Howzit my brew

2011-12-09 13:44

It’s the alcoholic drink with the broadest appeal and there’s one for every taste. Whether golden, refreshingly cold and crisp, or creamy, dark and bitter, beer has been clutched in the hands of gods and monks, kings and commoners alike.

It’s arguably the most democratic brew of all, enjoyed with fervour across race, creed and class. Some have even christened it the midwife of civilisation.

To register its working class affinities – at least here in South Africa – drinkers raise their glasses and join fellow revellers in a proud chant, “more refreshment and more reward at the end of the day!” The upwardly mobile entrants into the middle classes on the other hand ask for: “The one to have when you are having more than one.”

And as the influence of religious chauvinism and its attendant misogynistic view of gender role wanes further in the Western world, the drinking circle is getting bigger.

Where your aunts would have been frowned upon for raising a pint, today’s young women in skinny jeans and stilettos laugh out loud, chant bottoms up and sport a foam moustache.

This apparently ubiquitous beverage is scoring a further triumph in culinary circles too.

Beer and food pairing is a growing trend that’s fast eclipsing wine, proving that even a drink without bourgeois pretensions can aspire to them.

The history of beer stretches back a few millennia with the first evidence of brewing found in ancient Egypt between 1301 and 1290?BC.

It was the work of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess and wife of Horus, the sun god. She symbolised the great mother and fertility.

According to the SAB World of Beer tour in Newtown, Joburg, the Egyptians used clay pots to brew their beer.

They used raw barley, honey and dates, but no hops. The fermentation was started by tossing in a bit of emmer wheat bread mixed with yeast.

The brewed substance was in fact a staple food of Egyptian diet. It was so popular that workers were given vast quantities of up to a gallon or more a day to sustain them. So basically, the Pyramids were built by a bunch of drunken fellows!

A similar variety of beer was also produced by the ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).

There it’s credited to Nin-kasi, the beer goddess and chief brewer for the gods. Temple brewers were also priestesses of Nin-kasi.

Then there’s the sorghum beer (umqombothi) variety which has its earliest roots in Nubia in the upper Egyptian region or modern day Sudan between 250AD and 550AD.

Their brew contained tetracycline, an antibiotic, thus giving its drinkers a health buzz.

In the cultures indigenous to southern Africa, it is believed you can “judge a woman’s generosity by the size of her home’s sorghum granary”. Hence the wife who masters the talent to produce the best brew in the village is the treasured pride of her husband.

While men appear to have taken over beer production as it grew into an industry, the woman figure as brew master of sorts hasn’t been lost entirely.

In the townships for instance, the ancient priestess of beer has morphed into the shebeen queen.

She’s been reinvented in the image of a large-bodied matriarch with a thunderous voice.

She wears overall skirts, branded T-shirts and a head scarf. Abrasively tempered and sharp-eyed, she shuffles her feet when she walks, negotiating a pair of soiled old sneakers that have seen better days.

Wrapped around her waist is the ever present apron of a greasy money bag that keeps her profits from her cherished sorghum brew.

The other variety of the township booze priestess tends to be slightly extravagantly decorated, of course, with large golden earrings, thick make-up and loud nail polish.

The township shebeen as a drinking den shares a similar history with many watering holes across the world.

The word itself is originally Irish (sibin) and refers to an illicit bar or house where alcoholic beverages were sold without a licence. They flourished because in apartheid South Africa blacks were banned from trading commercially in liquor.

These queens not only served umqombothi, but lager too, unleashing a whole new beer drinking culture complete with all manner of oddities.
For instance, someone somewhere must have found the bitter Irish beer unbearable, or assumed the word “milk” in Milk Stout meant the two should be mixed. Since then uncles have been underplaying runny tummies all over the townships.

But really it is called milk stout because it contains lactose, a sugar derived from milk.

The dark, full-bodied beer is made using roasted malt or barley hops, water and yeast. The roasted malt is what gives the stout its strength compared to its pale cousins, the ale, lager and bitter.

The malt and barley that give beer its variety differ from pale, crystal to dark.

They provide for starch, flavour and colour while the hops account for that distinctively bitter taste. The vast number of flavours of beer means that you can match it with all sorts of food.

In pairing food and beer, the ideal match can be achieved by finding the balance in flavours.

As the writers of the Box-Beer blog spot argues: “Similar to the association of red wine with red meat and white wine with fish and chicken, many prefer to pair dark, heavier beers with meats and lighter beers with fish, chicken and salads. The alternative approach involves selecting beers and foods based on regional associations.

“Mexican beers are often light and acidic, which naturally pairs well with spicy Mexican food, while Japanese lagers are a good complement to sushi. Conveniently, most ethnic restaurants typically offer several traditional beers to make pairings easy.”

So, as we get into full swing with festivities this summer, raise your cup and bless 1888, the year Charles Glass launched his Castle brewery in the bourgeoning mining city of Joburg, laying the foundation to what in 1895 would become the first South African brewery aimed at spreading the golden nectar across the length and breadth of our land.

But don’t forget; if you are raising your glass, remember to put aside taxi fare too.

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