Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

May 10, 2007

Beer Diary:

Drinkin’, Dark Continent Style

On safari with Sprecher’s funky African-style ales.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
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A while back when I did my Midwest Brewery Power Rankings, my note under Sprecher’s listing was “More innovative beers needed.” Within a couple of days I got an e-mail from Anne Sprecher, who said something along the lines of “Just you wait.” And what she was talking about was their soon to be released African-style beers, a pair of fire-brewed ales based on traditional recipes from the Dark Continent. Innovation, indeed. Unless you’ve extensively toured the African countryside, chances are you haven’t come across two brews quite like these.

The first of these is the 5.2% ABV Mbege, an ale that is native to northern and eastern Africa. Traditionally it is brewed with bananas, millet (a small, round grain that puts up with heat and drought moreso than barley, making it an ideal grain for some parts of Africa) and quinine, a bittering and flavoring agent (in other words, a rough and not very efficient substitute for hops) extracted from the bark of quinine trees that is more commonly used to make tonic water. Other than the bananas, the folks at Sprecher haven’t let on how authentic the rest of their Mbege ingredients are. And since my parents won’t lend me the money to have a chemist analyze the beer’s makeup, the only thing I can do is pop the top and sample this funky brew.

The beer slides out of the bottle a cloudy dark yellow—yep, it’s unfiltered. A medium, fizzy head dissolves quickly into a thin, extremely fine beaded topping of white. OK, the brewers claim this beer is brewed with fresh bananas, so you’d assume there’d be some scent of bananas in the nose. This ain’t just a scent, folks. This is a lock-up-your-monkeys, balls-out, head-rush banana torrent. You know how most people describe a good Bavarian-style hefe as “bananas and cloves”? Start thinking up a new description. Because those beers ain’t got nothing on the Mbege, banana-wise, at least.

So, yes: BANANAS!. That’s what the nose is, with a blunted aroma of mint in the background. The taste is similar but less so. Just bananas. Mixed with a generic taste of berries, with a touch of sugary sweetness. Something reminiscent of a banana-and-berry cream soda. The end’s got a tiny bit of tinniness, but nothing overly unpleasant. Body-wise this is a light, light beer, with a very sharp, crisp mouthfeel. I could see drinking this during a hot, muggy Midwestern afternoon. Just make sure you like the long, yellow, peeling-kind fruit, because I was belchin’ bananas for the rest of the night.

Indigenous to southern and western parts of Africa, Shakparo is Sprecher’s second offering in their African-style beer series. Weighing in at 5.7% ABV, this one’s brewed with sorghum, an adjunct that’s seeing a rapid rise in popularity among craft brewers interested in producing gluten-free brews. Because sorghum is, technically, a grain, alcoholic beverages made from it are, indeed, beer, even though sorghum more resembles sugarcane in how it is processed for food—normally, juice is extracted from the stalk and refined through boiling. A shakparo-style beer, though, is made from malted kernels of the plant.

Sprecher’s take on the shakparo pours an extremely cloudy orange gold. It sports a decent head that fritters quickly away into a super-fine mesh of bubbles. The aroma is a strong scent of bananas and cloves, a dead ringer for a Bavarian-style hefeweizen—at first. As the beer warms, its complex nose comes out to play: dried, cut grass and a buttery aroma along the lines of movie theatre popcorn. Interesting. This brew’s got a super-soft mouthfeel, and is smooth and crisp on the tongue. There is a tiny hint of bitterness, maybe or maybe not from hops, but it’s way in the background. There is some maltiness, too, but the esters completely dominate. If I hadn’t poured the beer myself, I would swear that this was a very good hefe.

Which makes sense, I guess, since wheat beers are traditional summer drinks, and I doubt there are much hotter summers than you’d have in Africa (which is winter up here in the northern hemisphere, where the toilets flush the other way around, or at least that’s what cartoons and X-Files reruns tell me).

So, if you’re in the mood for something light and different (very different, when it comes to the Mbege), give either or both of these brews a shot. After all, innovation is the lifeblood of the American craft brewer, and Sprecher, being one of the better craft brewers in the Midwest, is keeping that tradition alive. Afya!

Today is the feast day of St. Arnold, patron saint of beer.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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