Deep in the wilds of Africa, there’s a hidden gem—well-known to locals, but a mystery to outsiders. How many stories have you seen or read that start this way? If you’re like most folks, quite a few. Today’s tale, however, happens to be true, and the hidden treasure alluded to is banana beer.
Made from the eponymous banana, the beverage is known by different names in different areas of Eastern Africa. It was once a common libation and a mandatory part of successful ceremonies and rituals. Today, the art of making banana beer is slowly dying and even commercial examples are quickly disappearing.
Beer has been held in high regard in sub-Saharan Africa for centuries. It was a valuable gift, often presented to visitors along with an invitation to eat and drink with the village chief. Refusing this honor was considered an insult of the highest order. Consequences could be harsh.
The famous Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone is credited with writing, “On arriving at Mapuio’s village [south of Lake Tanganyika], … he sent us a calabash of fresh-made beer, which is very refreshing, gave us a hut, and promised to cook for us in the evening … ”
Arab traders introduced bananas in Africa in the first or second millennium B.C. Since then, the banana plant has spread across the continent to become the fourth-most important dietary staple in the world, behind rice, wheat and corn.
In Burundi, banana beer was consumed by people from all walks of life. In the English translation of a 1911 French manuscript, itself translated from German, Hans Meyer wrote, “If Barundians are, as a whole, a sober people, it is not because of virtue, but because they do not have enough to drink and eat to satisfy their appetite. They would devour an ox forthwith and, if given beer, they would be drunk from morning until evening.”
Meyer continued, “Intoxication is not regarded as a fault or vice, but as a proof of comfort or generosity of the host.” This further solidified banana beer’s status as an important cultural staple.
Called urwagwa in Rwanda, just north of Burundi, the beer also became a secondary source of income for African banana growers. Proceeds from its sale went toward the purchase of less expensive food.
Making banana beer is a labor-intensive undertaking. First, green bananas are placed in a pit lined with green banana leaves. The bananas are then covered with more green leaves and then dried leaves, which are set afire and then covered with soil. In a few days, the bananas ripen and are extracted from the pit, then peeled and mashed by hand. Water and clean grass are added, mixed with the pulp and then drained off, leaving the solids behind. Flour derived from one or several grains like sorghum, millet or maize is added to the liquid to aid in fermentation. The batch is poured into clay pots to ferment for four to five days. The liquid that results is ready for consumption, containing about eight percent alcohol.
Two commercial examples of banana beer are Mongozo, from a Netherlands-based importer, and Raha, from a Tanzanian manufacturer.
In their constant search for new beers, craft brewers may find banana beer to be just the thing. At least I hope they do. I, for one, am eager to taste this exotic brew.