Your Guide to the Best Uniquely South African Drinks

Kalahari craft beer, South Africa

Jessica Macdonald 

Imagine that on your next visit to South Africa, you're invited to a local braai. You're nicely settled down with an impala steak or perhaps a potjiekos, but what do you drink with it? South Africans are known for being enthusiastic beer drinkers. They also produce some of the world's best wines (worthy of a whole encyclopedia on their own). But that's by no means the whole story. As with its food, South Africa's drinks have been influenced by the different cultures that have either colonized or been introduced to the country throughout its long history.

Alcoholic South African Drinks

Flight of tasting wines at Boschendal winery, Franschhoek
Jessica Macdonald

Amarula: A popular cream liqueur, Amarula is generally enjoyed after dinner. It's made from the fruit of the marula tree, which is indigenous to the miombo woodlands of Southern Africa. You can find it in any bottle store; and in the wild, elephants, baboons, and monkeys have been known to get drunk after eating the tree's fermented fruit.

Beer: South African beer runs the gamut from mass-produced lagers like Carling Black Label and Hansa to golden ales and IPAs by independent microbreweries like Devil's Peak and Kalahari Craft Beer. By far the biggest producer is Castle, with a range of beers including Castle Lager, Castle Lite, Castle Milk Stout, and Castle Free (for the teetotalers).

Cane: Sometimes referred to as white rum, cane is a spirit made from distilled sugarcane, which is one of the major products of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province. Cane brands like Mainstay and Cape To Rio are sold in bottle stores across the country, and can be used in cocktails or mixed with a variety of soft drinks.

Mampoer: Also known as witblits (white lightning), mampoer is a kind of South African moonshine popular in Afrikaans communities. It is made from fermented fruit, usually peaches, and is infamous for its high alcohol content. A particularly strong batch can contain up to 80 percent alcohol. Drink with caution and remember, mampoer is typically consumed neat.

Shooters: Iconic South African shooters include the Springbokkie (made with crème de menthe and Amarula to recreate the green and gold colors of the South African rugby team); and the Sowetan Toilet. The latter is made with Amarula, banana liqueur and chocolate liqueur. We'll leave the inspiration behind its name to your imagination!

Umqombothi: This Xhosa beer is made from fermented maize and sorghum malt, and is traditionally brewed to celebrate the homecoming of young men from their coming-of-age initiation. It's also served at weddings and funerals, and can even be bought commercially. Umqombothi is thick, sour, and gritty; making it something of an acquired taste.

Van der Hum Liqueur: This wonderfully aromatic liqueur is a blend of brandy, wine, naartjie (satsuma) peel and spices. It was distilled in South Africa for centuries by housewives before it was bottled officially. It is named after Admiral Van der Hum of the Dutch East India Company fleet who is said to have been 'fond of it to the point of distraction'.

Wine: Jan van Riebeeck produced South Africa's first recorded wine in 1659. French Huguenots arrived 20 years later and from that moment on, South African wines began to make their mark on the world. Pinotage is South Africa's signature variety, made from a red wine grape that was bred here in 1925. Head to the Cape Winelands to taste it at its source.

Non-Alcoholic South African Drinks

Rooibos tea
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Amasi: Called amasi in Zulu and Xhosa and maas in Afrikaans, the English term for this popular local drink is fermented milk. It has a similar taste and texture to plain yoghurt or cottage cheese, and can be drunk straight or served over pap (a kind of maize porridge). Traditionally amasi is unpasteurized, but pasteurized forms are now sold commercially.

Boeber: This sweet, milk-based drink is made with vermicelli, sago, and sugar; and flavored with cardamom, cinnamon, and rose water. It's an important cultural tradition for the Cape Malay people, who are descended from Southeast Asian migrants brought over by the Dutch during colonial times. It is served on the 15th night of Ramadan to celebrate the middle of the fast.

Cool Drinks: All types of soda are collectively known as cool drinks in South Africa, with the term 'soda' reserved exclusively for club soda. You'll find global staples like Coke and Fanta, alongside a few uniquely South African specialties. These include Stoney's Ginger Beer and Schweppes Granadilla Twist. Granadilla is the local term for passion fruit.

Mageu: Known by many names depending on the prevalent local language (including mahewu, mahleu, amarhewu and amahewu), this is the non-alcoholic version of umqombothi. It's made from fermented mealie pap and may be brewed at home or bought at the local supermarket. Commercially produced mageu is often sweetened or flavored.

Rooibos: A type of herbal tea made from the leaves of the native rooibos plant, rooibos has been a South African staple for generations. It's becoming increasingly popular overseas as a health drink recognized for its anti-oxidant properties. It's also caffeine-free and low in tannins. In South Africa, rooibos is usually taken black, perhaps with a slice of lemon or honey.

This article was updated and partially re-written by Jessica Macdonald on October 23 2019.

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