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Monday, August 01, 2011

Traditional South African Utwala Beer

I got a remarkable email from Jeff Renfro, an Oregonian now living in South Africa. He discovered a local, traditional beer and sent me a detailed description of it, along with photos. My sense is that these kinds of traditional homebrews are common, but little documented. (I remember hearing about a coconut beer brewed in South India, but I could never find it.) In any case, Jeff's agreed to allow me to print it for you here, so I'll turn the story over to him. Fascinating, fascinating stuff.

Local Brewing in South Africa
Jeff Renfro

I am an economics grad student currently living in Cape Town, South Africa doing work on indoor air pollution in the townships. Yesterday, I was taken to a shebeen (small, unlicensed bar) where they make their own beer. Given your interest in local styles and their origins, I thought you might be interested. The type of beer is called utwala (pronouned ch-ala).

They can't grow normal brewing grains in these areas so they use either sorghum or corn. The process starts by boiling water and adding flour, then letting it sit for a day. Then, they boil the water again and add malted sorghum (they malt it themselves). Adding the sorghum turns it into a rich porridge. They let that sit for a day, then boil it one last time while adding more flour. The flour is for taste, sweetness, and some nutritional content.

They take their thick porridge mix and put it in 55 gallon drums and let it sit outside without a top. The porridge gets crusty on top which forms an imperfect seal and allows fermentation to occur underneath. The mixture smells like sourdough bread as it ferments. When they decide it is ready (don't get exactly how they know), they drain the liquid out of the bottom and serve it in small, metal buckets. The beer is normally less than 3% alcohol so the buckets contain about 3 pints and cost less than $1. When drinking it, you swirl the mixture frequently (I assume to make sure the flour is not sitting on the bottom).

They say if you are wearing a hat, the beer "won't work." The taste is strange. It is sour because lactobacillus is naturally floating around in the air here. You can taste the flour, and feel it in your mouth. There is also a slight metal taste that could be from the brewing process or the bucket. Hops don't grow here so they don't use them. I told them the sour taste was very on-trend where I am from. It is extremely cloudy and looks thick. I put what I couldn't finish into a 2L Coke bottle because they said the brew would continue to ferment and change over the next few days. It is sitting in my closet right now. I have to open the top every 8 hours so it won't explode because it is putting off a lot of gas. I don't think this is a style that is going to catch on anywhere else, but it shows how local agriculture and geography come together with culture to make something unique.

Photo Essay
Attached are some pictures of the South African utwala process. The township these pics were taken in is Khayelitsha which is SA's second biggest township. Unfortunately, they were not cooking when I was there.

The picture of the mix in the blue drum is soon after cooking. The porridge is just starting to create a seal on top.

The picture of the drum and wood is where they cook, and the wood is Port Jackson, which is one of the few plants you can find growing around here.

The mix in the white buckets is further along and has a pretty good seal on top.

The two buckets are the beer right before it is ready, and the foamy drum is the beer ready to drink after it has been drained out of the other drums.

The stack of metal buckets are what people drink out of.

The last picture is the beer in a glass. It is extremely cloudy.


  1. reminds me of the beer from the chugga people shown on 3 sheets to Tanzania (starts at 9:14 on the link below)

  2. I believe this beer is mentioned in's grog. Interesting.

  3. When I lived in Mali 20 years ago, I was thrilled to find locally-made millet beer not too far from my house, even though I was in a nearly 100% Muslim area. Here's someone's blog post on that brew. At the time the closest thing I could relate it to was German Hefeweizen, though it was a little tarter and flatter, probably a little weaker, and grayer in color.

    It was far better than the yellow swill produced in local factories. And much cheaper, though you had to drink it right away.

  4. just left S. Africa yesterday (and craved good beer most of the time!)...we visited a Zulu community outside Durban and they described their beermaking in much the same way...very cool

    we did find Mitchell's Brewery at the waterfront in Cape Town (no longer brewed onsite) which had a few tasty ales (everything else is lager there)

  5. interesting to know such traditional beer exist in a country like south Africa..