Banana Beer: The East African Brew That You've Probably Never Tried

Some parts of the world are known for their beer more than others. The German city of Munich, whose Theresienwiese fairground plays host to the world-famous bier extravaganza Oktoberfest each year, might be the first country to come to mind as a hub for the world's oldest alcoholic beverage and its most fervent aficionados. That might be true, but not all beer comes from Deutschland and its neighboring lands. 

From Dublin to Tokyo to Vermont to Auckland, cities on every continent but Antarctica have their style of beer-making, and their signature brews to prove it. The United States, for instance, is responsible for the American Lager, as well as an amber ale, cream ale, and California common. In Ireland and the U.K., heavier beers like stouts — including the iconic Guinness — reign supreme. Over in East Africa, you'll find beer made from fermented bananas. It's unlike any other beer you've tasted, and the best batches are the ones made in people's homes. 

Sweet, sour, fruity, and occasionally made by nuns

Bananas are a regular part of the diet throughout East Africa. According to Feed the Future, a federal initiative for global food security and hunger relief, the annual banana consumption in Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda is "about 250-400 kg per person," or roughly 3-11 bananas per day. As such, banana beer is as standard as Miller High Life is in American dive bars. 

The refreshing brew, also called urwagwa, is made from the silky insides of bananas ripened in deep pits in the ground. Once removed from its skins, the fruit is mashed up and strained, leaving the juices left over to be filtered a second time and diluted for taste. Wild yeast in the form of sorghum, millet, or maize flour is added to the barrel as a means of fermentation, which eventually leads to a curiously sweet and sour batch of banana beer. 

Science journalist Jim Handman tried a pint of it, courtesy of beer-making nuns at a convent near the Rwandan city of Butare. He billed it to CBC as "a bit like unfiltered apple juice combined with a healthy dose of vodka."

It might be hard to find

Despite the commonality of banana beer in East Africa, visitors might have to keep their eyes peeled (get it?) for a pint of it. Convent breweries notwithstanding, the beer is often made in people's homes; you won't find a tap list full of options at the bar. 

There are only a couple of manufactured banana beer brands on the market. One of them is made by Mongozo, which also boasts tropical flavors like mango and coconut. Its banana beer, which won the "World's Best Beer" prize at the 2014 World Beer Awards, was inspired by a recipe from the Masai people of Kenya and Tanzania, though the brewery itself is located in Belgium. Its flavor is "sweet and fruity with a hint of beer in the aftertaste," with a ripe-banana aroma and a "banana-yellow color with a creamy head." Another company, the Tanzania-based Banana Investments Ltd, makes a "banana alcoholic beverage" called Raha.