20 March 2014
Ethiopia’s saintly brew was a lifesaver for Jim Eagles.
By Jim Eagles
It was lunchtime in Ethiopia so, as at each lunchtime in this ancient land, we raised our glasses in a grateful toast to George. We were not honouring a member of our group, nor even Ethiopia’s patron saint St George, but the country’s most popular beer, St George Lager.
Ethiopia proved not only to be a land with plenty of food – the fish, especially, was delicious – but also a place with lots of excellent beer. The choice included Amber, Harar, Meta Premium and Dashen, all of which I enjoyed, plus others such as Hakim, Bedele, Garden, Castel and Bati, which I didn’t manage to track down.
Ethiopia also produces several kinds of bush beer, a honey wine that is a sort of mead flavoured with local herbs, ordinary red wine and a distilled spirit notable for its ferocity. Places that sell bush beer advertise by hanging a plastic bottle out front and, judging by the number of bottles displayed on the roadside, it’s very popular.
I plucked up the courage to try some produced by a young woman who, in exchange for a small payment, agreed to be photographed cooking the big flat pancakes of bread that form the basis of the staple meal, injera. Delighted by the extra income, she offered anyone interested a cup of her homebrew.
There was a thick layer of vegetable matter floating on the top, which I mostly filtered out with my teeth, and the beer turned out to have a not unpleasant taste that was quite refreshing. I didn’t have any unpleasant after-effects from drinking it, but others did so I decided once was probably enough.
The honey wine I developed a bit of a taste for, after drinking flasks of it in two traditional music clubs in the ancient capitals of Gondar and Lalibela. It had an interesting sweet-and-sour taste and, as you could choose the alcoholic strength you preferred, was a fairly safe choice.
It also helped a great deal if you wanted to join in the extraordinary Ethiopian dancing. Indeed, after watching my display in the club in Lalibela, the in-house singer was moved to compose a verse to the effect that I must have Lalibela blood because I danced like a local. I don’t think it was my blood that provided the inspiration.
The red wine I tried was, I’m sorry to say, terrible. One bottle was so bad that the first person to sip actually spat it out. Others, myself included, could not restrain expletives.
I sunk a couple of shots of home-distilled spirit, of which the best was produced from a small copper still sitting over an open fire, operated by an amiable woman in a village of the Ari tribe. It was basically firewater with an intriguing underlying taste.
Unsurprisingly then, beer was the drink of choice to wash the thick Ethiopian dust from parched throats. And St George Lager was the most popular.
So, while waiting for our lunch to arrive in Bahir Dar and Arbaminch, in Lake Lagano and Jinka, we’d raise our frosted bottles high: “Here’s to George.”