HOW TO: Drink (and Brew) Beer Like a Malawian

Rebecca Jacobson
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As the carton moves down the line of bar patrons, my anxiety mounts. I have seen Chibuku Shake-Shake packets everywhere—at bars, on roadsides, clogging the river—but I have yet to take a sip. The carton arrives, and the liquid swirling below me resembles bathwater—yellowish, dirty bathwater, speckled with chunks of flour. And a dash of nutmeg. Or maybe sawdust. It is frothy, and I can hear it gargling.

I take a sip.

And immediately regret it. In both taste and texture, Chibuku resembles sour, grainy vomit. It burns going down. I pass the carton to the next person in line and squirm.

As foul as Chibuku is, it’s very popular in Malawi, particularly in low-income urban townships and rural villages. So if you want to fit in, I recommend you learn how to drink—and brew—the swill. You might not grow to like the stuff, but you’ll certainly gain some street cred.

Step 1: Head to the shabby local watering hole

In general, your options for drinking Chibuku are taverns, which are brick huts with thatched roofs, wooden benches, and the occasional pool table, and shebeens, which are unlicensed, makeshift shelters of corrugated tin, cardboard, and tattered bedsheets. Expect to see any of these places crawling with local men, as Malawian women who drink in public risk being seen as “loose.” In fact, the only women you’re likely to see are the Chibuku mamas, the ladies who serve the cartons and run the show. As a foreigner, expect to receive your fair share of attention, as well as some requests for phone numbers, employment, travel visas, or marriage.

Step 2: Give it a shake-shake

They call it Chibuku Shake-Shake for a reason. When you order a liter at a tavern, a Chibuku mama will give the waxy carton an aggressive shake before carving it open and handing it to you. Such agitation is necessary to mix the murky liquid and the grainy sediment into an opaque, effervescent potion. Still, don’t expect silkiness—a layer of muck inevitably accumulates at the bottom of the carton. This silt also collects on the lips and tongues of imbibers, making them appear as if they plunged headfirst into a sandbox.

Step 3: Drink together, or alone

There are two ways to slit open a Chibuku carton—by clipping off the corner, or by sawing off the top entirely. The former approach is for solitary intake; the latter is for group consumption. Think of this communal carton as the modern-day calabash. If you amble around a tavern, expect each cluster of men to offer you a carton. Banish germophobia and accept the offer with a flurry of “Zikomo, zikomo, zikomo” (“thank you, thank you, thank you”).

Step 4: Pretend you actually like it

Chibuku connoisseurs take big swigs, gulping as if they’ve gone months in a waterless wasteland. Make sure you go for it: take a generous swallow. Keep your throat open wide and let those dregs slither down your esophagus. Fight the gag reflex. Once it gets to your stomach, twist that grimace into a wide smile. Proclaim your great love for Chibuku, for the carousers around you, and for all things Malawian. Laugh with gusto. Return terrorist fist jabs. Wish you had a toothbrush.

Step 5: Gather up the ingredients and begin the brewing process

Let’s say you don’t like the bar scene, or you just want to impress your friends by brewing your own Chibuku. Head to any local market and gather up the required ingredients (there are only four): maize flour, yeast, water, and millet or sorghum.

Helpful hint: when asking for mawere (millet) at the market, make sure to hit a high note when pronouncing the E’s. If you only put the accent on the middle syllable, you’ll end up asking for breasts.

Step 6: Follow your brewing instincts

The step-by-step home brewing process is a remarkably simple one. Prepare porridge from maize and water, let the mixture cool, and then add ground millet or sorghum. Stir the contents in a snaking motion with a large wooden spoon. Reheat the glop the next day, add yeast, and let the fermentation commence.

But wait—how do you know when you’ve sprinkled enough maize flour into the boiling water? When it feels right. How do you know when the porridge is done? When it smells right. How do you know when you’ve added enough millet? When it looks right. At least, that’s what any Malawian will tell you.

Step 7: Mind the superstitions, and beware of juju (witchcraft)

Witchcraft plays a lingering role in Malawian society, so mind these superstitions when making Chibuku:

  • While building the fire for your porridge, do not smile—such foolhardy optimism will surely cause the flame to die out.
  • The quality of the draft depends on the brewer’s hands—bad hands will cause beer to sour after two days; good hands will allow the drink to stay sweet longer.
  • If you fear snakes, carry the hot pot of porridge atop your head—any dangerous serpents will fall into the boiling pap and meet instant death.
  • If a poor man curses a rich man’s Chibuku, every time the rich man takes a sip, the poor man will receive the intoxicating benefits.

Step 8: Wait... but not too long

Chibuku requires a bit of patience, but don’t delay for too long. While ales and lagers take weeks, Chibuku is ready after just a few days. Timing, however, is crucial—swig too soon and the alcohol content will be negligible, but delay too long and the brew will have turned puckeringly acidic. Three to five days is the ideal fermentation period.

Step 9: Organize a taste test

To assess the quality of my own brew, I held a tasting session at my house. About 15 daredevils arrived to slurp the concoction out of my mismatched set of mugs. When I peeled the aluminum foil off the pot, a yeasty aroma suffused the room. “It looks like baby food,” one tester commented. “No, oatmeal!” another hollered. “Or a banana smoothie,” said a third.

We drank in uncanny silence. People withheld comments at first.

“It’s not that bad,” someone finally said. This met widespread agreement.

“It’s definitely sweeter than the stuff from the carton.” (This meant, most likely, I hadn’t allowed the brew long enough to ferment.)

“And thicker.” (Further proof of a too-short fermentation process—the yeast hadn’t converted enough of the starch into alcohol.)

“You can chew it!”

“It reminds me of grits.”

“It crunches in your mouth, like strawberry seeds.”

“Hey, you can totally forego dinner.”

“I think it has a lot of potential.”

“Yeah, maybe if you add vodka to it.” (Actually, this last suggestion isn’t too far off-base—it’s common to add cane spirits to under-fermented Chibuku.)

People ranked the quaff on a scale of one to five, with one as death and five as nectar of the gods.

“Two as booze, 4.5 as a breakfast item,” quipped one taster.

My Chibuku averaged 3.2, a score that pleased (though surprised) me.

My call? I’ll come clean—I couldn’t overcome the glutinous thickness and the way it lurched down my throat. I felt like a snake swallowing an outsized rodent. I rated it a two.

Step 10: Dispose of your waste the Malawian way

Once you’ve drained your liter, don’t bother looking for a trash can (where do you think you are, Scandinavia?). Toss the empty carton on the ground.

And what about that surplus homemade sludge? Once all your friends are gone, do what I did: Go ahead and flush it down the sink.



Posted on 2/25/2010 by

Katy Fiedler

Katy Fiedler

Rebecca, I've enjoyed reading your posts! I spent a semester living in Malawi- in Blantyre and Lilongwe mostly. I was traveling with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Malawi- and while drinking beer was frowned upon I did have a chance to tour the Carlsburg Brewery in Blantyre. It's a good option to keep in mind when your Chibuku is too thick. Katy

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