South Africans Battle to Save Ancient Brew from Extinction

Traditional South African beer, brewed for centuries by peoples such as the Xhosa, is in danger of “disappearing.” That’s according to Slow Food International, an organization trying to revive local food cultures. It says growing numbers of South Africans are abandoning the brew — made from ingredients such as corn malt — in favor of mass-produced lager.

Nomsa Khiwa lives in a village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region and has been making the beer, called umqombothi, for almost half a century.

First, she crushes corn with a large, round rock. Later she’ll add sorghum, yeast and water to the maize, cook the mixture in a pot on the fire and ferment it.

Khiwa worries, though, that her days as a brewer are numbered.

“This is the worst year of business ever for me,” she said. “The young men do not drink traditional beer anymore. They want the fancy beer in bottles. There’s no money anymore in umqombothi.”

Elderly men gulp umqombothi from plastic containers in Khiwa’s tavern.

They clearly enjoy the tan-colored, sour, thick, gritty beer.

Khiwa, however, plans to sell commercial beer from now on, and to stop brewing umqombothi.  

“This is a dying art,” she said. “People are just not interested in their history anymore and their [traditional] food. … We are losing the culture of food.”

Melissa de Billot leads Slow Food South Africa’s Ark of Taste project, which aims to “rediscover and revive” traditional foods and drinks … including umqombothi.

Younger crowd

At a bar in Johannesburg, youngsters clutch bottles of lager, most scoffing at the mention of umqombothi. A few say they’ve never tasted it.

De Billot is not surprised.

“Kids not wanting to sit down with granny and grandpa and learn the trade of making umqombothi the traditional way,” she said. “We have become so detached from nature and our roots; we’ve become this highly urbanized animal.”

She says the desire for “fast beer” isn’t confined to the cities. Even in the rural areas, more people see factory beers as status symbols and reject umqombothi as “unsophisticated.”

“That is what the trend is and that’s what people want and that’s what they believe to be, or they’ve been told, is the good life,” she said.

But, as de Billot says, this so-called “good life” is sometimes just the opposite.

More money, more problems

In her rowdy tavern, Thembeka Mbuso says that since she stopped brewing umqombothi two years ago to sell more expensive commercial beer, she makes more money. However, she also has more “problems.”

The mass-produced beverages are higher in alcohol than traditional beer. 

“My customers fight,” Mbuso said. “Then my husband has to try to stop them. It is dangerous for him because sometimes they use knives and broken bottles. When people were drinking the old-style beer, such things did not happen so much.”

But Slow Food and assorted partners, including black backyard brewers and white middle-class housewives, have started what de Billot calls a “push back” to save traditional beer. 

“Suddenly the like-minded people find each other,” she said. “People are just starting to talk and communicate and social media’s now amplifying that and it’s just suddenly exploding.”

In the huge township of Soweto, some young farmers have banded together in the name of umqombothi, raising hopes that perhaps there is a place for both modern beer and traditional brew in South Africa after all.

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