Stalking the wild homebrew
Long-time readers of this blog may remember me writing about my friend Chris, who’s researching brewing techniques in Africa and elsewhere. He just uploaded the latest edition of his on-line newsletter, Fermenting Revolution. The “On the Ale Trail” column compares the “real ale” movement in England with homebrewing traditions in Ethiopia:
This Ethiopian ale is called tella, and it is brewed from barley malt and the leaves of a green bush called gesho (scientific name: Rhamnus prinoides).
In the past year I have had some pleasant adventures drinking this stuff in the highland towns and villages of this ancient kingdom-nation. Just a couple weeks ago I visited the islands of Lake Tana, fabled to have once been the home of the holy Ark of the Covenant – you know, that old testament relic thing that Indiana Jones was seeking in Raiders of the Lost Ark?
Well, the Ark was nowhere to be found, but I did stumble across some of the best tella I have yet to taste. Somehow that figures since this batch was brewed exclusively for the monks inhabiting this particular monastery. Somehow, men of the cloth always seem to have the best beer, be it the Trappists of Belgium or the Orthodox monks of Ethiopia.
In any case, I was glad they did. And when our guide noted that my interest had been piqued by the prospect of a taste of this brew, he offered me a large can-full straight from a huge crock turned on its side and stuffed closed with something or other. Despite the brew’s primitive trappings, I was only too eager to oblige.
It was surprisingly soft, well-filtered, pleasantly bitter, slightly herbal in aroma, and damn thirst-quenching, especially after a several hour equatorial trek.
As a brewer of gruit ales, I was most interested in the herb used in lieu of hops. A paper on poisonous and medicinal plants in Ethiopia in fact refers to Rhamnus prinoides as “hops,” but otherwise web sources indicate that R. prinoides is called “dogwood” in English – though it’s no relation to American and Asian dogwoods – and “blinkblaar” in Afrikaans. It’s very common and widespread. A medicinal database describes it as a sedative. One website I found includes a description of its cultural uses:
The chief use of this tree is magical. It is widely used by African people as a protective charm to ward off lightning and evil influences from homes and crops and to bring luck in hunting. The South Sotho name ‘Mofifi’ means ‘darkness’, and in Lesotho they say “darkness overcomes witchcraft”. This tree is also used by Africans to cleanse the blood, to treat pneumonia, rheumatism, sprains, and stomach ache, and as a gargle. It is also used in the treatment of skin complaints and respiratory infections.
Presuming that similar beliefs about this plant occur in Ethiopia, its use as a brewing herb offers a direct parallel to European folk brewing practices, where popular gruit herbs such as tansy, angelica, rue and St. John’s wort were credited with apotropaic properties.