At one point or another, all beer was native.
It was regional. Indigenous. Communal. Domestic.
Nearly all cultures have their own version of beer based on whatever grain was around in the area at the time. In Asia it was often rice, in Europe barley or wheat, millet in Africa, and in the Americas maize was common. The only universally consistent components found in beer were grain, water, yeast and/or bacteria. The widespread use of hops in beer is only a historically recent occurrence beginning in about the 11th century in Europe, which is partly why hops as an ingredient is not typical seen in indigenous beer around the world.
And with the craft beer renaissance in full swing at least in the U.S., don’t be surprised if you happen across one of these exotic brews in the near future as modern brewers rediscover native beer. Dogfish Head already did a take on at least one of the old school brews below, but the truth is that you don’t have to wait for Dogfish Head to revive these not so well known brews— some of these traditional beers are so user-friendly, you could make them in our own home today!
First we’ll look at an old Slavic beer, then jump over to the New World for a few native treats, and finally swing back around to Africa to check out some tribal beers.
Or you can do a choose-your-own-adventure tour and skip to whatever region interests you most by clicking below.
Native Slavic Beer
Kvass: This historic Slavic beverage was first mentioned over 1,000 years ago in the Primary Chronicle of Kievan Rus where it was noted that ‘food, honey in barrels, and bread-kvass’ was served to mark the baptism of the Grand Prince of Kiev in 989 AD. Kvass was even rationed to soldiers who spread and popularized the fermentable throughout the region.
Today, kvass is still wildly popular in several Slavic countries, often found being sold from kvass trucks, similar to how you might see food trucks or hotdog stands in cities in the US.
Like the historical reference to ‘bread-kvass’ suggests, kvass is typically made by adding several slices of toasted black or rye bread to boiled water, then tossing in some sugar and fruit (raisins, apples, lemon, strawberries, herbs or mint), and finally pitching the yeast once cooled yielding a weakly fermented beverage weighing in at around 1% ABV. Many non-commercial examples of kvass are commonly soured with lactobacillus, which means it not only hits all the key points on our basic definition of beer (grain, water, yeast and/or bacteria), but kick up the ABV on this Soviet stimulant, and you can sign me up for a Barrel Aged Russian Imperial Kvass!
Native Beer of the Americas
Naturally, the chicha that we’re interested in is the beer variety called chicha de jora, which is a corn (maize) based chicha. But if you know a little Spanish, you know that “jora” doesn’t exactly mean “corn”; “corn” translates to “maíz”. One translation of “jora” is “maize specially prepared for making high-grade chicha”, or more accurately, corn that has been germinated and dried (i.e. malted); therefore “jora” is probably best translated as “malted corn”. It’s also implied that the corn is grown in the Andes Mountains.
Most chicha de jora is brewed very similarly to how standard beer is made: the malted yellow corn is mashed, the wort is then collected, boiled, chilled and then fermented, resulting in a beer with an ABV between 1-3%. But in some versions (which I’ll call ‘chicha de saliva’), the malted corn is excluded from the recipe in favor of actually chewing up ground corn and forming little mushy corn cakes in the mouth. After that, the chewed up spit-cakes are laid out on flat pans where enzymes in the saliva convert the starches in the corn to sugars over the course of about 12 hours. From that point, the spit-cakes are mashed, the wort is collected, boiled, cooled, and then fermented.
Officially, this tradition saliva-laden version of chicha is called Chicha de Muko (“muko” is the Quechua word for “chewed flour”.)
Being the off-centered bunch they are, of course Dogfish Head had to brew a version of chicha de saliva, although they added barley malt, peppercorns, and some fruit to their recipe.
Tesgüino (tesguino): Traditional beer of the mountainous Tarahumara (Rarámuri) Native Americans of the northwestern Mexican state of Chihuahua, tesgüino is an astringent corn (maize) based beer which is communally brewed and heavily consumed especially during the week of Easter. Corn kernels are first malted by allowing them to germinate in cold water for about five days, dried, coarsely crushed, and then mashed with indigenous leaves, bark, and/or grasses for saccharification (i.e. the conversion of the starch in the corn into sugars necessary for fermentation). The wort is then boiled for several hours, cooled, and fermented. Tesguino is strongly associated with spiritualism, and is considered a divine beverage with healing properties.
Tiswin: To disambiguate from tesgüino a bit, some Spanish speakers from Sonora Mexico (just west of Chihuahua) may be familiar with a similar sounding and tasting corn based beer called tiswin (also sometimes spelled teswino, teswin, or tizwin). Tiswin is commonly sold by street vendors in Sonora Mexico, however tiswin is made slightly differently than the Tarahumara tesgüino, and has very little if any spiritual association. Tiswin is made with piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar), and dry toasted corn kernels instead of malted corn found in tesgüino, similar to how chicha de saliva uses coarsely ground corn whereas chicha de jora calls for malted corn.
One last FYI about tiswin: the Tohono O’odham people of the Sonoran Desert also produce a fermented beverage called tiswin, but this tiswin is more of a wine (not beer) made from saguaro cactus fruit, and does not contain corn.
Pissionia: This lesser known wheat beer was brewed by the Yuma Indians, or Quechan, of the southwestern U.S. who lived around the Colorado River Valley in parts of Arizona and Colorado near Mexico. According to beer writer Randy Mosher, “It was made by roasting wheat to a light brown color over a charcoal fire, then crushing the kernels and fermenting the mash.”
African Native Beer
For a homebrew version of this beer, check out this recipe from the Epic-Curiosity blog.
Or just buy a bottle of Wells Banana Bread Beer, and you’ll get the general idea.
Pombe (pombé or phombe): Pombe is Swahili for “beer”, and in this case is a type of traditional East African millet beer made from sorghum, bran, corn, and sugar. Here’s British explorer Richard Francis Burton’s description of pombe when he encountered it in the late 1850’s:
“It is usually made as follows: half of the grain—holcus , panicum [types of grass], or both mixed–intended for the brew is buried or soaked in water till it sprouts; it is then pounded and mixed with the other half, also reduced to flour, and sometimes with a little honey. The compound is boiled twice or thrice in huge pots, strained, when wanted clear, through a bag of matting, and allowed to ferment: after the third day it becomes as sour as vinegar.”
Some recipes call for adding banana to pombe, as described in the book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhne, but this seems to reflect more the mbege beer of the Wachagga (or Chagga) people of Tanzania than traditional pombe. A commercial beer from Kenya called “Pomba” is also brewed with bananas.
On a somber side note, homebrewed pombe was recently involved in the deaths of 75 people and the hospitalization of another 177 who were attending a funeral in Mozambique back in January of this year. It was originally suggested that crocodile bile was used as the lethal toxin in the brew as the substance is believed to be a powerful poison among Bantu-speaking people. However, this belief is more of an urban ledged according to Zimbabwean pharmacologist, Norman Z. Nyazema, Ph.D, who proved back in the 1980s that crocodile bile has no poisonous properties whatsoever. The toxicology report is not yet complete, but based on the symptoms (diarrhea and gastrointestinal distress), Nyazema speculates the cause to be an organophosphate pesticide like parathion which is used in farming areas around the region and is highly toxic to humans.
On a less somber note, a special type of fission yeast was isolated from and named after the East African millet beer: schizosaccharomyces pombe. The yeast itself is said to not perform well at least with European style beers as it tends to produce increasingly noticeable sulfur characteristics over time and is generally considered to be a spoilage organism in wine.
Umqombothi: This popular thick sour beer comes to us from the Xhosa people of South Africa and is brewed with equal parts maize meal, malted corn, and crushed sorghum malt. Weighing in at around 3% ABV, umqombothi starts out by mixing the grains with four parts water in a pot and allowing spontaneous fermentation to occur overnight, similar to making a sour mash. The next day, a portion of the wort is removed and the remaining mash is boiled down further until a crust forms, which is then left to cool for a day. The set aside wort is then added back to the mash where additional sorghum and malted corn is added and the pot is left in a warm place to continue fermentation for about 8 hours. The beer is then separated from the mash and poured into a communal drum for drinking.
Umqombothi is traditionally drank to mark special occasions, especially the return of young Xhosa men after they’ve been ritualistically circumcised. That had better be some pretty darn good umqombothi!
There’s even a pop song named after Umqombothi. It’s performed by Yvonne Chaka Chaka. Seriously. It’s got like half a million hits on YouTube. Chaka Chaka it out, bru.
If this is the last stop on your whirlwind tour around the world in our quest for native beer, I hope you had a little fun and perhaps might be inspired to search out some of these exotic beverages for yourself, or better yet, keep their spirits alive by brewing them in your own home!
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Hi, I’m Dan: Beer Editor for BeerSyndicate.com, Beer and Drinking Blogger, Gold Medal-Winning Homebrewer, Beer Reviewer, AHA Member, Beer Judge, Beer Traveler, and Shameless Beer Promoter.