So this Kenyan walks into a bar and asks for a Tusker, the most popular beer back home.
And Wes, the barkeep at Swagger, raises a heavily tattooed hand, scratches his head a bit and says: “We have that.”
Wes seems apologetic that it is not on tap at this Wornall Road watering hole. We, on the other hand, are pleasantly surprised, my American friend and I, to find that the brew is among the 53 they have there.
He brings us two glasses, but we thirst for more. We want the bottle so we can tell whether it’s the real stuff. We want to read the label with its black profile of an elephant on a yellow background because the pale lager also has a story.
During a 1923 hunting expedition, George Hurst, a Briton who with his brother the year before set up the first modern brewery in that part of the world, was killed by a rogue Tusker.
“That’s kinda morbid,” Wes says.
Tusker is certainly a well-known beer. Well-marketed too, but some people, and that includes my American friend and me, think it’s too light and watery. In fact, after reading the label and having a good laugh — my friend suggests the story could only be beaten if Adolphus Busch had been trampled by his own Clydesdales — we ask Wes to top off our Tuskers with a little Guinness to beef it up.
I’m enjoying the Boulevard beers here in Kansas City, but if you come to Kenya, I will not be treating you to Tuskers.If someone else does, though, don’t be surprised if it’s warm; bad manners inherited from the Brits.
To consume a real Kenyan brew, one needs to either break the law or hook up with Kenyans travelling inland on a holiday or to attend a traditional ceremony. When the British colonized Kenya, they came up with a law making the brewing of traditional alcohol for commercial purposes an offence. Traditional beer was making the natives lazy, they said.
The independent government inherited these laws, making it difficult to produce and consume your own tipple without having an overzealous chief or bribe-taking cops after you and your wallet.
Today, a few places claim to sell traditional brews, but if they are within Nairobi’s city boundaries, there are no guarantees that theirs’ is anywhere near the real stuff.
I’d vouch for muratina, the traditional drink of the Kikuyu. It is made from honey mixed with water and then fermented with the help of the fruit of the muratina tree — a hard, bottle-shaped fruit that looks like a mesh of fibers when dry. Muratina tastes like dry white wine, and the genuine product would have small, powdery pieces of wax floating on top. An American used to Budweiser would be advised not to go beyond one glass.
These traditional drinks vary from one region to another, with each community using the most easily available form of starch as the base for the fermentation. At the coast, it is mnazi, made from the fermented juice of the coconut. In southwestern Kenya, among the Kisii community, the potent distilled liquor chang’aa is based on bananas, which are plentiful in that area.
Chang’aa is clear like vodka, and often has a slight bitter taste. Most consumers gulp it down like a shot and say the immediate effect is a warmth spreading slowly from the stomach that can make one shudder and shiver. It is usually distilled near a river for the plentiful water used for cooling the ethanol.
In the new book by David Maraniss, “Barack Obama; The Story,” the president is said to have had some chang’aa when he went visiting his Kenyan relatives in his youth. Let’s hope it was not the pure chang’aa — it is more than 90 percent alcohol, bad for your throat and a great risk.
In areas with lots of corn, Kenyans make busaa, a filling, low-alcohol brew that is often warmed before drinking. Its advocates consider it so nutritious that they claim not to need anything else. Long-time consumers of busaa likely have large potbellies.
Some might warn the visitor against these traditional brews unless accompanied by a Kenyan of good standing and in an environment where the drink’s providers do not appear out to make a profit by any means possible. Why? Because some of it may turn out to be bad moonshine or sometimes enhanced with something that could send a donkey to his grave in a hurry.
You also don’t want to be in the headlines of the newspapers looking like a mjinga (fool) after going blind on a trippy concoction.
The alternative is good old Tusker. It used to be advertized as the beer that “Makes us equal, has no equal.”
John Ngirachu is an Alfred Friendly Fellow journalist from Nairobi, Kenya. To reach him, call 816-234-4366 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.