(I originally published this story about Mongozo Brewing on fermentingrevolution.com in 2004.)
Mongozo beers have some unusual influences: political turmoil, famine, creative fusion, and changing gender roles, just to name a few. Their geographic inspirations are equally diverse and remarkable.
Henrique Kabia is ethnically Chokwe by origin, a people who spread across southern Congo, Angola and Zambia. He fled Angola in 1993 and arrived in the Netherlands as a political refugee. Several years later he was overseeing the brewing of his line of Mongozo beers at the Van Steenberge brewery in Belgium.
Kabia credits his great-great grandmother with the invention of the original Mongozo brew. She lived in what used to be called the Lunda empire. She was married to a brave “Shimbiriki” (porcupine) hunter. But, according to the oral history passed down through the family, the village experienced a twenty-year period in the 18th century when no wild animal’s meat was to be found.
Her skill at brewing beer saved the family from disaster. In her small village, brewing beer was a ritual exclusive to the women and was handed down from mother to daughter. According to Henrique:
“My great-great grandmother bartered beer for agricultural produce and thereby managed to make ends meet each month. Her persistent husband never ceased hunting and each time he returned empty-handed he consoled himself by drinking beer served in a gourd while sitting on a straw mat.”
She saved the family by brewing beer for twenty years. Her husband kept searching for porcupine though, and finally he disappeared on a hunt for three months. Lacking any news of him, the family decided he must be dead, and commenced a week of mourning. But on the third day, the sound of xylophones announced his victorious return. He brought porcupine meat with him for all the village to share.
Kabia’s great-great grandmother brewed a special beer to celebrate this triumph. She decided that instead of distilling palm wine she would make beer from palm nuts. She used huge 10 gallon gourds to brew, and the village enjoyed this delicious beer so much that the party lasted three months! The villagers toasted the good times by saying “Mongozo” – which means “to your health”.
As Kabia tells it, “The unique taste of the beer was appreciated by the entire village and soon by the whole empire. There was a great demand for it, and so my great-great grandmother built a small brewery behind her stray hut. A large earthenware jug served as a vat. Her oven consisted of 3 or 4 rocks around a few bits of burning wood. This made up most of her equipment.”
The Mongozo recipe was passed down through the family’s generations of women all the way to Henrique’s own mother. But she had no daughters to teach the brewing skill, so she broke with tradition and taught her son instead.
“It was a revolutionary step. For the first time, a man – in the Lunda tradition – was allowed to brew Mongozo. Maybe, she wanted me to have something healthy to drink at the University. But, the fact that the whole society was becoming more emancipated in Angola played also a role in my mother’s course of action. I brewed the beer during holidays and weekends. You can imagine that I was a very popular guy at the University. Brewing became my favorite pastime, and still is today,” Henrique Kabia explains.
This is fortuitous for western drinkers who might otherwise never have the chance to taste African beer styles. The Mongozo line includes three different ales all of which are available in Europe and North America.
The flagship ‘Mongozo Palmnut’ is brewed with palm nuts just like Henrique’s mother taught him. Although he has adapted his recipes to include some modern techniques as well. For instance, the original Mongozo beer was fermented with wild yeast. While a batch fermented, some was scooped off to be used as a starter for the next batch, but today Kabia uses a controlled yeast strain.
After his beer was successfully received at numerous festivals and tastings, he decided to go professional with the product. He formed a relationship with the renown Van Steenberge brewery in Belgium, brewers of such well known brands as Piraat and Celis White. Today, he brews in partnership with yet a different world class Belgian brewery, brewery Huyghe, makers of Delerium Tremens.
Nuts for Fair Trade
Kabia directly controls the import of the palm nuts used in his ale, as well as the exotic calabashes used for drinking it. His direct trading relationship insures that the African women who grow, cut and dry the calabashes receive a fair percentage of the sales. He is proud of the fair trade aspect of his endeavor and describes it as “A true example of development aid resulting from a private initiative.”
The fair trade principles Kabia follows are monitored and certified with the Max Havelaar fair trade label, recognizing the contribution Mongozo beer makes toward improving the lives of low-income farmers.
Like any beer brewed in Belgium, Kabia explains that Mongozo is best enjoyed when served in its own specially designed vessel. “When Mongozo beer is served in a natural calabash it froths extremely well, maintains its freshness longer than it would in a normal glass and moreover, a calabash renders the complete flavor.”
“But,” he continues with characteristically African equanimity, “for those of you who are attached to your glass: don’t worry, Mongozo tastes wonderful straight out of the bottle too, or in a regular beer glass. There are Mongozo glasses available as well.”
Besides Mongozo Palmnut, Kabia also produces Mongozo Banana and Mongozo Quinua, made with respectively with fair trade bananas and quinoa grain.
Mongozo Banana is based on a traditional beer of the Massai people of Kenya, called ‘mbege’. The Quinua brew originates from the other side of the globe, as it is based on the traditional Andean ‘chicha’ beer.
(If you know of other beers being made with fair trade ingredients, please post a comment and let me know.)