Home Brewing in the Time of Covid-19

Wikimedia Commons

In the beginning, home brewing was a hipster trend that seeded an abundance of urban brewing companies and drove up demand for brew kits as hop-heads made vats of craft ale in their kitchens. Now, deep into a prohibition-style lockdown, South Africans are devising their own hacks for getting around the nationwide alcohol ban. In the time of Covid-19, home brewing takes on a disaster-style form better aligned to the doomsday prepper movement than hipster IPAs.

In a display of quintessential South African resourcefulness, home brewing became a solution to citizens’ mounting thirst during the extended alcohol ban. Many scrambled to stock up on highly fermentable ingredients like fruit juice concentrate, pears, apples, sorghum and sugar-rich pineapples. In-depth discussions sprang up on internet forums as people began comparing beer-making recipes and methods. Google Trends South Africa data show a marked increase for the search terms “beer” and “homemade beer recipe” over the lockdown period. An iconoclast at an unknown Spar store showed support for prohibition home-brewing with a rather irreverent display of unripe pineapples, sugar and yeast.

But it just became harder for South Africans to get their hands on brewing ingredients. Anchor Yeast, a leading yeast manufacturer in Southern Africa, abruptly ceased sale and distribution of its Inkunzi malanga, a brewer’s yeast that’s been used for making traditional beer for generations. The manufacturer stated that decision came in support of the government's lockdown policy, and that the brewer’s yeast is deemed a non-essential product.

We have reviewed our position on the sale of Anchor Brewers 20 g and believe it is not an essential good as defined by our government. Although it is yeast, it may be used to prepare offerings that fall outside the scope of essential foods.

— Joanne Clarke, director of consumer relations at Anchor Yeast

The moratorium on yeast intends to prevent people from “prepar[ing] offerings that fall outside the scope of essential foods”. In other words, beer.

Home brewing has a long history in South Africa. Before European colonials arrived on African shores, local populations produced sour sorghum-based beers, the most recognizable of which is umqombothi from the Transkei region of the Eastern Cape. The traditional beer, made predominantly by the Zulu and Xhosa-speaking peoples, lies at the heart of deep social connections in both cultural groups and plays a central role in social gatherings, traditional meetings, homecomings, weddings and religious ceremonies. The opaque brew bubbles overnight on an open fire. It’s contained in a three-legged cast iron pot, or potjie, and traditionally attended by women. The end result is a cloudy-brown blend of maize (corn), sorghum and maize malts, yeast and water.

In modern times, microbreweries have sprung up all over South Africa, along with a vibrant home-brewing community. The beer lore that has long-existed in the country as part of its indigenous knowledge system, coupled with the more recent commercial beer renaissance puts its people in an advantageous position to fend for themselves over the dry spell.

The South African lockdown, though draconian, received praise from the WHO for its meticulously engineered approach and overall effectiveness in curbing transmissions. There’s also a strong police and military presence briefed to ensure civilians comply with the restrictions. Upon catching wind of the maverick home brewing movement, the government has had a thing or two to say on the matter.

There have been reports of police raiding rural homesteads where people are whipping up umqombothi on the quiet to meet local demand. Some argue that the traditional brew, with its social connotations, is practically a gathering call: a true crowd-pleaser in a time when crowds are a public health risk. Top cop Lt. General Mondli Zuma has since warned people not to brew “illegal liquor” in their homes. But is it really an illegal practice?

The Disaster Management Act, the legislation underpinning South Africa’s lockdown, does not forbid citizens from making their own alcohol at home for personal consumption. Under the Act, the sale, dispensing or transportation of alcohol may be suspended or limited, but there is no mention of home-based, non-commercial, private manufacture. This would mean that Lt. Zuma’s statement, as well as the police’s actions in confiscating and destroying traditional beer, are simply wrong.

Once South Africans emerge from the prohibition-style lockdown, thirsty, disheveled and smelling of yeast, they’ll undoubtedly find that the microbreweries have been hard at work to bring a number of new offerings to market. My money’s on Lockdown IPA, Pandemic Pineapple Cider or Quarantine Blonde.

writing person | occupational therapist | never seen a ghost. I write about food, weird histories, human behavior, and our lives under late capitalism

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