Brewing of Kaffir Beer in Northern Rhodesia

By R. S. Young, Ph.D., F.R.I.C.  (Central Laboratory, Nkana, Northern Rhodesia)

In a typical process, the cereals used are Kaffir corn (Sorghum spp.), millet (Eleusine coracona), or bulrush millet (Penntsetum typholdes).  A mash, made from moistened and stored grain, is treated with a “yeast mixture” to give a product containing 3 – 3½ per cent, of alcohol and ~20 per cent, of suspended solids, providing a valuable source of vitamins and salts.

One of the many problems which the large mining companies had to face when they commenced operations in Northern Rhodesia was the provision of kaffir beer for their native workers and their families.  Kaffir beer, a grey, yeasty liquid resembling a very thin gruel, has long been an important item in the life of most Central African natives, and under village conditions a portion of the cereal crops is usually laid aside for the production of beer. In the mine compounds, however, where food is provided for the native workers and their families, it was obvious that a small brewery would have to be operated to cater for the needs of the many thousands of natives attached to each mine.  At each town, therefore, a small brewery was established under the control of the local Township Management Board to produce kaffir beer, which is sold at a reasonable price in beer halls in the compounds. Profits from the sale of beer are allocated to native welfare organizations.

The following description of the brewing process at Nkana, the site of the great copper-cobalt operations of Rhokana Corporation, is typical of those in vogue in Northern Rhodesia.  The cereals favoured for kaffir beer are kaffir corn, which may be one of several species of sorghum such as Sorghum caffeorum, S. coriaceum, or S. conspicuum, and millet, exemplified by finger millet, Eleusine coracana, or bulrush millet, Pennisetum typhoides. Both kaffir corn and millet are aboriginal African crops and grown well over most of the central part of that continent.  A mixture of kaffir corn and millet is preferred by natives for their beer.

The kaffir corn and millet are moistened with water and kept damp under canvas in an open, thatched-roof building for three days.  They are then spread out on a large concrete slab in the sun until dry, this operation requiring 1-3 days, depending on atmospheric conditions.  The corn and millet are then mixed in the ratio of 7 to 3, respectively, and ground in a hammer mill to approximately 10 mesh.

About 65 lb. of this mixed grain are measured into a 44-gallon steel drum and 15 gallons of hot water are added.  After stirring, the drum is filled with cold water, again stirred, and the contents then transferred to cooling tanks.

When three drums, comprising 132 gallons of mash, have been emptied into the cooling tanks, 20 gallons of “yeast mixture” are added.  The preparation of the latter will be described later.  The mash and yeast mixture are allowed to remain together over night and in the morning the liquid is strained through a metal screen approximating 14-mesh to remove the husks and coarser cereal particles.  It is pumped to storage tanks and from these to a lorry having a steel tank holding 350 gallons for delivery to the beer halls of the compound.  Here it is sold directly from storage drums, in metal mugs holding a pint, quart, or two quarts.  The beer is consumed on the premises and none is sold in bottled form.

The yeast mixture is started with unsoaked kaffir corn only.  To 200 lb. of the latter are added 45 gallons of hot water.  When this is cool, usually overnight, it is mixed with 200 lb. of the ground mixture of kaffir corn and millet.  A 44-gallon drum is two-thirds filled with hot water and boiled.  To this water is added 10 gallons of the yeast mixture, and this is cooked for 8 hours, stirring at regular intervals.  The contents are then put in cooling drums.  When cool, the mixture is transferred to a 44-gallon drum up to the two-thirds mark and 60 lb. of soaked mixed meal, i.e. kaffir corn and millet, are added. This mixture is allowed to stand one day in hot weather and two days in cold weather to ferment, and is then ready to add to the mash, as indicated above, in the ratio of 20 parts of yeast mixture to 132 parts of mash.

To technical men in large modern overseas breweries these operations must seem extremely crude.  It must be remembered, however, that the entire operation is under the supervision of only one European, whose time is also occupied with oversight of deliveries and sales in the beer halls.  On Sundays, consumption of beer may reach 1,400 gallons for the 20,000 adult natives of Nkana.  Small wonder that brewing operations must be reduced to a minimum and procedures simplified to bring them within the capabilities of native employees.

The alcoholic content of kaffir beer cannot, by law, exceed, 4 per cent, by volume, and by this brewing procedure it usually ranges from 3 to 3½ per cent.  The suspended solids are in the neighbourhood of 20 per cent.  These, not being subjected to cooking or discarding of their soluble salts, are a valuable source of vitamins and minerals for the native diet.  It has been shown2 that kaffir corn meal of Northern Rhodesia on the “as received” basis, is fairly high in Ca, P, Fe, and Cu.  South African workers1 have indicated that kaffir beer in that country contains as much vitamin B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), and nicotinic acid, as most fruits, and more vitamin C (ascorbic acid) than cereals.

The beer is sold in the native beer halls at the price of 3d. per pint.  With the protein, carbohydrate, and fat content, together with the vitamin and mineral value, of the suspended solids in this beverage the food value of kaffir beer is considerably higher than that of beer prepared for white races.  From a nutritional and economic viewpoint the native undoubtedly receives good value for his money with this beverage.

Those concerned with the production of kaffir beer in Northern Rhodesia realize there is much scope for improvement.  Progress has been retarded by the war and post-war shortage of materials and equipment designed to give a better control over the final product.  Experiments along various lines in the brew ing process have had to be deferred while the technical staffs of the mining companies were engaged on metal production.  Methods have been evolved from experience only, and have been designed to suit local labour and the simple requirements of the consumers.  Technical supervision is almost entirely lacking, except for periodic determinations of the alcohol content of the beer.

Kaffir beer, as produced in the mining towns of Northern Rhodesia, is infinitely more uniform and more hygienic than the beer made in native villages.  It falls far short, however, of the usual beer produced for consumption by whites, by virtue of the lack of that close technical control over all processes which yields a uniformly good product.  It must be the task of the chemical engineer, biochemist, mycologist, and practical brewmaster in Northern Rhodesia to put the production of kaffir beer on a proper scientific basis.


1.  F. W. Fox and L. Goldberg, South African Institute for Medical Research, 1944. 9, 123.
2.  R. S. Young and A. Golledge, Emp. J. exp. Agric, 1947, 15, 89.

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