Packaged in a distinctive red, white and blue carton that most Westerners would more readily associate with milk or fruit juice, Chibuku Shake-Shake is a beer brand popular throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It's made from malted sorghum and maize, and takes its inspiration from the traditional South African beer Umqombothi.
Roots in Tribal Culture
Umqombothi is a home-made beer traditionally used to celebrate the return of young Xhosa men from their coming-of-age initiation.
It is also served at social ceremonies including weddings and funerals, and more prosaically, it serves as an affordable alternative to shop-bought alcohol. Chibuku Shake-Shake is the commercially-produced sister of Umqombothi, and was first produced in the 1950s by Max Heinrich, a South African expatriate who learned the art of brewing in Germany and lived in Zambia.
An Acquired Taste
Chibuku Shake-Shake is quite different in both taste and texture to conventional Western beers. Its consistency resembles watery porridge, an illusion assisted by the beer's opaque beige appearance. The fermenting sorghum gives the drink a sour aroma, and as such, it's usually considered an acquired taste. Chibuku Shake-Shake is named for the vigorous shaking action required by the fact that its unfiltered particles tend to settle on the bottom of the carton.
The alcohol content of Chibuku Shake-Shake is surprisingly low - at first.
When the beer is initially packaged, it has an Alcohol by Volume (ABV) of around 0.5%, but it continues to ferment on the shelf. The longer it sits around, the stronger it gets, reaching a maximum ABV of around 4% before it expires on the fifth or sixth day. In 2012, Zambian markets launched a pasteurised and carbonated version called Chibuku Super, which has a longer shelf-life and a fixed ABV of 3.5%.
A True African Beer
Chibuku Shake-Shake is owned by international brewing company SABMiller, and manufactured by different brewers in several countries including Botswana, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Its cheap market price makes it the drink of choice for workers at the lowest end of the pay scale, but even those that can afford more expensive bottled brands should make a point of trying this unique beer at least once.
Fun Chibuku Facts
Original brewer Max Heinrich used to carefully record consumer comments and brewing ideas in a special diary, inspiring him to call his beer Chibuku after the local word for 'book'. The drink shares its name with a popular dance club in Liverpool, England, which was christened in honor of the beer after the club's owner sampled Chibuku Shake-Shake during a trip to Malawi. In its non-commercial form, Chibuku (or Umqombothi) has existed for hundreds of years.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on November 16th 2016.