Mabi-beer rejected as an indigenous drink 19-20thArticle 16 of 16

The modern forgetfulness of the mabi/mauby beer of sweet potato


Nowadays, one calls Mabi (French West Indies) or Mauby (Barbados and other English speaking islands) a fermented or unfermented drink made from the bark of "bois maby" (Colubrina reclinata/elliptica, Guaïcum officinale) mixed with ginger and cane syrup. This decoction has nothing in common with the old sweet potato beers, except for the ginger and bark that the Amerindians and later the colonists added to it.

The term bois-maby makes one believe that these modern alcohols derive from old beers. The confusion is so great that one finds these definitions in the literature: "mabi = Caribbean drink, made with bois-mabi"[1] or "(caribbean) mabi (fermented infusion (?) from a tree called bwa-mabi which has diuretic properties)"[2].

They are correct as long as you understand that this wood-mabi has nothing to do with the sweet potato and the beer of the Amerindians. The literature refers to the authority of Father Breton (Dictionnaire Caraïbe-Français 1665) to find the origin of the term bois-mabi with the meaning "species of wood from which a drink is made"..

There is nothing of the sort in Père Breton's Dictionary. At the entry Mabi, he gives "patate", specifying further on that one can also consume the ends of his fresh stems as food, in no case to make a fermented drink with these stems alone.

The current wood-mabi therefore has nothing to do with the sweet potato stalk. It refers to some trees whose bark is used. This confusion was probably created by the first Europeans who discovered with surprise in the Lesser Antilles and the Guianas the vegetative reproduction of tubers (sweet potatoes, maniocs, yams), or in Peru that of the potato. In order to make bread and beer, there was no need to plough, sow seeds or harvest as the settlers used to do with their cereals[3].

The Amerindians simply bury a piece of stem of the sweet potato plant, a stem called "mabi", from the name they give to the potato (mabi/nap'i). Amazed by this simplicity and the size of the tubers produced, Father Breton leaves no doubt about what he calls "tige/wood of mabi :

« When it rains, you make a hole in the ground, where at the same time as you dig it (if the ground is wet), you take a piece of wood [stem] of potatoes that you turn around your hand, and bury half of it, while the other half is out of the ground, which grows its wood, and you covers with earth; if you are not hurried, after five or six months, not only the holes, but every knot has its roots, especially if they are planted in light soil, or in sand; one cannot admire enough the quantity and the size, I have seen them weigh 18 to 20 pounds. » (Breton, 171).

Regarding the modern mabi-drink from the Caribbean and Central America, those who prepare and drink it have forgotten even the existence of the ancient sweet potato beers of Amerindian origin called mabi. In the hands of the settlers, their preparation has not ceased to change since the 17th century.

The strong trend pushed the Amerindian beer towards a higher alcohol content (addition of cane sugar or other syrup), incomplete hydrolysis (elimination of insalivation) which was compensated by the filtration of non-liquefied solids, and an ever stronger flavouring (ginger, lemon, orange, bark).

The industrial beers, rum and strong alcohols of the 20 th century have erased the last traces of the Mabi-beers in the collective memory.

Sweet potato beers are now brewed among the Amerindian communities of the Guianas. This know-how has not been lost, nor the memory of its social significance. It was transmitted in the south of the great Caribbean-Arawak cultural area, because this continental region was colonised later and only on its coastal fringes. The Amerindian populations of the Caribbean islands, on the contrary, suffered the full brunt of successive waves of European settlement, with no escaping or fighting means.


[1] Ludwig Ralph et al. 2002, Dictionnaire créole français. Servedit/Éditions Jasor.

[2] Confiant Raphaël 2007, Dictionnaire créole martiniquais-français, Matury, Guyane. Ibis Rouge Editions, 2 tomes. s.v. mabi.

[3] Cette ignorance et absence de maîtrise culturale provoquera la famine et l'échec des premiers projets de colonisation, surtout français. Longtemps, les colons s'acharnent à faire pousser leur blés et leurs orges, avant d'apprendre tout des Amérindiens.


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