interpretation of a traditional sorghum beer. SABMiller, for example, brews one with cassava root. Lincoln also notes that, in the U.S., Sprecher Brewing Company of Wisconsin brews “Shakparo,” a West African-style sorghum beer (marketed as gluten free). Sprecher may be onto something as diet sensitivities appear to be on the rise, and weather patterns point to increased unpredictability and extreme disruptions; the utility of a resilient grain like sorghum may become even more important to brewing industry.
You won’t see many African beers on U.S. shelves, but you can find them occasionally, be it at an Ethiopian restaurant or a big beer store. One variety you may spot is “Tusker,” a drinkable lager brewed by East African Breweries from Kenya. Dogfish Head brewed an Egyptian inspired beer called “Ta Henket” a few years ago with ingredients culled from hieroglyphics, including wild brewing yeasts native to Cairo. It was interesting, but I recommend sticking to a “Tusker” or “Shakparo” if you can find one.
This week’s recommendation: Sprecher “Shakparo,” an unfiltered gluten free Red Ale brewed with sorghum and millet. 5.7% ABV. Glendale, WI
— Colin Hubbell is co-owner of the Green Onion Pub and the Hop and Goblet in South Utica, New York.