The History Behind Joburg Beer

There’s nothing I desire more on a hot South African day than a cold beer made from maize and sour milk out of a paper carton. Add in drinking it out of communal vessel and you have yourself a party.

As far as history tells us, fermentation has been since about 10,000 years B.C. , around the time aliens built the pyramids. Obviously, the Egyptians didn’t have yeast, hops or grains, but they had corn/maize and goat milk. The concoction they created was used for worshiping, weddings and kicking back a few after a hard day’s work.

Fast forward to apartheid era South Africa, it was illegal for blacks to drink beer made by white people. Seriously. People got around this by putting beer in milk cartons to fool the police. Eventually, they made their own beer called Umqombothi or sorghum beer.

In drinking this beer, there’s a ritual that goes with it. The beer is placed in a large wooden container. The first person to drink must get down on one knee, praise their ancestors and drink. Then the bowl is passed around.

Here’s me drinking the beer at a shebeen in Soweto:


And here’s my reaction, my friend to the left was a bit puzzled:

It takes like spoiled milk with curds in it … and it has been drank this way for centuries. The alcohol content is about 1% to 3%, so don’t expect a buzz. That doesn’t stop the makers from putting this warning label on it.


The beer is still made today to keep up tradition. Besides the Joburg Beer brand, there’s Chibuku, Tlokwe, Leopard and iJuba.


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