Mbege me, baby: Tanzanian Banana Beer

Mbege comes from the beating heart of Africa, from the slopes of Mt. Kilamanjaro where it’s brewed by the Chaga people.  I first found out about Mbege while watching on of my favorite shows: Bizarre Foods.  It’s in the episode where Andrew Zimmern goes to Tanzania, and, while there he visits a Tanzanian brewer and observes some of the Mbege brewing process.  You can see the episode here.  It was from this episode that I got my inspiration and set off to do some research to create this African beer.

Mbege is also known as banana beer, though in reality it’s more of a wine-beer hybrid.  Most of the alcohol comes from fermenting bananas, and, of course, when you ferment fruit you get wine.  But, Mbege is also finished off with a thick, mashed porridge of malted grain (in this case, millet) which also contributes to some of the fermentation and gives the drink more of a beer-like consistency.  Additionally, Mbege is also bittered like beer, using the bark of the msesewe tree, which contains quinine.  Armed with knowledge and inspiration, I set off to create some beer.

Bananas for Mbege

Are you ready? You’re going to turn these babies in to beer!

Now, on to the recipe.

Ingredients:

15 lbs ripe bananas

.5 lbs millet

1 oz magnum hops or other high AA hop – unless you’re able to find quinine extract and/or msesewe bark, in which case use that as your bittering agent

Process:

Peeled bananas for Mbege

Step 1: Peel bananas and place in the pot

Peel the bananas and put them in your brewpot.  Save some of the peels, because they’ll serve to provide your yeast. One of the easiest ways to acquire ‘wild’ yeast for brewing is off the skin/peel of the fruit you intend to brew with.  It only stands to reason that yeast would hang out there, waiting for it’s opportunity to ferment all the tasty sugars inside the fruit.  Now, if you worry about  mold or infection, you really shouldn’t be brewing this beer — having gone through this process, I can tell you that funk happens and you will probably see and smell some things while brewing that might be a little off-putting.  If you want a middle ground, go ahead and use bread yeast.

Mashing bananas for Mbege

Mash ’em! Show ’em who’s boss!

Now, mash the bananas. Not until they’re completely mashed, but enough that they’re broken up into small pieces.

Cooking bananas for Mbege

Add some water and start cooking on medium-low heat

Add some water to the mashed bananas to prevent sticking.  You’re looking for the consistency of thick banana porridge with some very large banana chunks in it.  Cook on the stove on medium-low to medium heat, stirring often, until you’ve reduced the banana mixture and reached the desired color.  In this case, we’re aiming for a darker carmelization, around the color of a deep amber. Once you’ve cooked the heck out of the bananas, take them off the flame and set them aside to cool.

Cooling banana wort for Mbege

These bananas be cooked and ready to cool and inoculate to make Mbege

After letting them cool, dunk some of the banana peels into the porridge (don’t leave them in, you just want to expose some of the potential yeasts on the peel to your cooked bananas).  Then, loosely cover your brewpot (I’d recommend foil for this) and set aside.  You’re going to leave this pot in the corner for anywhere from 5-7 days.  It’s going to ferment, probably grow some mold, and get funky.  In my case, the mashed bananas ended up looking like fermenting refried beans.

Fermenting Mbege wort

The fermenting Mbege wort. Yes, it looks kinda like refried beans.

Once you’ve prepped the banana mash for your Mbege, start malting your millet.  I followed the instructions on BeerSmith’s blog.  Overall, the malting process is going to take about the same amount of time as your Mbege is to ferment (both should be done in about 5-7 days), so it’s best to start malting the millet right away.

Topping the mbege mash with water

Top up your fermented banana mash with water and gently stir.

After the 5-7 days is up, add some more water to the Mbege, mix it gently, and then run your delicious rotten banana porridge through a strainer and collect the liquid.  In my case, I lined a colander with cheesecloth, set that colander over a large kettle, and dumped the Mbege in in several batches.  The Mbege at this point is thick, and it’s going to take time to work its way through.. I found patience and a beer or three helps while you’re waiting for the Mbege to strain.  Once you’re done, discard the rotten banana remains.

Mbege after being strained

This is the Mbege after just finishing the strainer

Next, grind the millet into flour and mix with water to make another semi-thick porridge.  Bring to a slow boil and then add your hops.  Cook this on medium heat for about about 30 minutes.  I’m doing this step as I’m grinding my millet in a magic bullet blender and I need something to really soften the potential residual millet pieces in the rough flour.  The cooking also serves to fully incorporate/mix the flour and water, and also extracts the bitterness from the hops.  If you’re able to acquire msesewe bark, or any other natural source of quinine,  you won’t need to cook the millet-flour porridge as long, as the main point of this step is to extract the alpha acids from the hops.

Cooked millet flour

The result of your malted millet and hops cooking is something that resembles a combination of IPA and cream of wheat. And it’s delicious.

I noticed while I was cooking the malted millet porridge with the hops probably one of the most delicious brewing aromas I’ve smelt in a while.  Basically, it smelled like IPA cream of wheat.  And it tasted like a malty IPA cream of wheat.  I may be on to something here: a breakfast food for alcoholics.  Moving on…

Now that your porridge is ready, mix that in with your rotten banana juice and set aside to continue fermenting for another day.  I really found it effective to run the porridge through a sieve for this step.  The sieve helped to keep out the chunks of the hops, while at the same time it let through the millet porridge as long as you worked it with the back end of a spoon.  Stir to incorporate the porridge, run mixture through a strainer again (if necessary – there may or may not be ‘chunks’ from the porridge), and then bottle.  Set aside for another day or so to allow to lightly carbonate.

So, the weeklong process of making Mbege has finished, and it came down to the truly important question: how does it taste?

Mbege in glass

Here are my tasting notes for this experimental Mbege:

Aroma:  Bananas, slightly fruity and sweet.  Behind that there is a little maltiness, and a faint hint of alcohol.  Not much hop aroma, though that’s to be expected from the Magnums.

Mouthfeel: Thick, though smooth.  The thickness is offset with some very light carbonation and some sour tang.  There is also a slight warmth from alcohol.  Overall, it’s a bit rough.  Whatever yeast that was on those banana peels did it’s job, but it wasn’t the friendliest.

Taste: Strange.  What’s at the forefront isn’t bananas, as you’d expect.  There’s maltiness from the millet and next the alcohol, along with a sour tang.  Some mild bitterness from the hops.   The banana flavor comes towards the end.

Score: A lot of work went into brewing Mbege – the amount of straining, followed by cleaning, was something else – and unless you really like bananas, or you want to try something different, it’s probably not worth it.  That said, it was fun and interesting to work with a very different process of making beer.  If I were in Tanzania and I only had bananas, or if I were an Orangutan, I’d probably come up with something similar to Mbege… and drink a lot of it to offset the reality that I’m stuck in Tanzania.   4/10 – would brew again under duress.  The drink isn’t too bad, and the recipe could probably be tweaked to really produce a decent beer, but the cleaning and the work going into it is a beast.

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