Nick Riley samples the best and most potent home-made hooch in Tanzania... So you don't have to
Hang out in a village in Africa for long enough and you are bound to be offered some of the local hooch. Whether or not to accept the offer will likely depend on the strength of your stomach, the strength of your head, and, more immediately, the number of foreign objects floating in the proffered liquid… All things that vary greatly between the local firewaters.
Tanzania has a smorgasbord of homemade alcoholic beverages to delight (or horrify) all tastes and pockets, ranging from the sweet and fairly delicious, to drinks that would probably be more at home in the tank of a 4WD. Here are some of the top options.
The grandaddy of illicit alcohol. Banned by the government, but sold under a veil of secrecy from the back room of certain homes, this is a clear white spirit, sometimes referred to generously as ‘gin’.
The locations of gongo joints are given away by the young men lingering outside, ready to raise the alarm should the police stop by. The sound of slurred merriment from within is clearly distinguishable on closer approach.
Gongo is made from scraps of ugali and maize, fermented over several days, and then distilled through a jerry-can of cold water into a soda bottle...
Tasting notes: Hints of ethanol, but surprisingly palatable. Drink neat or with tonic water.
Unscrupulous manufacturers in urban areas have been known to turn a quick buck by mixing ethanol, formaldehyde or other poisons from the bottom of their chemistry sets to bypass the long fermentation process involved in producing gongo.
Tasting notes: Polite refusal is the sensible option. Resulting blindness is not uncommon.
Fermented sugar cane juice. Legal to drink and produce, this is a staple of village life in the Usambara mountains in Northern Tanzania. A walk through villages in the area will often reveal the locals walking in circles, manually powering the rollers of a sugar cane press.
The sweet juice is refreshing when newly pressed, but mix it with a cup of yeast and leave for a few days, and you have a tank of one of the more pleasant ways to get drunk.
Tasting notes: Sugary but strong, with a disconcerting dishwater grey colour...
One of the few local tipples that has got itself national distribution. Found in small dusty bottles throughout Tanzania, including the capital, Dar Es Salaam.
Tasting notes: I was once told that an intelligent thing to say about Heineken beer is that there was a hint of banana on the nose. Sadly, with actual banana beer, the only thing you are likely to get on the nose is a lot of dust, and a slight odour of socks.
If you’ve tried mead you’ll know what to expect from honey beer. A strong syrupy taste and powerful kick are the order of the day. Honey beer and wine are both found in the north of the country around Tabora, where they are a useful by-product of the local honey industry.
Tasting notes: Alcoholic honey. Enough said.
To start trying local alcohol is to realise that practically any household waste can get you drunk with enough determination. Millet, pineapple and maize, are some of the more common variants, but there are many others. One of the regular punters (judging by his glazed expression) at a gongo joint we visited was drinking something that looked like milky tea out of a water bottle. Closer questioning revealed that that was exactly what it was. Alcoholic tea.
Now why has nobody come up with this before?
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