Quenching the thirst of a nation
“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” – Benjamin Franklin.
South Africa is home to a wide array of authentic, locally-invented drinks; not surprisingly, mostly alcoholic in nature. They are as much part of our culinary tradition as the food we eat. Let me tell you more about some of the best-known ones.
Traditional African Beer. Black South Africans were drinking beer long before the arrival of whites. They brewed their tipple from grain, corn or fruit. The most common drink was made from sorghum or millet - known as utshwala (Nguni) or byalwa (Sotho). The final product, after a brewing period lasting from four to 14 days, was a thick, pink coloured drink, usually with a low alcohol content. Refreshing and rich in vitamins, it was a nourishing drink that the Zulu king Cetshwayo described it as the "food of the Zulus; they drink it as the English drink coffee." I'm sure he meant tea, although maybe the British colonists in Natal were more into coffee!
There were also stronger varieties of beer brewed from morula berries or prickly pears and even from honey. The brewers were traditionally women. Every woman eligible for marriage was expected to know how to brew good and nourishing beer. Drinking beer, on the other hand, was strongly associated with manhood. An old Zulu saying, "Utshwala buqinisa umzimba", means "Beer strengthens the body". Beer was also important at certain events because it helped to build friendly relations with other people. At weddings drinking beer together united the family members of marriage partners. Initiation, death and other important milestones were associated with beer drinking.
As with many other facets of indigenous culture, the white settlers did not agree. Utterances from a British colonial official of the late 1800s show clearly how customs of one culture can be distorted by the world-view of another: "Beer drinks are a curse to the country. Little children have as great a craving for the drink as the grown-up people. Women neglect their ordinary duties and leave their huts, to go routing about the country to these beer drinks, and they even use the drink to wean their children." Mine bosses were even more critical because they saw beer drinking as negatively affecting their profits: "These beer drinks deprive the colony of its labour supply ..."
In the paternalistic manner typical of the Apartheid era, government decided that “natives had to be protected against themselves.” The sale of liquor to blacks was banned in the 1930s, and the only way blacks could enjoy an alcoholic drink legally, was to go to a “beer hall” owned and operated by the local municipality (later by the Department of Bantu Affairs), where only sorghum beer was served. This heavy-handed approach merely drove black socialising underground and led to the proliferation of shebeens (unlicensed taverns) and the emergence of an entire sub-culture. The beer halls were seen as depriving women of earning a living from brewing, and also as extorting money from low-paid male workers. They were boycotted, often accompanied by violence bred from the anger towards and frustration with the system.
Skokiaan. No other beverage is as intimately intertwined with the lives of Black people under Apartheid as skokiaan. As part of its prohibition campaign, raids were conducted on unlicensed establishments and both home-brewed beer and “European” liquor confiscated. In 1933 alone, police destroyed 568 000 gallons of beer. The brewers took to less traditional and quicker methods of brewing liquor - and so were born skokiaan (named after a scorpion's sting); isikilimiqiki (kill-me-quick); quedviki (kill-the-weekend) and se pa ba le masenke (stagger-on-the-fences).
There is no standard definition of what exactly skokiaan is or isn’t. Suffice it to say that the term is generally understood to refer to an illegal, home-made, alcoholic beverage typically brewed over one day that may contain ingredients such as maize meal and water, with sugar and/or yeast to speed up the fermentation process. It lent its name to one of the biggest popular tunes to come out of Africa: "Sikokiyana," originally written by Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) musician AugustMasarurwa in the Tsaba-Tsaba or big-band style that succeeded Marabi (the local, Africanised version of Ragtime).
The shebeen, although constantly targeted by the police, became the centre of township life. Shebeens provided an atmosphere that contrasted with the rigours of daily life; they were warm and hospitable compared to the impersonal beer halls. They were also valuable sources of income for owners who would have been destitute otherwise. Many prominent figures in black society were able to go to good schools and universities because their mothers were “shebeen queens”. On weekends, shebeens threw Marabi parties. Guests would pay an entrance fee and buy food and drink inside. One of the main attractions of such parties was the variety of brews concocted by the ladies, the other the lively music. Many of South Africa’s great jazz musicians started out as performers in shebeens.
Government enforced the beer monopoly system fiercely – even though municipal beer halls were more expensive than drinking in shebeens, making beer or drinking anywhere but in a beer hall was a criminal offence. Dr AB Xuma, elected president of the ANC in 1940, said: "When I see hundreds of black women going to jail every Monday, I do not think of them as criminals. I blame the system under which they live. It must be changed ... These laws for ‘natives only' manufacture criminals."
Umqombothi is a home-brewed beer prized by the Xhosa people, and is made from mealies, malt, yeast and water. It has a low alcohol content - usually less than 3% - is characterised by a distinctive sour aroma. In appearance, the beer is opaque and light tan in colour. It has a thick, creamy and gritty consistency. This beer is usually drunk in a communal setting where the drink is shared between friends and family, or to mark special occasions. In the past, umqombothi was only drunk by men, despite having been made by the women.
Umqombothi is brewed following traditional customs and these vary slightly between regions. The recipe is often passed down through the generations. The ingredients used are: equal measures of maize meal, crushed mealie malt (corn malt) and crushed sorghum malt. The maize malt provides a lighter-toned beer with a mellower flavour. The sorghum malt provides a darker beer.
The beer is traditionally prepared in a cast-iron pot over a fire outside the brewer’s house. Four measures of warm water are added to one measure of the solids. The brew is stirred with a traditional stirring spoon called an iphini. After thorough mixing, the mixture is poured into a large plastic vat. The vat is covered with a lid and wrapped in a blanket to retain heat. The vat is put in a warm place overnight, to encourage fermentation. Properly made, it should soon start fermenting and emitting a characteristic sour odour.
To test whether the brew is ready, a match is lit 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 mash produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, which does not allow for combustion of the match. When the brew is ready, the fermented mash is filtered through a large metal strainer, to remove the spent grains. The sediment at the bottom of the vat is known as intshela and is added to the strained beer, to give extra flavour.
Once the beer has been strained, it is poured into a large communal drum known as a gogogo. It is ready for sharing with friends and family. Umqombothi plays a central role in the social life of Xhosa clans, most notably to celebrate the home-coming of young men after initiation and ritual circumcision. The beer is also drunk when someone contacts his or her ancestors and during customary weddings, funerals, and imbizos (consultative gatherings).
Witblits is Afrikaans for “white lighting”. It is an artisanal grape brandy that packs a serious punch. It’s mostly produced and consumed in the Western Cape, and is South Africa’s version of American “moonshine”. It is distilled in pot stills like Armagnac, but not cask matured, which results in a clear liquor. The Voortrekers who left the Cape Colony in the 1830s enjoyed an occasional “sopie” as much as the the next man, and took their pot stills with them into the interior. In the Free State and Transvaal they encountered different climates and raw materials, but somehow they always found fruit that could be fermented and distilled. The new brew would eventually be called mampoer.
Traditionally, witblits is made in small quantities in privately-owned stills with a farm’s surplus or sub-standard grapes. The grapes are picked at optimum ripeness, mashed up and left to ferment for a couple of weeks. The fruit cannot be left to ferment for too long, or it will become vinegar. Once the fruit has fermented, it is double distilled in a copper pot-still. The amount of sugar present in the grapes at the time of picking will determine the alcohol content of the finished product; the higher the sugar content, the stronger the “kick”. The alcohol content of undiluted witblits usually hovers around 55%, although 64% is regarded by fundis as optimum for releasing the drink’s full flavour. Flavours you will no doubt experience as they sear down your throat and into your gut.
With drink this potent, no wonder Genl. Hertzog’s government saw fit to restrict it availability. Government granted the Koöperatiewe Wynbouersvereniging (KWV) a monopoly for the commercial production and sale of brandy. Consequently farmers were not allowed to buy and use fruit from anywhere other than their own farms, and they were not allowed to sell the alcohol. The Agriculture Faculties of certain universities and a few agricultural museums (Kleinplasie in Worcester, Fransie Pienaar Museum in Prince Albert and the Transgariep Museum in Philippolis) were however exempted and can make and sell witblits.
So, how exactly do you drink this potent fire water? Brandy and whiskey, which are smooth because of years of oak maturation, can be sipped straight or on the rocks. This is probably not the best approach to witblits (or mampoer). Try mixing them with fruit juice or a soft drink or knock back a shot, bearing in mind that one shot might be all you can manage...
Mampoer is the fruitier alternative to witblits, made from peach, apricot, litchi and other fruit. Mampoer is uniquely South African, and features regularly in the works of South African authors, most notably those of Herman Charles Bosman. Bosman (1905-1951) is considered one of South Africa's greatest writers and his stories about Oom Schalk Lourens and life in the Groot Marico bush have entertained South Africans for decades. Much of the mayhem in Oom Schalk's life was the result of mampoer.
It is claimed that mampoer was named after Kgosi Mampuru, a BaPedi Chief who instigated the murder of his half-brother Sekhukhune (“Sekoekoenie” to the Boers). During their campaign against the latter in the 1870s, General Joubert's men apparently obtained liquor from Mampuru. This liquor had been distilled from morula fruit, which was abundant in the area. Mampuru was later coerced into ceding land to the victorious commandos, many of whom were small-time white farmers. The new owners proved better at distilling peach brandy than farming, and named their "moonshine" after the bemused chief.
What makes mampoer special is the fact that it is largely still distilled on farms according to family recipes. The secrets of distilling this potent “brandy” are handed down over from generation to generation and this adds to the mystique that surrounds it. While it is generally made from peaches, other deciduous fruit and wild ones like morula, karee-berry and wild loquats can also be used. The tipple is renowned for its high potency - the alcohol content is usually well over 50% - and aficionados frown on anything “weaker”. The benchmark is simple: pour a small quantity on a flat surface and light it. If it burns off with a clear blue flame, it is unadulterated and full strength. Mampoer of this purity kicks like a mule!
The best place to experience mampoer culture is the village of Groot Marico in the North West Province, in the area where many of Bosman’s stories were set. Mampoer used to be big business here: until the 1870s, large tracts of land were covered in peach orchards to feed the stills. A distilling tax introduced in the 1890s ended much of the home industry in mampoer. Nevertheless, there are farms in the Groot Marico area that still operate pot stills, and these can be visited for a demonstration on the production process and mampoer tasting sessions.
Amarula. Since Amarula Cream was launched as a cream liqueur in 1989, this exotic, creamy spirit has become South Africa’s most widely distributed alcoholic beverage. Sold in over 100 countries, Amarula can be enjoyed on its own, poured over ice, shaken into myriad cocktails, or be the secret ingredient in desserts and cuisine. It is made from the fruit of the morula tree (Scelerocarya birrea), a tall and leafy tree that grows wild across Southern Africa.
Only the female morula tree bears fruit. By late February, the yellow-skinned, white-fleshed fruits are ripe for plucking. Many wild animals, but especially elephants, are crazy about the succulent, nutritious fruit. They’ve been known to ram the tree to dislodge their favourite snack if none has fallen to the ground. Interestingly, even though elephants are notorious tree-wreckers, they very seldom uproot, break or ring-bark morula – they seem to understand that it is too valuable a resource to wreck for short-term gain!
A single tree can yield between 500kg and two tons of fruit. Between the pachyderms and the rural communities in and around the town of Phalaborwa in Limpopo Province who earn a living by harvesting the fruit, there’s plenty to go around at harvest time. Like wine grapes, morula fruit is hand-harvested. The fruit is crushed from the kernel, and the flesh separated from the skins before being fermented in the same way that pressed grapes are fermented to make wine. The 'wine' is double distilled and matured in small oak casks for 2 years before being blended with fresh cream.
It’s not only the flavour but also the folklore surrounding Amarula that adds to the liqueur’s appeal. Thanks to Jamie Uys’ otherwise brilliant movie “Beautiful People” there is a widespread belief that elephants and baboons have morula binges; consuming so many over-ripe, partially fermented fruits that they become drunk and suffer terrible hangovers. Although this is pure myth, it has added to the compendium of legends that surround the “Elephant Tree”.
Amarula Cream has an alcohol content of 17% by volume, and a pleasant fruit/caramel taste. It has enjoyed significant success at international spirit rating competitions, most notably winning a gold medal at the 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Because of elephants’ well-known affinity for the fruit of the morula, Distell (the distiller) has made them its symbol and supports elephant conservation efforts, co-funding the Amarula Elephant Research Programme at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban.
Pinotage is the one red grape cultivar to which South Africa can lay claim. It is a hybrid of Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Hermitage (Cinsaut) from the Rhône Valley. The “father” of the new variety, Prof Abraham Perold of the University of Stellenbosch, aimed to combine the noble qualities of the delicate but frail Pinot Noir with the hardiness and resistance to disease of the robust, heat-loving Hermitage. This, he hoped, would produce in a grape which was suited to the Cape’s hot summers, yet could produce premium wines. Prof Perold’s long hours of work eventually resulted in four seeds of the new variety.
This is where the story of Pinotage could well have ended abruptly. Prof Perold seems to have lost interest in promoting his creation, and planted the seeds in the garden of his residence at Welgevallen. He retired and joined the KWV in 1927, leaving the four young vines behind when he moved to Paarl. The house stood vacant for a while and the garden became overgrown. The four vines were about to be destroyed during a clean-up when a junior lecturer called Charlie Niehaus spotted them, put two and two together and saved them from destruction. He left them in the care of Prof CJ Theron of the Department of Viticulture and Oenology at Elsenburg Agricultural College. Elsenburg produced the first experimental wine in 1941, and continued refining processes and techniques. There was general excitement at the initial results. The grapes ripened early, high sugar levels were achieved easily and the vines stayed healthy and vigorous. The early wines also showed a deeper, more intense ruby colour than either parent did.
By the 1950s Pinotage had been planted on several wine farms, and in 1959 a Pinotage from Bellevue Estate won the coveted Champion Wine award at the Cape Wine Show, followed by Kanonkop Pinotage in 1961. Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery (SFW) was first to use the name Pinotage on a label when, in 1961, they marketed the 1959 champion Pinotage wine, from Bellevue Estate, under the Lanzerac brand. A new star had been born, but it wasn’t going to be all plain sailing.
The knowledge of how robust and early-ripening the variety was, inspired more and more farmers to plant Pinotage. Many farmers over-produced and a lack of skill in handling the grape in the cellar resulted in wines of lower quality. Much of the harvest was used to bulk out popular blends, or for cheap jug wines, or was even distilled for brandy. It seemed as if the final nail had been hammered in Pinotage’s coffin during a visit to South Africa by a group of British Wine Masters in 1976, who described the nose as “hot and horrible”, and said the wine reminded them of acetone. The flavour didn’t fare much better. “Rusty nails” was one of the more polite phrases used. Many producers then decided Pinotage had no future, and uprooted large areas of well-established Pinotage vines. Only a few producers kept the faith and continued to look for ways to improve the quality of the grape.
The tide turned when Diner’s Club Winemaker of the Year award was won by Beyers Truter of Kanonkop. Wine lovers went back to their cellars and opened the old bottles of Pinotage that they had stored right at the back. They were very pleasantly surprised at how well the wine had aged. Pleasant berry, banana and chocolate flavours had developed. Truter went on to be named International Winemaker of the Year at the 1991 International Wine and Spirit Competition. He was the first South African winemaker ever to win this prestigious competition. He had found the key to making great wine from Pinotage: mitigating its high tannin content by harvesting the grapes only when fully ripe, and using oak maturation to soften its flavour even further. Today, the snide remarks have been forgotten and South Africa’s home-hero wine is receiving the kind of international acclaim it deserves.
Rooibos (meaning "red bush"; Aspalathus linearis) is a member of the Cape Fynbos floral kingdom. The leaves are used to make an herbal tea called rooibostee or bossiestee. The slightly reddish tea is packed full of antioxidants and – importantly from a marketing perspective - rooibos tea does not contain caffeine and has low tannin levels compared to black tea or green tea. It is often added to other teas to enhance their flavours, such as South African honeybush, hoodia and buchu. The product has been popular in South Africa for generations and is now exported all over the world. The centre of rooibos production is the Cederberg, a mountainous area of the Western Cape Province.
In 1772, the visiting naturalist Thunberg noted that rural people made tea from a tea tree-like plant in the Olifants River valley. Traditionally, the local people would climb the mountains and cut the fine, needle-like leaves from wild rooibos plants. They then rolled the bunches of leaves into hessian bags and brought them down the steep slopes using donkeys. The leaves were then chopped with axes and bruised with hammers, before being left to dry in the sun. Dutch settlers to the Cape learned to drink rooibos as an alternative to black tea, an expensive commodity for the settlers who relied on supply ships from Europe.
In 1904, Benjamin Ginsberg discovered a way of curing rooibos so it could be produced and distributed on a wholesale basis. He simulated the traditional Chinese method of making Keemun by fermenting the tea in barrels. The last obstacle to growing rooibos tea commercially was that farmers could not germinate the rooibos tea seeds. The seeds were hard to find and impossible to germinate commercially. In 1930, the first plants were finally cultivated successfully at Clanwilliam. This was the beginning of a whole new industry, as farmers rushed to plant rooibos tea.
Generally, the leaves are fermented prior to marketing. This process produces the distinctive reddish-brown color of rooibos and enhances the flavour. Unoxidised "green" rooibos is also produced, but the more demanding production process for green rooibos (similar to the method by which green tea is produced) makes it more expensive than traditional rooibos. It carries a malty and slightly grassy flavour somewhat different from its red counterpart.
In South Africa, it is common to prepare rooibos tea in the same manner as black tea and add milk and sugar to taste. Other methods include a slice of lemon and using honey instead of sugar to sweeten. Several coffee shops in South Africa have recently begun to sell red espresso (which is concentrated rooibos served and presented in the style of ordinary espresso). This has given rise to rooibos-based variations of coffee drinks such as red lattes and red cappuccinos. Iced tea made from rooibos has recently been introduced in South Africa, Australia, and the United States.
Sweet wines. Although Jan van Riebeeck had made the first wine at the Cape in 1657, the man who would make South African wine famous was another Cape governor, Simon van der Stel, who planted vines on his Constantia estate in the 1680s. His high-quality grapes laid the groundwork for what would become one of the world’s most renowned sweet wines. With admirers like King George IV of England, King Louis-Philippe of France and even Napoleon Bonaparte—who, legend has it, requested a glass on his deathbed—Constantia became one of the world’s most valued and cherished sweet wines. The latter-day version of the original Constantia wine, Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance, is made from late-harvest Muscat de Frontignan.
Although the regal demand has subsided, South Africa continues to make some of the world’s best sweet wines. From fortified reds to late-harvested and botrytised selections, the country makes them all—and does it well. All our fortified wines are basically made the same way: distilled grape spirit, typically brandy, is added to the wine to halt fermentation before it’s complete. It preserves some of the wine’s residual sugar and raises the alcohol content to between 16.5 – 22%.
Cape wineries used to win lots of accolades for their fine Port, the sweet wine named after the city of Oporto in Portugal. Effective January 2012, South African producers could no longer use the term “Port” as the term would henceforth only be allowed for wines made in the Douro region of Portugal. So what to call all of these Port-style wines? To avoid confusion, the Cape Port Producers Association wisely decided to simply drop the word “Port” from all labels and literature. This means that the erstwhile Cape Tawny Port is now simply “Cape Tawny”, Cape Ruby Port “Cape Ruby” and so on.
Other notable South African fortified wines include Jerepigo and Muscadel. Jerepigo is a vin de liqueur (fortified wine) which can be white or red, and may be made from any grape variety. Popular cultivars are Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc or Hanepoot for White Jerepiko, and Pinotage, Mourvèdre or Cabernet Sauvignon for Red. The addition of brandy to halt fermentation results in wines that are full-bodied and sweet, yet offer fresh, unfermented grape flavours and high alcohols.
Whereas the bulk of our Jerepigos are red, Muscadels are overwhelmingly white. To be labelled “Muscadel”, a wine has to be made exclusively from Muscat de Frontignan or Muscat à Petits Grains (white or red). Hanepoot, a South African synonym for Muscat de Alexandrie, can also be produced in a fortified style. Muscadels and Hanepoots often exhibit musk and floral aromas, as well as notes of sweet stone fruit, lychee and gingery spice.
ubuSulu (palm wine) is brewed from the sap of the iLala Palm tree found in the Northern Lowveld and along the Maputaland coastal sand forest. It is a handsome tree which can reach a height of 15m. The leaves are fan-shaped and greyish green, and the tree bears tennis ball-sized fruits, which are eaten by elephants, monkeys and baboons. The fruits take about two years to ripen, and another two before they fall off the tree’s crown.
In traditional African societies, each tree – even though it was wild, not cultivated – belonged to an individual household, and unauthorised use of it was regarded as akin to theft. Because the palm wine was highly prized and therefore had commercial value, possession of one’s own tree was a real boon.
The sap is extracted and collected by a tapper. Typically the sap is collected by making an incision in the top shoot of the palm tree. A container is fastened to the flower stump to collect the sap oozing from the incision. The white liquid that initially collects tends to be very sweet and non-alcoholic before it is fermented. An alternate method is the felling of the entire tree. Where this is practiced, a fire is sometimes lit at the cut end to facilitate the collection of sap. This method is clearly not sustainable, as it kills the tree.
Palm sap begins fermenting immediately after collection, due to natural yeasts in the pores of pot and air (often spurred by residual yeast left in the collecting container). Within two hours, fermentation yields an aromatic wine of up to 4% alcohol content, mildly intoxicating and sweet. The wine may be allowed to ferment longer, up to a day, to yield a stronger, more sour and acidic taste, which some people prefer. Longer fermentation produces vinegar instead of stronger wine. Incidentally, the fermented palm wine serves as the raw material for top-quality “Tipo Tinto”, the popular Mozambican “rum” usually drunk mixed with raspberry-flavoured cold drink.
“The two great European narcotics: Alcohol and Christianity.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.