My first time trying tchoukoutou, it was from a street vendor in Kara, Togo. I sat on a plastic chair in a concrete courtyard, sheltered by a tarpaulin and a cinderblock wall. In the corner was a coal fire heating up two cauldrons of sweet nectar. It was a hot day, but a cold beer was the last thing I was getting. They served me up a coconut shell bowl with a milky pinkish-brown liquid. I clinked coconuts with my friends, gave the first sip to mother earth and took my first sip of tchoukoutou. The sweet and sour beer pounds every part of the palate; and the straight-of-the-fire warmth gives you that nice fuzzy feeling deep in your belly.
In the community
Cereal beers are an ancient African delicacy and it’s had centuries to meld itself into the local culture. Modern day tchoukoutou was developed by the Ottomari people, and that style has remained mostly unchanged for over 200 years.
Back in the day, tchoukoutou was only served on special occasions, like weddings and funerals. It was so important, that if someone dies before the grain is harvested, their funeral would be postponed so that mourners could enjoy tchoukoutou to see them off.
These days, it has become much more commercial with women being the entrepreneurial leaders in tchoukoutou production and service. They don’t have the same supply chains that we rely on in the west, so you can be sure that all the grains are homegrown, often literally at the brewer’s home. It is a major empowering business model for women in the local community to find employment and become self-sufficient.
Ingredients and brewing
To make your own tchoukoutou, you first of all need to be a female. It’s tradition. Sorghum is the most popular grain, but millet or maize are sometimes added or used instead of sorghum. You need to get hold of one winnere (27 kg) of the grain to make one batch.
The process involves soaking the grain overnight; letting the seeds germinate for 3-4 days; drying the mixture in the sun for about a day; mashing it with water in a disc mill; separating the top liquid from the slurry; slowly heating the slurry until boiling point; then adding the top liquid back in and fermented overnight for extra sourness. So it takes about a week to make one batch.
There are only three ingredients, the grain, the water and a starter, which is always taken from the previous batch. Every batch needs to be high-quality or they’ll end up with an inferior starter for the next one!
Tchoukoutou is the drink of some of Africa’s poorest communities, and people travel a long way for the deliciously sour beverage. As such, many drinkers believe that a good tchouk needs to be filling. This is why so much attention is given to the colour of the drink; the more opaque, the better. This adds to the nutrient value of tchouk One study found that the crude protein level ranges from 3 to 8%, something that couldn’t be acheives for a thinner, more watery drink. Tchoukoutou has an alcohol content of about 2 or 3% which is enough to give a good buzz, but can be higher. High alcohol content is more popular, of course!
If making it from scratch seems daunting, you could always taste it first hand by the people who have been making it for generations. For the real authentic sorghum stuff, head to Kara, Togo or Natitingou, Benin where they are common in market areas and from street vendors. They serve it in bowls similar to coconut shells, but if you supply the bottle, they will usually fill it up for you so you can enjoy later. If you bottle it, regularly unscrew the cap and let the pressure out!
My friends took me to Natitingou’s “red light” district where all the bars exclusively serve tchoukoutou. Most of the bars were in the traditional round huts. When you head inside, there is a bench seat around the wall and in the centre is a lady serving up the drink in a big central cauldron. They’ll give you a taste, and if you approve, they will bring you a little table and a bowl of beer to your seat so you can enjoy the brew and get to know the locals.
Although there are gender-based roles in the production and selling of tchoukoutou, the drink is enjoyed by both men and women. Men just drink a bit more.
So come to Benin and Togo, head up north and enjoy the beer! It’s like no other brew in the world. Not only will you be enjoying a living ancient tradition, you are helping the women of the Sahel make some money and contribute to their communities.