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Friday, April 6, 2012

What's Cooking at the Archives: Good to the Last Drop

Start of the brewing, bananas and grass; Albert_papers_227
In a culture increasingly committed to the D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) mantra, the limits of what can be accomplished at home or by one’s own hands are constantly being tested. Moving away from the modern conveniences of mass-produced and pre-packaged, there are plenty of resources available out there if you are looking for information on how to smoke meat, pickle vegetables, bake bread or even build your own brick oven. Basement vintners and home brewers bottle their goods and print their own labels. You don’t need a lot of people to help. Apparently the waiting is the hardest part—fermentation cannot be rushed. 
Removing bananas from pit, Albert_papers_224
When I came across these images of beer making in Burundi, Africa I was struck not only by the difficult process utilizing only what is found in nature, but also by the team-work and craftsmanship. Not to mention the ingredients! That’s not just any beer they are making, that’s banana beer. Anthropologist Ethel Mary Albert documented the beer making process during her extensive field work in Burundi as a Ford Fellow from 1955-1957. Her photographic slides number more than 300 and document many aspects of daily village life. Her writings cover a wide range of topics from ceremonies to relationships, agriculture, life cycle, language and, of course, food and drink.
Making the beer-vat (ubgato); Albert_papers_195
Albert’s notes describe making banana beer as “a rather complex and time-consuming problem, which presumably requires both know-how and muscle.” That pretty wells sums it up. The process involves ripening bananas in a pit heated with smoke for no less than five days. The heated bananas are peeled then mashed using grass for friction. The mash is strained and water is added to the juice. Both eleusine flour and sorghum are mentioned as fermenting agents. The mixture is placed back in a fire pit and covered with peels, leaves and straw until it is ready. 
Leaf covering of banana pit; Albert_papers_220
Mistress of the house, children and workers peeling bananas;
Brewing--rich foam means good beer; Albert_papers_230
Brewer preparing the strainer; Albert_papers_232
Straining banana juice into pot; Albert_papers_234
Banana beer--good to the last drop; Albert_papers_237
The images Albert captured add life to the words and faces to the busy hands—from carving the beer vat to the rich foaming banana mash and finally to enjoying the fruit of that labor down to the last drop. I'm not saying you should try this at home, but if you're looking for a new project...just let me know how it goes.

Jennifer Murray

National Anthrological Archives


  1. Hello, I'm a student who's doing a group project about banana beer production in Burundi. The main theme of the project is finding a sanitary way of producing banana beer and making it efficient. (I'm trying to find a way to produce at least a liter of beer at the lowest price.)
    I found this blog while I was looking up Burundi banana beer production, and the information on this blog was useful, not to mention that the photos were wonderful.
    I'm wondering if you could give a few tips on the project I'm doing. I would be really grateful for any help.
    Thank you for reading this comment!
    (P.S. My email is Please contact me if you are okay with helping! ^^)

  2. Rachel - interesting project. There are some dimensions of home-made beer in africa that are important to know. I am currently writing (another) blog on banana beer in Burundi, which you might want to look at. An older blog on beer production in Burundi (that I've written) is here:

    Beer production is an important small enterprise for women throughout Africa. The fermentation process enhances food safety and, having myself both watched the production as well as consumed local beer for several decades, a goal of sanitary production may not be the most important goal to follow.

    Best of luck on your project, Diana.

    1. Thank you for the link! :)

      I see.. I'll keep that in mind while I work on the project.

      And again, thank you for helping! :)