Banana beer from Africa
Beer is not confined to malted barley, hops and water as the reinheitsgebot would have you believe. Nor should it be limited to locally sourced barley and wheat and whatever the brewer found at the farmers market. If you define beer as any fermented beverage whose sugars are derived from cereals, it leaves room for much more experimentation.
The easiest place for inspiration is our collective past. In Africa alone, it is said to have hundreds of beer styles. Plus, these indigenous alcoholic beverages account for 80% of consumption in rural Africa. However, these traditions are difficult to study given the negative influence of colonialism, no written record before European involvement, and the importation of foreign brands. Plus, the details that do exist remain unclear.
Despite this, one tradition I find fascinating is the use of bananas in brewing.
Enter mbege, a banana beer brewed by the Chaga (Chagga, Wachaga) people in Tanzania. The Chaga tribe are within the Bantu-speaking group and the third largest ethnic group in Tanzania. Traditionally, they live on the southern and eastern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro where the environment is highly suitable for agriculture. Although best known for Arabica coffee, the Chaga’s main crop is the banana which they use for cooking, brewing, and fruit.
Production is divided into three steps: Nyalu preparation, Mso preparation, followed by the mixing step.
Nyalu refers to fermented banana juice, which serves as the primary source for fermentative organisms. In the Chaga tribe, this is done by cooking a 1:1 ratio of ripened bananas to water. This mixture is then cooked over high temperature until the liquid turns red and no more clumps remain. This is then filtered and left to ferment (via open fermentation) for 9 - 12 days, depending on the season.
Prior to fermentation, some brewers add powdered bark (called Msesewe) to the liquid. This bark, derived from the Rauvolfia caffra tree, provides a level of bitterness and aids in fermentation. In previous studies, it was seen that tannins from Mangrove tree bark serve as a protective agent against microbial infection, except for yeast.
It is said that Nyalu produced with msesewe will finish fermenting within five days, due to the protective effects of the bark. I wouldn’t be surprised if it also served as an inoculant, given that some yeasts thrive on trees.
The Chaga method of banana juice production seems to be one of the few that cook bananas to extract liquid. Other methods of banana juice production are to mash ripe bananas in a trough, removing the liquid through sieves of grass or banana leaves. For example, the Haya (a now disbanded kingdom in Tanzania) usually press bananas to extract liquid. It is unclear which method of juice extraction is best. It is entirely possible, though, that one method provides a different flavor than the other.
Once the Nyalu is close to finishing, the mso is prepared. Mso is simply an unfermented wort derived from malted finger millet. This is done by heating water and adding a small fraction of ground millet. Once it reaches temperature, roughly half of the liquid is removed and set aside. Then, the rest of the malted millet is added to the mix.
This is then cooked for 25 minutes. The amylase present in millet is operative between 50 - 70 C (after which it denatures). To control temperature and thickness of the mash, the extracted liquid is added back to the mixture. If normal water was used, it would drop the temperature too low, thus stopping the mashing process. Plus, using the liquid Mso extract serves as a way to thin the mash in case it gets too thick. After the mash, the liquid is then moved to separate containers to cool.
Once cood, nyalu and mso are mixed in a barrel. The resultant liquid is called togwa and left to ferment. Even after 6 hours, alcohol levels will rise to around 2.5%, but if left to ferment for two days, alcohol levels should reach roughly 4% abv. It is assumed that nyalu serves as the primary source for yeast, given that it is the only liquid left to ferment separately.
The main fermentative organisms responsible were found to be Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Lactobacillus plantarum.
Mbege beer recipe
In a previous study, the following amounts were reported:
Therefore, water to banana juice is 1:1, and for water to malt is roughly 1:3. If you were to attempt brewing mbege, then keeping these ratios should result in a solid recreation of the brew.
Determining the amount of bananas required to produce adequate levels of juice have so far gone unreported. Further complicating this issue is the amount of banana cultivars present in Tanzania. In a previous study, a total of 18 varieties were reported, yet the total number is well over 100, with some names being synonyms and homonyms. Not much is known how nomenclature is derived, thus causing one of the biggest problems in classifying banana varieties. Plus in Tanzania, the farming of bananas is largely for local consumption, and so are bred to meet local tastes. Thus, choosing the right kind of banana to replicate this drink proves difficult. It is not as simple as just choosing cooking bananas, which are less sweet. Even more discouraging (but cool at the same time), there are banana cultivars specified for brewing. So locating the right type of banana may be impossible.
Plus finger millet might be hard to come by, despite the advent of gluten-free beer. Yet I imagine it would be easier to acquire than the right kind of banana.
Difficulties in studying mbege
Keep a dose of healthy skepticism when reviewing articles on mbege production. There is not much out there in regards to academic publishing. When there is, citing is somewhat scarce. For example, most just claim that the Chaga people are the founders of mbege, yet do not link it to other banana-based beverages. Given the diversity of tradition among tribes, mbege production might vary between groups within Tanzania, so observations of brewing might be tribe-specific. Plus, it is unclear whether the Chaga learned to make mbege on their own, or was taught to them by neighboring groups.
European influences also have to be taken into account. In the early 1900s, British officials, scientists, missionaries, and settlers collectively condemned finger millet. They attempted to convince Chaga farmers of millet’s immorality, lack of market value, among others. At first, this advice was ignored, but by the 1980s, millet was only found sporadically. This, coupled with the fact that the written record for the Chaga people doesn’t begin until roughly 1850 skews historical accuracy. Still, this is a general overview of the practice and should be a decent representation of the tradition.
I find one of the more inspirational takeaways is the banana juice as the source for inoculation, and finger millet as the source of simple sugars. With styles that have multiple sources of sugars, it would be interesting to experiment with a mbege-like fermentation profile (i.e. ferment one, use the other as sugars and vice versa). One such example would be the braggot, a barley-honey brew. Most braggot recipes I have come across state to mix both the barley wort and honey then ferment. It would be interesting to ferment the mead first, then add wort to see if that influences flavor.
It is necessary to record methods of production of mbege and indigenous beverages on the whole, due to the anthropological role they play. IAB’s are accepted forms of payment for labor, are a source of income for women and provide an excellent source of nutrition. Thus, it is imperative to record their production techniques to preserve its place within humans material culture.
Carlson, R. G. 1990. Banana beer, Reciprocity, and Ancestor Propitiation among the Haya of Bukoba, Tanzania. Source Ethnol. 29: 297–311.
Kubo, R. 2014. Production of indigenous alcoholic beverages in a rural village of Tanzania. J. Inst. Brew. doi:10.1002/jib.127
Kubo, R., and M. Kilasara. 2016. Brewing Technique of Mbege, a Banana Beer Produced in
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Mwesigye, P. K., and T. O. Okurut. 1995. A Survey of the Production and Consumption of Traditional Alcoholic Beverages in Uganda. Process Biochem. doi:10.1016/0032-9592(94)00033-6
Platt, B. S. 2016. Some Traditional Alcoholic Beverages and their Importance in Indigenous African Communities. Quart. J. Stud. AZc. Nutr. Rev. Lancet Voeding Brit. med.J. i Arch. NeuroZ. Psychiat. Chicago Lancet 14: 257–287. doi:10.1079/PNS19550026
Shayo, N. B., S. A. M. Nnko, A. B. Gidamis ’, and V. M. Dillon2. 1998. Assessment of cyanogenic glucoside (cyanide) residues in Mbege: an opaque traditional Tanzanian beer. Int. J. Food Sci. Nutr. 49: 333–338.