‘The Smoke That Thunders’ and Other Assorted Lagers
It was an early morning in Amsterdam, as I sat down for a full-Irish and a pint of Murphy’s Red, in the appropriately named Murphy’s Pub, at Schiphol Airport. I was on my way to Zambia, a country that isn’t really known for its beer, and, as such, was taking full advantage of my last opportunity to enjoy a ‘non-lager’ for three weeks! I had been to Zambia before and was already familiar with their monotonous beer industry. Adjunct lagers. Adjunct LAGERS. ADJUNCT LAGERS. It’s the kind of proposition that would have me drinking a lot of water. Despite this negativity, I remained intent on exploring the beer scene in Lusaka and beyond. In truth, whether it was out of nostalgia or maybe actually believing that if I looked hard enough I’d find something special, I was even starting to feel optimistic.
We took off and landed. Lusaka’s so dark at night. Arrived at the hotel late. I slept. Pretty well. I woke up. The sun melted away all of the shadows we passed the night before, revealing a beautiful Zambian day.
Much of the morning was spent doing some ‘housekeeping’; getting money changed, buying bottled water and such. And after a morning doing those types of things you really just want to get going. Luckily, I was there with an adventurous group and we all had the same idea. So we went off to find some authentic Zambian food, from where the locals eat it. Our driver knew a place. It was hidden down a stretch of dirt road that looked more like a minefield than a road, but eventually lead us to a shabby looking cluster of colourful buildings; a small market. The restaurant seemed a bit suspect by Canadian standards. Meat grilled on a barbecue made out of a rusty old barrel. Flies everywhere. Tables being moved from one of the restaurants to another to accommodate us. Releasing my inner Anthony Bourdain – no reservations. The menu was simple – painted on the building in fact. You could have fish or a t-bone. I chose the t-bone, which came with nshima and a variety of ‘relishes’. Nshima is Zambia’s staple food, a thick white cornmeal porridge of sorts, that’s cooked until it can be formed into pieces and used to pick up food. Everything about the meal was fantastic, especially the Piri Piri sauce that I drenched my steak in – my new favourite condiment as it so happens.
Despite being wintertime in Zambia, it was still quite hot during the day, and a big meal called for a refreshing beer. I had a Mosi. Which really is the best of the lot. In the days and weeks that followed I would sometimes foolishly order a Castle or some such nonsense, forgetting that fact. Lessons learned the hard way.
Mosi is short for Mosi-Oa-Tunya which is the Tonga name for Victoria Falls, meaning: ‘the smoke that thunders’. In a sense it hardly deserves to share the name of one of the most breathtaking sites in the world. Brewed by a subsidiary of SABMiller called Zambian Breweries, the name is the only thing ‘truly Zambian’ (the slogan on every bottle) about it. There’s nothing breathtaking about this beer. It’s boring and fairly tasteless, but not altogether uninspiring.
We spent some more time exploring Lusaka, which was a lot of fun, but altogether useless in the beer department:Windhoek Lager; unsatisfactory. Windhoek Draught; flat Windhoek Lager. Castle Lager; nothing special. Carling Black Label; atrocious. Savanna Dry Cider; still not dry. No matter where I looked, there was nothing special. So when it came time to leave for Livingstone to see the real, Mosi-Oa-Tunya I was hoping for a nice change of pace.
The falls are indescribable. We spent several hours there and it felt like the blink of an eye. I’ve stood there staring at them on two occasions, yet, if I were to go back, would probably still feel like a stranger. A seemingly endless flow of water, gushing, spraying, gurgling as far as the eye can see. It’s wonderful.
In the evening, we went on a ‘booze cruise’ on the Zambezi, complete with new friends (like a brit named Ciro, who I swear introduced himself as ‘Cheerio’), hippos and Mosis. It was here that my fondness for Mosi wast rekindled. Livingstone is a backpacker’s town. It’s a crossroads for travellers from all around the world. Whether you’re from France or Spain, Argentina or Zambia, everyone seems to bond over Mosi. Mosi complements the vibe that Livingstone puts out perfectly – and we revelled in it that night.
The next morning we were back at it early. We would be spending the day charting new and exciting territory, across the Zambezi River border by rickety boat, in Botswana. I conjecture that Botswana is an entirely beautiful and clean (at least in comparison to Zambia) country. I thoroughly enjoyed the drive into Chobe National Park. It was fresh and picturesque under the morning sun, and I swear I saw a lionesse walking the streets of a village that we passed along the way. This was somewhat confirmed, in that our guide said that they sometimes like to sleep on top of parked cars in the sun. Our starting point was the Chobe Safari Lodge, a gorgeous wooden structure with a thatched roof. From there we spent the morning on a boat safari, before going on a game drive in the afternoon.
At lunch, which was a buffet that included such delights as warthog stew (yum!), I rushed to change some American dollars into Botswana Pula so that I could try their local (sort of) beer ‘St. Louis Export’. Brewed by another SABMiller subsidiary, Kgalagadi Breweries, St. Louis Export was by far the most flavourful African lager I had tried up to that point. I know that isn’t saying much, but after nearly a week of corn-water it was refreshing to finally try something that, despite still being corn-water, had even a hint of a hop character to it. I actually didn’t mind it and would have no problem ordering it again… in Botswana, that is. Which is more than I can say about the beer that I, regrettably followed it up with, Hansa Pilsener. Utterly terrible.
WE SAW ELEPHANTS! Lots of them too. I want to go back and have a St. Louis Export and look at elephants. What an amazing experience.
That evening we were back in Livingstone, and we went to check out a restaurant called Café Zambezi. It’s a cool little spot tucked in beside a couple backpacker hotels on the main strip, Mosi-Oa-Tunya Road. The ambiance was great, and we were sat in a courtyard of sorts, next to a bonfire with an awesome view of the stars. We were adventurous, ordering appetizers of Vinkubala (fried caterpillars) and crocodile bites. The crocodile was kind of a weird mix of pork and fish, and the caterpillars – well, you’ll have to go and try them for yourself.
On the menu at the restaurant, they had a beer called ‘Mosi Gold’ listed. I had seen advertisements for this ‘slowed brewed’ and sophisticated sounding beer throughout Lusaka and Livingstone and was ready for my taste test. Having already tried to order it once before, it was apparent this ‘brand new’ beer was hard to come by; as sure enough, Café Zambezi were also out of it. This really stoked the fire. So on the walk back to our hotel, I insisted we stop by a grocery store to see about tracking down this elusive beer.
I finally managed to get my hands on one, which I purchased enthusiastically for enjoyment during our nightly card game back at the hotel. I wasted little time to get it open (despite having to pry the cap off with a spoon for lack of a bottle opener) and was half done before I knew what to think of it. Initially, and perhaps instinctively, I didn’t like it very much at all. It’s completely unbalanced with a talcy mouthfeel that cuts off altogether too quickly before reemerging with sour corn and perle hop. But then context took the wheel and, slowly, I began overlooking its many faults and making ridiculous statements proclaiming its excellence. From that moment forward, my thirst for Mosi Gold could not be satiated. I even left the country with two cases – though having opened one upon my return, I can only conclude that I was in a very deprived state that night in Livingstone.
Now, the real reason of my visit to Zambia had nothing to do with beer, or touristy stuff for that matter. I was there to help set up a summer camp for kids in a rural area Northeast of Lusaka called Chipembi. Soon after our return from Livingstone, the time came to set out. Chipembi is about a two hour drive from Lusaka, largely due to the condition of road. Because of this, it’s a bit cut-off. You really only leave when you have to. So we had to make sure we were well stocked up, with two weeks worth of cookies, water and, of course, beer. The cookies and water were no problem to find, but, devastatingly, the store we went to on the way up didn’t carry Mosi Gold. Gutted, I purchased a six pack of boring-old-regular-Mosi and also used the opportunity to try another new beer: Ohlsson’s (bet you can’t guess what kind of beer!) Lager. The latter is a top contender for worst beer in Africa.
Chipembi is wonderful. The two weeks we spent there passed by way too quickly and I miss all of the amazing people we met, lived with, ate with and worked with, terribly. Life there is amazingly colourful and rich. Despite, as a community, having many hardships, there exists such a tremendous spirit of welcome, of generosity, of friendship, of song, of dance, and so very much more. To focus so narrowly on beer in Zambia doesn’t even begin to tell the story of my experience. Yet I came to see it as a bit of a metaphor. You see, Zambian beer really isn’t Zambian. It’s the same story for many manufactured goods. Foreign influence is everywhere from music, television and sports to development investment, such that the portrait of Zambia is perhaps not painted as brightly in all corners as it could be. And that’s a shame, because as you start to get to know Zambia, it doesn’t take long to realize how special a place it is.
The highlight of my ‘beer journey’ around Zambia was trying a drink called Chibuku. I had unknowingly tasted it the first time I visited Zambia, albeit the unfermented version, which was described to me as: “a corn energy drink that turns into wine after a week”. Chibuku is the country’s typical homebrew, a fact that wasn’t lost on SABMiller, who market their own brand throughout Southern Africa. In fact, it was the only brand that I saw during my travels. Known also as ‘Shake Shake’, because of its propensity to separate, Chibuku is a thick and coarse maize beer with a sharp and sour flavour to it. My understanding is that the tartness develops as fermentation continues in the bottle; and what we poured seemed to be at a particularly strong and effervescent stage. On its own, I didn’t mind it. I enjoyed its tickly and lip-puckering character and despite the less than desirable corn aftertaste, it really could grow on me. What made it decidedly better, however, was the addition of milk and sugar. I know it sounds very bizarre, and I was as skeptical as anyone at first, but the result is something special. Yes, a little milk and just a touch of sugar went a long way to correct the imperfections of a distinctly imperfect beverage – remaining delightfully sour while reducing that awful corn harshness. It reminded me of drinking coke and milk as a kid, that amazing combination of bubbly and creamy, only better. Finally, something with charisma.
Zambia isn’t a country where beer is the star attraction, and maybe that’s a good thing. I came to appreciate those dreadful lagers as an act rather than an experience; something to do while you’re enjoying other things. Apart from Chibuku, they are devoid of flavour, allowing Zambia’s amazing dishes to shine at any meal; unimpeded and bright. They are low in alcohol, preserving the richness of conversation, song and dance. They are COLD, perfectly inviting after longs hours in the sub-Saharan sun. Beer is at the very bottom of the list of reasons to visit such a remarkable country (and that list is overflowing), yet it isn’t without its place. Considering the way that beer can be treated back here in North America, almost too seriously, it was nice to be reminded that life happens while you’re busy untapp-ing.