Lying curled up in the bow of a boat on Tanzania’s Rufiji River barely 24 hours later, my gastrointestinal system in the sadistic grip of some bacterium, protozoon, or other such microscopic, waterborne scoundrel, I would regret my decision to sample the opaque, mud-colored elixir my hosts had just offered me in a repurposed Fanta bottle of unknown age and origin. I had journeyed far in search of a taste of pombe, however, so lacking the power to see into my wretched near-future, I did what any red-blooded beer lover would do when presented with the opportunity to try his first African home brew in the company of the locals: I said What the Hell? and took a healthy swallow. Thankfully, one swallow was all I took.
Months earlier, while my wife and I were planning our first trip to the continent, I had heard tales of a local drink called pombe (or dolo, burukutu, or pito, depending on which country you’re in), a traditional beer made from millet, corn, bananas, plantains, or whatever else is handy. The grains are sprouted and then fermented, or in the case of bananas, buried until ripe, stomped, and boiled to make a pre-fermentation infusion (or “wort” in brewing parlance). Despite such brews occasionally, albeit rarely, killing the drinker – for example, 75 at a funeral in Mozambique in 2015 due to the brewer’s use of rotting corn flour – I decided that I had to try some, and if I was lucky, to find someone to teach me the craft.
I imagined a village elder – perhaps descended from a great chief or mighty warrior – his leathery skin and proud bearing evidence of a life filled with hardship but lived with vigor and dignity. He would gesture to me as he began a batch of pombe to be served on the joyous occasion of his daughter’s wedding, perhaps, or in celebration of an ancient military victory. With the others, I would step into the hollow of a felled baobab tree, feeling the sliminess of the week-old bananas between my toes, enjoying the fellowship and the gravity of participating in a ritual that thousands of generations before me had undertaken, an act almost as old as humanity itself. Our task completed, we would drink together as my noble brew master regaled us with tales from his youth.
And so shortly after arriving at Nyerere National Park (formerly, the Selous Game Reserve) from the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam, armed with a notebook and camera, we set out in search of our fermented quarry in a jeep with our Swahili-speaking guide, Hamisi, to the village of Mloka. NPR once described Mloka in an All Things Considered piece as a “cheerless village” from which ivory poachers slip into the nearby game reserve at night to hunt. While the subject of poaching, elephant or otherwise, didn’t arise during my visit, it’s instantly clear to the new arrival that Mloka isn’t a wealthy place. As is many other parts of Africa, the buildings are a mixture of traditional and modern construction, cinder-block dwellings with corrugated metal roofs standing next to white-washed adobe huts with thatched roofs.
Hamisi, who lived in the village and worked as a safari guide in the national park, led us past cashew trees, the occasional rusting old truck, and dirt yards baked hard over the dry season, to a low door that led into a courtyard surrounded by walls of timber and grasses and covered with a thatched canopy. Inside, we were greeted by more than a dozen Mlokans, who like the village buildings, evoked both the old – brightly colored Masai-style dresses – and the new – jeans and t-shirts emblazoned with Manchester United and Harley Davidson logos. They sat on benches around a long table, upon which a bearded man with a machete was meticulously chopping the woody stem of a plant that would later be identified to us as “the marijuana,” although we politely declined his offer to sample this local offering.
Since my grasp of Swahili is limited to “please,” “thank you,” and “my wife is allergic to mangoes,” Hamisi helped us through our introductions and the requisite number of friendly greetings to satisfy Tanzanian etiquette (which, I’ll add, takes far longer than for the average straight-to-business American), before announcing the main event, the brewing of a traditional East-African pombe. Several feet away from the table, our hosts had laid out the tools of their trade in a cooking-show-style before/during/after line-up: 1. metal bowl balanced on three large rocks over an open fire, 2. orange plastic five-gallon bucket, 3. Red mixing bowl with an assortment of empty 16-ounce Fanta and Miranda soda bottles, and 4. a full bottle of the finished product.
After the water came to a boil, the brewer, a twenty-something woman wrapped in multi-colored khangas, a traditional cotton cloth, tossed in a bag of loose tea and some sugar, expertly shuffling the coals beneath the pot to keep the heat constant. After boiling the wort for about twenty minutes, she poured it through cheesecloth into the orange bucket until it was cool enough to add yeast. As the mixture was cooling, a few of the members of the gathering had become increasingly intoxicated from a bottle of Konyagi, a sugar cane–based liquor that Hamisi explained was the cheapest and strongest available nearby. When one of them passed out and started drooling on himself, his wife stood up to take his knife and cell phone, to his boozy displeasure and the amusement of his friends.
When the wort was cool enough, the brew mistress added instant yeast from a plastic bag, stirred it with a wooden stick, and then began pouring it into the plastic bottles, which she had first rinsed using water from a bucket that had been there under the canopy since we arrived. And there the newly brewed pombe would sit until the plastic plumped out with carbonation to the desired strength – usually a few days to a week. Luckily, there was a finished bottle on hand for me to sample, so I gave the thumbs-up to those members of the crew who were still upright and for whom the novelty of our presence hadn’t yet worn off, and took a swallow, thus unwittingly setting myself up for days of agony thereafter.
How did it taste? The short answer: about like you’d expect a tea beer brewed and bottled in unsanitized plastic and left to ferment in the heat to taste. But to elaborate a bit, sour and yeasty. Not like beer. Not like tea. Drinkable enough for maybe half a bottle, but I won’t be lobbying my local beer store to start importing it. What it did have in abundance, however, was alcohol, which was pretty much the point.
The sun setting, the pombe drunk, and the already-awkward conversation flagging, we said a goodbye Kwaheri! and headed back to camp. I have no doubt that somewhere in East Africa on that very day, someone – maybe even a noble village elder – joyfully brewed a delicious pombe with all the skill and care of an artisan celebrating an ancient tradition. But here, in one of the poorer corners of a country in which nearly half the population is forced to get by on around $2.00 U.S. per day, there’s also plenty of emphasis on the craft of brewing the strongest possible hooch for the lowest possible price. So now, when the $25 bottle of my favorite brewer’s new choco-lingonberry saison aged in charred sherry casks doesn’t live up to my expectations, or one of my own brewing experiments crashes and burns, I drink to my Mlokan comrades’ health and offer a silent thank-you to the universe that I have the luxury of worrying about such a wonderful but elusive quality as taste.