Umqombothi Xhosa pronunciation: [um̩k͡ǃomboːtʰi], from the Xhosa language, is a beer made from maize (corn), maize malt, sorghum malt, yeast and water. It is commonly found in South Africa. It is very rich in Vitamin B. The beer has a rather low alcohol content (usually less than 3%) and is known to have a heavy and distinctly sour aroma. In appearance, the beer is opaque and light tan in colour. It has a thick, creamy and gritty consistency (from the maize).
Traditional Method of Preparation
Umqombothi is brewed following traditional customs and these vary slightly between regions. The recipe is often passed down through the generations. The beer is traditionally prepared over a fire outside of the house. It then passively cools to ambient temperatures outside the house.
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 ingredients are mixed in a cast-iron pot, known as a potjie in South Africa. Four measures of warm water are added. The mixture is left overnight. The mixture starts fermenting and bubbles appear. A sour odour can be detected.
A small portion of the wort is removed and put to one side. The remaining mash is cooked until a crusty sediment forms. This product is known as isidudu and can be eaten as a porridge. When making beer, the isidudu is left to cool for a day.
After the mixture has cooled, it is poured into a large plastic vat. The wort that was set aside is added to the vat. A handful of sorghum malt and a handful of maize malt is added to the vat. The brew is stirred with a traditional stirring spoon called an iphini. The vat is covered with a lid and blanket (to retain heat). The vat is put in a warm place overnight, to encourage fermentation.
The traditional method of testing to see if the brew is ready is to light a match 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. The intshela is added to the strained beer, to give extra flavour.
The spent grains are squeezed out and are usually cast onto the ground for chickens. The brewer of the beer traditionally gives thanks to the ancestors while casting the corn.
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. When guests arrive at the brewer's home to taste the beer and join in the celebration, they traditionally bring a bottle of brandy, as a symbol of gratitude.
This beer plays a very important role when someone contacts their ancestors (known as amadlozi) and plays a central role in the social context and so is often used during customary weddings, funerals, and imbizos (traditional meetings).
Although the finished beer is not contaminated with the fungi; 33% of commercially brewed sorghum beer contained aflatoxins and 45% of home-brewed beers contained zearalenone and/or ochratoxin A in the final product.
The Eastern Cape province of South Africa has a very high incidence of oesophageal cancer. Research by the Medical Research Council in South Africa suggests mycotoxins in homegrown maize are linked to the high incidence of this cancer.