June 13, 2024

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Ghana Life: Alcoholic Beverages

Ghana has had four modern breweries for several decades, producing European lagers and Irish stout, and the country imports beers, wines and spirits from all over the world. In spite of this flood of foreign beverages, some of its traditional local inebriates are still produced by backyard brewers and distillers hidden deep in the bush. In the restaurants and bars in the cities the drinks on display are all familiar to the international imbiber, and one may need to enquire discretely about the availability of a local specialty, but in remote rural areas the preferred intoxicant is still the elixir that shielded the ancestors from the cares of everyday life.

In the north of Ghana a local beer called pito is still widely produced from millet or sorghum. To see pito brewed by women in Navrongo in the twilight of a tropical evening, with the flames of the wood fire curling up the sides of the enormous black spherical pot, is to witness a real-life enactment of the witches in Macbeth. The brewing pot is so large that were it any larger the women would not be able to reach into it with their wooden stirring poles.

A similar local beer called bubra seems to have been brewed in southern Ghana by the Ga tribe of Greater Accra Region but currently the term bubra is used to refer to any draught beer, including those produced by modern breweries. Another southern local beer, Ngoma Malt, is brewed commercially in Lome, Togo, just over Ghana’s eastern border, from where it is exported to many countries including Ghana. This beer may be linked to the Ewe tribe that dominates both in Togo and in Ghana’s Volta Region.

Perhaps the best known and most widely appreciated of Ghana’s traditional alcoholic beverages is palm wine, produced from the fermented sap of the oil palm. The process requires the cutting down or uprooting of the palm tree, and as these trees take up to five years to bear fruit the production of palm wine is often criticised as wasteful of resources. Palm wine tappers are sometimes called to take advantage of a tree that is storm damaged or must be cleared for land development but many healthy and productive trees are sacrificed in praise of Bacchus.

By far the most potent alcoholic beverage produced in Ghana is called akpeteshie. It is made by distilling palm wine or fermented sugarcane juice in home-made stills often hidden beside a stream in the forest. Containing an estimated 40 to 50 percent of alcohol by volume it is said that nobody takes akpeteshie and smiles. Yet many people drink it, and some become addicted to it. Like all strong alcoholic drinks it damages the liver and addicts become a bright orange colour for the last few months before they circum. If the ancestors took akpeteshie to forget their everyday cares it is likely that for some the effect was permanent.