Urwagwa, a local brew that has stood the test of time

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A group of people drinking Urwagwa in Rubavu. (Solomon Asaba)

Honking cars, hooting motorists, and the endless flow of busy-looking pedestrians marching to unnamed destinations. It is the sound of Kinamba, an area in Rubavu, northern Rwanda, which is always on the move and forever changing.

Yet hidden in an old ramshackle house nearby, a tradition as old as the nation of Rwanda itself refuses to die.

Preserved and unchanged by a few diehard loyalists, the brewing of Urwagwa- a local brew made out of crushed bananas- remains faithful to an ancient formula handed down over generations in Rwanda.

In one corner of the house, Urwagwa is mellowing slowly in wooden casks, until it attains the perfection that draws scores of regular customers to the nearby bars where they consume over 100 litres each day.

“Can I offer you a drink?” asks Christopher Serwenda, a banana beer seller behind the counter as he opens the lid of a green bucket filled with brown beer to serve us. His gesture of hospitality is a bit unfortunate because while reaching out for a glass, some of beer spills onto the counter before any of us takes a sip.

Instead, he offers to take us to one of the bars that buys from him and sells his brew. A narrow path leads to another joint just behind his, and music echoes softly from the speakers.

A jovial mood envelops the place, and looking at the glee on the patrons’ faces will convince you that despite new beer brands, traditional banana beer is still adored by many who will do everything to have a daily drink.

While most of them will not bother about the origin of the drink, preferring to enjoy its refreshing effect on their parched throats, some of the Urwagwa fans are very confident about the process that goes into making the drink they love.

Making Urwagwa

Like most traditional skills, the recipe and process for brewing Urwagwa is mostly handed down from father to son.

Serwenda who says that he picked the tips from his grandfather who would not substitute Urwagwa with any other beverages finds it appropriate to lead us through the process that starts with obtaining ripe bananas and pressing them with grass to yield slightly clear juice.

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A group of tourists peel bananas used to make Urwagwa. Pressing bananas to yield juice using grass is an activity that requires energy. (Moses Opobo)

The contents of the tank are then stirred and the leaves squeezed to remove residual juice which can effectively be obtained through using a small amount of water.

After that sprouted, lightly roasted or ground millet is poured on top of the juice which thereafter is covered in banana leaves and kept in a warm area for three days and this is why some times the mixture is buried in the ground to allow fermentation.

The process of fermentation happens because there are enzymes present in the sorghum which facilitate the breaking down of banana starch that is eventually acted upon by the yeasts and bacteria. Those who prefer enjoying the drink while it is as clean as possible may have to filter it prior to consumption.

Recently, some glass packages have been developed but ‘old timers’ insist that their beer tests better when served in traditional containers as before because this is how they could easily hang out for a deeper exchange of conversations.

Claude Ndagishimana, a resident of Gisozi and an ordinary brewer says that he finds packed Urwagwa not as nice as the old beer contained in the calabash. He bases his perception on the fact that within a glass, one has to monitor every drop yet it was not the case before because many years ago, there was nothing else to be concerned about besides keeping the chat going.

“When you start enjoying a drink, you just do so without any limitation but glass being transparent you may not quite enjoy and that is why sometimes I prefer taking it using the traditional cups,” Ndagishimana says.

And at the outskirts of the town, most people have maintained this tradition of drinking in groups and somewhere in Nyarutarama in a place called murwimpyisi, a group of men sat enjoying Urwagwa in one of the local bars.

Consuming Urwagwa around the region for decades

For decades, Urwagwa has been among major alcoholic beverages in East Africa and has many names depending on the area where it is made.

Urwagwa is unique to Rwandans but still different regions have branded it differently with some calling it- Igikashi, Urwedesia and Urwarimu. It is mostly consumed in places such as Cyangugu, Kibuye, Kibungo and Rubavu

All beer lovers will tell you that the taste is the same all over and the name changes nothing and they can identify their drink whether packaged in a glass, cup or any other container.

Reverien Karamaje, a resident of Kinamba says that the cost of the drink is friendly because at his favourite joint, one litre only goes for Rwf700, a cost that suits his budget to enjoy an evening out with his friends.

“With just Rwf1400, I am assured of two litres compared to the price of the other beers where 500ml beer of Mutzig cost least Rwf700 and that is for the cheapest brand still,” Karamaje explains with an insisting look.

Besides the affordability, all fans of the banana beer are convinced that it is the only beer where several litres are required to make a person drunk which means that people remain sober even with huge quantities than modern beers that call for moderation.

Going on with the conversation, Karamaje adds that: “It is much healthier to drink beer made from bananas than that brewed in the factories whose origin may not necessarily be clear.”

Health implications and standard requirements

Like the saying goes, the disease of a man usually begins as an appetite and considering the food we eat, we are bound to either gain or lose.

Nutritionist Joseph Mbabazi says the beer contains anti oxidants and traces of other nutrients such as proteins but these are not the only things one should consider as benefits from Urwagwa since for years it has been known to create bonds among friends.

“If it wasn’t for the alcoholic content and pathogenic composition, traditionally made beers don’t have significant risks to the consumers,” Mbabazi says.

He adds that because there is little treatment of raw materials to fend off microbial growth during the manufacturing of traditional beer, the combination can instead serve as a culture for toxic microorganisms.

And several studies are in support of this such as a research published last year in the African Journal of food science showing that manufactures of indigenous beers lack proper hygiene and processing conditions which contributes to a huge microbial load such as fungi in the resultant drink.

While making urwagwa, grass is used to press the juice out of the beer and most times this contains moulds that are known for mycotoxin production which are poisonous chemical compounds from certain fungi that cause sickness and, in extreme cases, death.

The journal also points out that majority of bacterial faecal contaminants such as E-coli and Staphylococci as being part of the common residents of most traditional beverages hence the risk of ingestion is an illness.

Philip Nzaire, Rwanda Standards Board director of quality assurance, says prior to bringing an alcoholic drink to the market, producers are supposed to confirm with the standards set by the body. These standards contain a number of requirements that are put in place to make sure that whatever is for sale is fit for consumption.

“Part of these requirements streamline standards that consider the microbial limits as well as conformation to good hygienic and manufacturing practices within the areas of production,” Nzaire says.

Nzaire insists that a good beverage is one that only meets the standard requirements among packaging and branding necessities.

Meanwhile, beer lovers should enjoy as much as they can but it is important not to forget that not everything placed on the market may be as safe as it looks, some of the unregulated drinks are likely to cause harm and besides it is simple to adhere to the safety standards.