When Spain made claim to a small corner of North Africa and christened it Río de Oro – River of Gold – the country’s colonial ambitions for what amounted to a patch of sand in the western extreme of the Sahara Desert were clear. With the third glass of mint tea broiling my insides as I looked across the same area of sand, I considered that perhaps my own intentions in Africa were equally unrealistic. I was a week into seeking as much cold lager – my own river of gold – as I could justifiably lay claim to.
While Britons manage to drink nearly two hundred pints a year, in the same period African drinkers will down only 14 pints of commercially brewed lager. Short of being near teetotal, Africa has a massive homebrew market, with lagers made from local crops including sorghum grains and cassava, a yam-like tuber. Homebrew is as common as the scruffy plastic canisters used to store it, but a lack of quality control and standardisation can result in brews reaching market that look and taste more like badly prepared cream of chicken soup. Worse than that, it can lead to cyanide poisoning, paralysis, and death.
Not quite ready to give my life in the course of an afternoon pint I instead lean towards Africa’s many commercially brewed lagers, as increasing numbers of the continent’s growing middle class are doing. The history of lager in Africa dates back to the earliest days of European colonisation. Brewing in Senegal dates back to at least 1929, when drinking the local beer was a better bet for staying healthy than drinking from the latté-coloured waters of the River Senegal.
Walking beside the beached fishing boats of Saint-Louis’ Langue de Barbarie in the sticky heat of the early afternoon it seems the Senegalese had taken the direction of French brewers seriously and were not going to risk the local water any time soon when they could rely on the tried and tested method of never being too far from a bulbous green bottle of Gazelle, a lager so closely allied to sparkling water in taste as to surely debunk any fears over drinking the city’s water more directly.
To escape the heat I settle into the air conditioned colonial splendour of the Ile de N’Dar, Saint-Louis’ colonial heart, and sip from a chilled glass of the pilsner Flag. Both Gazelle and Flag are popular, and both are brewed using imported barley, like most of Africa’s lagers. What makes Flag a far richer and more rounded tipple is the addition of Africa. Locally-grown maize is used to enhance the depth of taste and increase the alcohol content.
In reaching Senegal I had discovered three elements integral for the sort of off-beat travel I enjoy most: time, money, and flexibility. I had also discovered that these same three elements were necessary in reaching for a perfectly chilled lager bottle, and that finding all three together was almost as hard as my experiences of getting to try Primus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (I didn’t manage it), or getting away from the supremely refreshing taste of Egypt’s Stella, which took over two months. The air conditioned bar in Saint-Louis was perhaps the first time I managed to find all three.
The bar of the well-respected hotel right in the heart of the colonial city had been specially opened for me, the waist-coated barman having taken an illicit siesta before watching over me as if I might steal some of the furniture. For that reason it became not only the first time I had found all three necessary elements, but also the last time I visited an upscale bar on the continent. I had much happier and informative times in the ramshackle shebeens along unplanned back streets, and stuck to using them all the way to Mozambique, across 15 other lager-producing African nations.
If my Portuguese existed beyond ‘dois-em cerveja, por favor’ (2M being a favourite Mozambican brew) I would have been able to say that on any average day in Britain I am more likely to be drinking a pint of ale or stout rather than lager, and point out that Nigeria hosts the largest Guinness brewery in the world. Taking up an entire block in the heart of Lagos it exudes shiny aluminium towers and the unmistakeable warm malty smell of a brewery even in Nigeria’s heat. It has used local crops – maize and sorghum – in the production of its Foreign Extra Stout since the 1980s. Largely as a result of a Nigerian government ban on imported malted barley, the additional crops are said to also give the stout additional character notes.
What began with Guinness Nigeria for pure production reasons has more recently been taken up by other African breweries to capture additional sales from middle class users of the homebrew market seeking a safer, standardised alternative. Impala was launched in late 2011 as the first commercially produced cassava beer. Brewed with 70% cassava it is a clear lager that manages to capture the bitter undertones of the tuber. It has also been a huge success in Mozambique where it is brewed.
Through my travels across the continent two things had become clear. The first was that I would not get to try Primus; the second that Africa’s river of gold did not live in the history of African colonisation, but in the future of lagers brewed with the tastes and traditions of local populations in mind.