The Chagga tribe originates from the foothills of the highest mountain in Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro. Like many other tribes they have a unique tradition and that is mbege. Mbege is an alcoholic drink made from ripe bananas and sprouted millet powder.
Some call it banana beer but it has a more wine-like taste to it. Mbege is traditionally only brewed by women and it is a time-consuming and very hands on process.
In order to make the brew, specific bananas are harvested from the farm. The type of bananas that are used are called ‘ndizi ngombe’ which translated means ‘cow bananas’. Once harvested, the bananas are stored in a warm and dark place to ripen. Depending on the weather it can take up to 7 days for the bananas to reach sufficient ripeness.
Once ripe the bananas are peeled and put into a large pot with water for cooking. At first the colour of the bananas is a yellowish white, after up to 6 hours of cooking the colour also changes to a reddish-brown indicating that it is done. This banana-mix is poured into a container and left to ferment for a few days.
Whilst fermenting, the finger millet is produced. The millet is usually placed inside a plastic sheet to sprout. Once sprouted, the millet is sun-dried and finely crushed to make a flour.
The banana mixture is ready when white bubbles form on the surface of the liquid. At this stage sometimes the men are asked to help filter the liquid through a local sieve.
In the meantime, the millet flour is cooked with some water to make a thick porridge. This is the final step in preparing the brew. The millet mix is then added to the banana mix together with a small amount of quinine bark and left overnight. The quinine lends a slight bitter taste to the beer. The next day the brew is ready to be drunk.
Usually the alcohol level is about 0,5 to 1,5% on the first day but the mixture keeps fermenting increasing the potency as the days go by. The taste is quite special: sweet in the beginning and sour towards the end. Sometimes it is also quite bitter with hints of maltiness from the millet.
Mbege plays a very important social role in the lives of the Chagga tribe, but some of the waMeru people who inhabit the slopes of Mt. Meru also consider mbege to be part of their tradition. You will find people in the villages on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro selling Mbege.
It is often part of the traditional dowry before a marriage takes place. It is drunk at weddings, funerals, birthdays and business meetings.
Mbege is usually shared, so if a group of people are sitting around they usually order one or two glasses which are passed around until more is needed.