Umqombothi, The South African Traditional Beer For Xhosa People

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You’ve probably heard of ‘Umqombothi’ in one of Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s throbbing hits from South Africa. The whole song is all about praise for the African culture and the traditional brew is only synonymous with all this.

But, do you know the real meaning behind it? Well, Umqombothi is an authentic South African traditional beer that speaks of the rich cultural heritage in the South.

What Is The History Behind Umqombothi Brew In South Africa?

Straight from the Xhosa people, Umqombothi is the mother of all craft beers in Mzansi – as South Africa is fondly known. This traditional brew is homemade.

It is prepared from crushed corn malt, maize meal, grounded sorghum malt, yeast and water. Once the brew is ready, the final product is a thick brown liquid with low alcohol content.

The alcohol is a result of fermentation of the yeast – specially sourced from the roots of moerwortel Glia gummifera plant.

Umqombothi traditional brew

Umqombothi. [Photo/News24]

How Does Umqombothi Taste Like?

In one gulp you can’t help but grapple with a rich taste of sourness but a savouring aroma.  Umqombothi is strongly acidic. If your body is hyper-acidic, it is not the best for you. You could have debilitating episodes of a rumbling stomach.

Over the years though, local brewers are now using aromatic ingredients to improve on taste and the aroma as well. Pineapples and ginger are commonly used to sweeten the sour taste. But the acidity levels remain dangerously high.

How Long Does It Take To Prepare Umqombothi?

Preparation and fermentation of Umqombothi takes four to five days. As a tradition, this whole process happens outside the house and is passed from one generation to another.

Although it is predominantly a Xhosa people preserve, other tribes in South Africa also brew this special brew. But, they use different techniques to do this.

A major distinction in the preparation process is filtration. Xhosa – the pioneer brewers – use a homemade filter with herb strands. It is the ultimate test of patience. This handmade tool is locally known as intlus.

The brewing complexity makes it harder to teach younger generations but Xhosa brewing technique is popular.

What Is Umqombothi Brew Significance In South Africa?

It is that popular traditional drink downed during cultural ceremonies such as initiation. When young initiates return home after it undergoing this rite of passage, Umqombothi is the celebratory brew.

South Africans believe it connects them to their ancestors during such events.


Umqombothi. [Photo/ News 24]

With its longstanding existence, the brew has in the last decade inspired the mushrooming of a dozen craft beer companies. Data by the Beer Association of South Africa (BASA) indicates that there are 200 small craft beer brewers since 2011.

They help address the ever-growing demand for local brew which umqombothi alone cannot meet.

These small craft brewers add a twist to the preparation of the original umqombothi and use modern technology for brewing. They do not use the herbal root-based yeast and sorghum corn malt.

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