I’m still amazed at all the gizmos, gadgets, pipes, time and money it takes to set up a system that’s capable of keeping up with the demand our loyal followers. Compared to some of the home brewing setups I’m used to working with, the 1500 litre system looks positively massive.
But as you all know, it doesn’t take two tons of copper and hundreds of thousands of Rands to start cranking your very own brand of the good stuff. I’ve recently found, in fact, it takes far less than I thought. Locals have been doing it for ages – long before I could even say “beer.”
“I want to make really inexpensive, easy to make beer!”
I know you do. That’s why we’re going to briefly talk about Umqombothi!
Umqombothi is a beer made from maize, salt, yeast and water. Like many traditionally produced beers, Umqombothi will probably vary in taste depending on the region of South Africa and who brewed it.
The only example I’ve ever been fortunate to try was prepared by Ernst, our operations manager. It was at a recipe development meeting, believe it or not. We all came to the table with some examples and ideas of the direction we saw the brewery moving in as far as style, taste, etc.
So we all pitch up with recipes and ideas, and here Ernst pulls out this green swing top with opaque, white liquid inside. Between shoving half a board full of cheese and crackers in my mouth, I managed to surmise the contents of said bottle.
“Dude . . . I don’t know, hey. Are you sure that’s safe to drink?”
Okay, so I wasn’t as open minded as I normally am, but if you had seen this stuff swishing around in the bottle, you might have been a bit hesitant too. Worst case scenario, there were no less than eight bottles of world class beer that had been muled into SA from the US on the table. When you’re using Wookey Jack as a chaser, nearly anything is palatable.
Everyone kind of half laughed, half squinted and scrutinized as the bottle made its way around the circle. I poured and held it up to the light.
“I can’t see through it and it smells a bit sour.”
“That’s what it’s supposed to smell like,” I was told.
I winced and took a sip. “Huh . . . not bad!”
There was a general consensus around the table – a bit gritty, a bit sour, low in alcohol, but not half bad. Now look, I’m not going to say I could drink a litre of the stuff in a sitting, but I certainly wasn’t spitting it out.
So what do you think? Are you ready to give it a shot? Of course you are! The recipe below is a rock solid, so dive in!
Traditional Umqombothi Recipe
Equal measures of: mealie meal (corn meal); crushed mealie malt (corn malt); crushed sorghum malt; warm water.
Think of mealie malt as your pale malt and sorghum malt as your specialty malt. The recipe calls for equal measure, but mealie lends itself to lighter beers, sorghum to darker.
Mix ingredients in a cast iron pot
Leave the mixture overnight to start fermentation. A sour odour can be detected and bubbles will appear.
A small portion of the corn-flavoured water is removed and put to one side. We’ll come back to this in a few steps.
The remaining mixture is then cooked until a crusty sediment forms. This product, known as isidudu, is then left to cool for a day.
After the mixture has cooled, it is poured into a large plastic vat. The liquid that was set aside is added to the vat.
A handful of sorghum malt and a handful of mealie malt is added to the vat.
The brew is stirred with a traditional stirring spoon called an iphini. The vat is covered with a lid and blanket and is put in a warm place overnight.
The traditional method of testing to see if the brew is ready is to light a match close to the vat. If the match blows out quickly, the brew is ready. If the match remains lit, the brew is not ready. This is because the fermenting mixture is producing large amounts of carbon dioxide, which does not allow for combustion of the match.
When the brew is ready, the mixture is filtered through a large metal strainer, to collect the excess corn. The sediment at the bottom of the vat is known as instshela. The intshela is added to the filtered beer, to give extra flavour.
That’s it! Bottle and enjoy.