Growing up several hours from Chico, California, I had learned to take craft beer for granted. But when I moved to Rwanda in 2013, a good pale ale couldn’t be found within a thousand miles. Suffice to say that I first came upon homebrewing as a hobby born from necessity. During my four years in Rwanda, I spent a disproportionate amount of time learning to and eventually homebrewing a wide variety of ales.
Commercially-available Rwandan beer runs from the higher-gravity, molasses-based “dark beer” called Turbo King (marketed as the “man’s beer”), to the low-ABV rice and maize lager, Primus. A 72-cL (24-oz.) bottle of Primus retails for the bargain price of $0.85 USD. Skol and Heineken operate similar businesses based on cheap lagers and uninspired attempts at dark beer.
While Rwanda’s beer market is bland, local alcohol production is alive and well. The most popular drink is banana beer, known as urugwagwa, which uses unripe bananas as the primary sugar source. There is also banana wine which pushes the ABV from around 6% to 10% and has a much drier finish as a result. In certain regions, sorghum is added to the banana beer prior to fermentation, which gives it a nice sour kick. A downside of this is that a lot of the sorghum grain remains suspended in the liquid so you end up crunching your way through a pint.
About six months into my time in Rwanda, a few friends and I started bringing back homebrewing ingredients from the United States in suitcases. TSA had a bad habit of cutting into my malt extract bags with a knife, so there was almost always a mess to clean upon arrival.
We started out with an opaque yellow 20-L (5.25-gal.) jerrycan as our first fermentation vessel. This proved impossible to clean, and we had a series of gushers each time we would re-use a jerrycan. Then the improvements started to come through. We got a real carboy, a boil kettle, a blow-off tube, a carboy thermometer, a siphon, a racking cane, etc.; all of this brought back from the USA piecemeal in suitcases. Our biggest process improvement was putting the fermenting carboy in a big bath of water and religiously adding ice cubes during primary fermentation to keep the wort temperature under 24 °C (75 °F). A few runaway fermentations and we quickly learned our lesson on temperature control in an equatorial climate.
After about 18 months, we started hitting our groove. Beers came out consistently drinkable, several of them surprisingly good. We started circulating our bottles more widely to expatriate and Rwandan friends. Dark beers and saisons went over best with Rwandans. The dark caramel malts and saison yeast esters brought the beer much closer to the banana beer flavor profile. Expats loved the hoppy beers.
Thinking back on homebrewing in Rwanda, my biggest regret is not experimenting enough with local ingredients. There is abundant tropical fruit such as passion fruit, guava, papaya, and pineapple that would have been fun to brew with. A quick shout-out to my homebrewing buddies, Brekke Berg and Leah Hazard, and my brewing sensei, Andy Shumaker, who coached me from Boston. And thanks to Stevie Varin for her work on our “Umuzehe Brewing” label (image above) which, in the local language of Kinyarwanda, translates to “Old Man Brewing” and was inspired by the unique style and presence of older Rwandan men.
Find an authentic banana beer recipe from Alex at: https://www.byo.com/recipe/urugwagwa-rwandan-banana-beer