When Good Beer Goes Bad

Walk­ing past the stands of soap, canned toma­toes, and onions for sale on her porch, Madame Rita en­ters the cabaret where she and her fam­ily sell their home­brewed beer.

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents -

We live in a mi­cro­bially ac­tive world, and there are myr­iad ways in the brew­house as well as af­ter pack­ag­ing that beer spoil­ers can af­fect the fla­vor of beer. But beer “in­fec­tion” is more than a bi­nary yes/no equa­tion. It’s a study in math­e­matic prob­a­bil­ity and thresh­olds of mea­sur­a­bil­ity.

“Good morn­ing,” she says, smil­ing broadly. “Are you well in ar­riv­ing?”

In­side the small con­crete room, the per­cus­sive gui­tar of a Côte d’ivoirian artist blares through a speaker as dozens of flies flit around the room’s low con­crete benches, search­ing for traces of spilled beer. The room is dim ex­cept for a band of sun­light com­ing through the back door. To­day, like ev­ery day, Rita and her fam­ily have been brewing in the hard-packed clay court­yard be­hind their cabaret. Rita’s sis­ter, Brigitte, is in­side serv­ing the beer, which many lo­cals con­sider some of the best in the area.

A mid­dle-aged man in a faded Amer­i­can T-shirt, tired-look­ing slacks, and flipflops steps into the room. He is the day’s first cus­tomer, and Brigitte of­fers him a sam­ple of the day’s batch. Here, as in all cabarets in this small West African nation of Benin, the server al­ways of­fers each cus­tomer a free bowl of beer upon his/ her ar­rival. If the qual­ity is sat­is­fac­tory, the cus­tomer might stay and con­tinue drink­ing; oth­ers take ad­van­tage of the tra­di­tion and wan­der from beer house to beer house, drink­ing free sam­ples all day.

From the cor­ner where the still-fer­ment­ing beer sits in plas­tic buck­ets and large cook­ing pots, Brigitte calls out to the cus­tomer, “Well-fer­mented or sweet?”

Since the beer is fer­mented with a blend of en­vi­ron­men­tally har­vested mi­crobes (namely lac­tic acid bac­te­ria and wild Sac­cha­romyces), cus­tomers have the choice of drink­ing younger sweeter beer or slightly older beer with a more pro­nounced acid­ity. The man opts in­stead for a blend of the two. Brigitte places a metal stand at the man’s feet, then la­dles a few ounces of the fizzing orange beer into a cal­abash (a bowl made from the dried fruit of a tree). She places the bowl on the rack, then cov­ers it with a round slab of wood to keep out flies. The man drinks the bowl quickly, then pours a small pile of snuff into the crease be­tween his thumb and in­dex fin­ger and in­hales it ab­sent-mind­edly. Ap­par­ently sat­is­fied with the qual­ity of the beer, he de­mands an­other bowl. While her sis­ter re­fills the cus­tomer’s beer, Rita is busy out­side.

As Rita pre­pares to brew, her brother, Martin, en­ters the court­yard. He is tall with broad shoul­ders and is wear­ing a freshly pressed boomba (a tra­di­tional suit con­sist­ing of a long shirt and pants made from the same brightly col­ored fab­ric). He has dropped in for a drink be­fore tend­ing to some per­sonal business, but be­fore en­ter­ing the cabaret, he stops to watch as his sis­ter hauls a metal basin of crushed grain into the yard. His gaze set­tles on a num­ber of con­crete slabs set in the dry red earth a few feet from where he is stand­ing.

“You see those? Those are the graves of sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of our an­ces­tors. We’ve been liv­ing and mak­ing beer here for a long time.”

As he turns back to­ward the cabaret, Martin pauses to look through the gate to­ward the bot­tom of the hill where the house is sit­u­ated. There, the mar­ket grounds of Natitin­gou are teem­ing with peo­ple.

A Beer Steeped in Tra­di­tion and Lore

Nes­tled in the Ata­cora Moun­tains, the small city of Natitin­gou is home to one of north­ern Benin’s largest open-air mar­kets. A few times a week, peo­ple travel from dozens of nearby vil­lages to nav­i­gate the sprawl­ing mar­ket’s many neigh­bor­hoods. There, the smell of fried food is per­va­sive, and in the packed al­leys be­tween stalls, the sounds of buy­ers and sell­ers hag­gling over col­or­ful fab­rics, im­ported pro­duce, and sec­ond-hand clothes bleed into a loud mur­mur.

When I ar­rive, it is late in the morn­ing, and sev­eral women are sell­ing their beer in tin huts and wooden lean-tos a few me­ters from the mar­ket.

Aris­tide, a life­long res­i­dent of Natitin­gou and an am­a­teur lo­cal beer his­to­rian, is re­lax­ing in a nearby bar, nurs­ing a bot­tle of La Beni­noise (Benin’s flag­ship ad­junct lager).

“It’s been hot to­day. When it’s hot dur­ing the day like this, it’s sure to rain at night,” he tells me be­fore tak­ing a long draw of his beer.

In a coun­try with a stag­nant econ­omy that of­fers high school and col­lege grad­u­ates alike few op­por­tu­ni­ties out­side of driv­ing taxis or work as a day la­borer, Aris­tide man­aged to be­come one of Benin’s only na­tive ar­chae­ol­o­gists. He speaks about twelve lan­guages, in­clud­ing French, English, Ger­man, and a slew of lo­cal lan­guages from around Benin. His mother tongue is Dit­ta­mari, the lan­guage of the Ot­ta­mari peo­ple. His fam­ily is one of the largest and old­est in the re­gion, and he claims that they were the first peo­ple to de­velop the brewing process here.

“In my lan­guage,” he ex­plains, “we call our beer tchouk­outou. There are peo­ple from sev­eral eth­nic groups who make beer around the area, but tchouk­outou was the first, and it started right here, with the Ot­ta­mari peo­ple. We’ve made beer since be­fore French col­o­niza­tion in the late 1800s.”

Like many of the dozens of eth­nic groups in Benin, the Ot­ta­mari prac­tice polygamy. Aris­tide re­counts a story about an an­ces­tor who, ready to take a sec­ond wife, mar­ried a beautiful young woman. Then, as now, the in­hab­i­tants of north­west­ern Benin ate sorghum as a corner­stone of their diet.

Aris­tide ex­plains, “While stor­ing a por­tion of the year’s grain har­vest, the new wife al­lowed one of the sacks to be­come wet. The grain be­gan to ger­mi­nate and, re­al­iz­ing her er­ror, she sought the help of the first wife.”

To­gether the two wives spread the grain to dry in the sun. They used this grain to

make a batch of por­ridge and later that evening were as­ton­ished by the in­tox­i­cat­ing ef­fects of the fer­mented left­overs.

Aris­tide’s eyes light up as he says mat­ter-of-factly, “In this way, tchouk­outou was cre­ated.”

To­day, as with that ac­ci­den­tal in­au­gu­ral batch, tchouk­outou is made only by women. How­ever, Aris­tide claims that vir­tu­ally all Ot­ta­mari, male and fe­male, are fa­mil­iar with the process.

“I helped my mother make our fam­ily’s beer through­out my child­hood. My fa­ther did the same thing with his mother.” Aris­tide smiles, then men­tions off-hand­edly, “Grow­ing up, [my fa­ther] was good friends with Mathieu Kérékou. They would help my grand­mother and her sis­ters brew. When they got older, they quit school to start farm­ing, and if it hadn’t been for Hu­bert Maga, who was their teacher at the time, things would have been a lot dif­fer­ent. Maga came to the farm and told them both they had to fin­ish at school, and they lis­tened.”

Some con­text: Hu­bert Maga even­tu­ally be­came the first pres­i­dent of Benin af­ter the coun­try de­clared in­de­pen­dence from France. Aris­tide’s fa­ther and Mathieu Kérékou both be­came high-rank­ing of­fi­cials in Maga’s mil­i­tary, where­upon Kérékou, along with a small group of dis­si­dents in the up­per ech­e­lons of Maga’s mil­i­tary— in­clud­ing Aris­tide’s fa­ther—staged a coup and dis­placed Maga. Kérékou then served as the leader of Benin for al­most three decades, from 1972 to 1991 and again be­tween 1996 and 2006. Aris­tide re­counts these facts non­cha­lantly, as if ev­ery­one’s fa­ther had, at one time or an­other, been im­pli­cated in a hos­tile takeover of a gov­ern­ment.

Aris­tide sips his beer and adds, “Early on, tchouk­outou was only for cul­tur­ally im­por­tant events, such as fu­ner­als or wed­dings. It was so im­por­tant that if some­one were to die be­fore the year’s grain har­vests, their funeral would be post­poned un­til the har­vest was fin­ished so that a suf­fi­cient quan­tity of beer could be brewed for the cer­e­mony.”

To­day, how­ever, peo­ple brew beer in or­der to sell it, and its com­mer­cial­iza­tion has some un­for­tu­nate con­se­quences. Be­cause brewing de­mands strong wood fires, the process con­trib­utes to de­for­esta­tion—a prob­lem plagu­ing much of West Africa— on a scale not seen when brewing was re­stricted to so­cially sig­nif­i­cant cer­e­monies.

“Iron­i­cally, the com­mer­cial de­mand for the beer it­self is a threat to its ex­is­tence. It’s get­ting more ex­pen­sive. Peo­ple have to travel farther and farther to find wood all the time.” Aris­tide sighs, then or­ders an­other beer.

As Lo­cal as Lo­cal Beer Gets

Back at the cabaret, Rita feeds half a dozen logs into a small fire at the base of a clay oven.

“I’ve just added one part crushed sorghum to five parts wa­ter,” she says, ges­tur­ing to­ward a jug con­tain­ing a soupy mix­ture of grain and room-tem­per­a­ture wa­ter. She must wait for 30 min­utes while the grain soaks, and she steps away to catch her breath.

Since Benin is a de­vel­op­ing coun­try, the di­verse as­sort­ment of pre-malted grains that home­brew­ers and pro­fes­sion­als en­joy in wealth­ier coun­tries does not ex­ist here. Rita’s fam­ily grows all of their own grain, and Rita acts tire­lessly as the house malt­ster. Her process is sim­ple, al­beit time-con­sum­ing.

“Many brew­ers use a blend of sorghum, mil­let, and corn, but I use only sorghum,” Rita says as she turns over a pile of grain with her hand.

Af­ter the grain soaks overnight, Rita places the grain in a pile about 10 cm (4") thick in a small stor­age room. She cov­ers the pile with a tarp, and once the grain ger­mi­nates, she dries it in the sun, then grinds it into a coarse flour. Oc­ca­sion­ally, the grain ger­mi­nates un­evenly due to an un­bal­anced dis­tri­bu­tion of wa­ter. How­ever, she has an­other, more fre­quent, is­sue with her malt­ing.

“A big prob­lem for me is that goats wan­der in and eat the grain while it’s ger­mi­nat­ing,” Rita laughs as she walks back to­ward the clay oven.

The 30 min­utes are up, and the fire is ready. Rita starts by de­cant­ing the top third of the jug’s liq­uid—which is now a hazy orange wort—into a shal­low metal basin, which she places to the side. Rita tops the jug off with wa­ter to re­place the re­moved wort, then trans­fers all of its con­tents into a large cook­ing pot she has placed on the clay oven. As the grain-wort mix­ture boils, light-col­ored foam forms on its sur­face. Af­ter about 45 min­utes, the foam dark­ens and dis­si­pates. Rita re­moves the pot from the fire and fil­ters the boiled wort from the grain. Once the boiled wort be­gins to cool, she con­sol­i­dates it with the un­boiled (and as such, bac­te­ria-rich) third of the wort she set aside ear­lier. She moves the cook­ing pot to a stor­age room, then waits. By the evening, the beer will have de­vel­oped a mild acid­ity.

At this point, Rita will boil the beer again. As it cools, she will make a starter by pour­ing a small amount into a bowl con­tain­ing pieces of dried yeast cake from a pre­vi­ous batch. Rita will then place the beer, fol­lowed by the starter and its sub­merged yeast cakes, into a loosely-cov­ered plas­tic bucket. Once fer­men­ta­tion be­gins, the beer will be ready to drink. The beer is served still fer­ment­ing, and its prickly car­bon­a­tion com­ple­ments the brac­ing acid­ity that de­vel­ops as the beer ages. Its thick chewy tex­ture is rem­i­nis­cent of thin por­ridge, and its fla­vor is com­pa­ra­ble to a mildly sweet cider, with notes of vine­gar, orange, and a yo­gurt tangi­ness. By blend­ing younger and older batches, one can achieve a sur­pris­ing depth of fla­vor, even though the beer is drunk the same day it is brewed.

The qual­ity of Rita’s beer is ev­i­denced by the crowd of men and women who trickle in for a bowl as the mar­ket’s ac­tiv­ity slows. With the bulk of the day’s brewing done, Rita can fi­nally sit to drink and talk with her cus­tomers. A few men take turns buy­ing rounds for each other, which in­spires Rita’s brother to buy a round for the house. Af­ter sev­eral bowls of beer, the loud mu­sic is no longer abra­sive. In­stead, the bright gui­tar and warm vo­cal har­monies fill the room and drive one cus­tomer—an el­derly Ot­ta­mari woman wear­ing a blue-and­white skirt and a head­scarf—to dance, jump­ing from one leg to the other, arms out­stretched. At the cabaret, af­ter­noon is giv­ing way to evening, and the beer will con­tinue to flow well into the night.

Af­ter the grain soaks overnight, Rita places the grain in a pile in a small stor­age room. She cov­ers the pile with a tarp, and once the grain ger­mi­nates, she dries it in the sun, then grinds it into a coarse flour. Oc­ca­sion­ally, the grain ger­mi­nates un­evenly due to an un­bal­anced dis­tri­bu­tion of wa­ter. How­ever, she has an­other, more fre­quent, is­sue with her malt­ing. “A big prob­lem for me is that goats wan­der in and eat the grain while it’s ger­mi­nat­ing,” Rita laughs.

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