Mabi-beer and domestication of the sweet potatoArticle 3 of 16 The mabi-beer and its variants in the Caribbean

 Beers and unfermented beverages from sweet potato.


Cachiri is a name of Amerindian origin specific to the peoples of the Caribbean (including the Greater and Lesser Antilles) and Guianas regions. It designates both beer in general, the drinking bouts focusing on this beer, and the highly socialized and codified drinking manners. W. E. Roth[1] argues that the word we transcribe "cachiri" derives formerly from Arawak, the language in which it designates the sweet potato and the beer that can be brewed from it.

The Arawak-speaking peoples populated together with others (Caribs peoples) the Guianas, the West Indies, Central America, the Bahamas and Florida. They originated from a cultural complex called Suazoid (eponymous Suazey Savannah site on the island of Grenada dated 800-900) and earlier from an Amazonian culture known as Salaloid (Venezuelan site of Saladero). The Arawak speakers are therefore very old sweet potato growers.

Their language bears witness to the antiquity of sweet potatoes, and perhaps to the ancient cultural pre-eminence of sweet potato beers over cassava beers. The neighbouring peoples of the region, in adopting the term "cachiri", would have extended its meaning to "all kinds of beers, be they potato, manioc, banana or maize beers" and "any practice of sharing beer and drinking together".

Beside the generic term cachiri, the word mabi (and its variants) refers specifically to sweet potato beer. The early accounts of European settlers and freebooters bear witness to this use and technique. In 1618, 4 ships set sail from Dieppe to do buccaneering in the Caribbean, which was then the preserve of the Spaniards. The writer on board tells how the Indians of Martinique and Dominica prepare the mabi :

« Pattate or mabi : is a root which is no less than cassava, and big, and better than any of our Indies. It is even more excellent in that it can be eaten raw without hurting [non-toxic like cassava], and being braised, or boiled, it is very tasty and good food. It comes in all sizes and two kinds. One white and the other red, but the white ones are much better, and have the same property, appearance and taste as our chestnuts, either boiled or roasted, having no other difference than in shape and size. A better drink is made from it than from cassava, which is a great source of nutrition, and here is the method. The Indian women, after washing them well, put them in a terrine called louara where there is only a little water at the bottom to prevent them from breaking, and then cover them well with banana leaves and leave them on the fire for as long as possible and then remove them [very close description for banana wine, 136-137], chew them and crush this chew in a mortar, which they soak in water in the proportion they want to drink. Or, having left them to rest for 24 hours and let them skim [fermentation], they make a very good and nourishing drink out of them; that if they don't want to do so many things, they just soak the sweet potatoes in water and drink it this way. They throw a leaf out of the ground almost similar and of the same size as that of ivy.» (Anonyme de Carpentras, 1618-1620, ed. Moreau 2002, 140-141 [2]).

This technical description actually covers three different brewing methods. Each can, if preparation stops at this stage, produce a particular beverage.

The first step is given last by the text (they make a very good and nourishing drink out of it, that if they don't want to do so many things, they just soak the sweet potatoes in water and drink it this way). A simple decoction of sweet potato therefore, without cooking, hydrolysis or fermentation. This rudimentary and quick process gives you raw potato juice to drink, no more and no less. As we will see, it is either a food or a healing drink.

The 2nd step (Indian women ... of what they want to drink). If you decide to get a sweet juice from it, you have to cook and soften the starch. The cooking is done by stewing. Without cooking, the starch granules do not release the starchy stuff. The porridge is crushed and partly chewed so that the saliva converts the starch into sugars. Note that some varieties of sweet potato already contain 6% sucrose. At this stage, the beverage is a sweet, nutritious and delicious unfermented beverage.

The 3rd step is taken to obtain a beer (Or well, having ... nourishing;). Leave to ferment for 24 hours, often skimming off the foam. The fermentation of the sweet potato mash is tumultuous. The yeasts are brought in by the fermentation vessels (not by saliva, as we have already pointed out).

The relative accuracy of the text is explained by the fact that European seafarers knew similar fermented beverages (ciders, pears, beer) in their countries of origin. They were Breton, Norman or English. Only the technique of insalivation was unknown to them, hence the frequent confusion of testimonies from this period which assimilate the saccharification of starch and fermentation proper. Instead of sweet potato beer, they often spoke of "potato wine".


[1] Roth W. E. 1924, An introductory study of the Arts, Crafts and Customs of the Guiana Indians. 38th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology.

[2] Moreau Jean-Pierre 2002, Un flibustier français dans la mer des Antilles (1618-1620). Relation d'un voyage infortuné fait aux Indes occidentales par le capitaine Fleury avec la description de quelques îles qu'on y rencontre, recueillie par l'un de ceux de la compagnie qui fit le voyage. Transcription et étude d'un manuscrit conservé à la bibliothèque inguimbertine de Carpentras dit "L'anonyme de Carpentras". (A French freebooter in the Caribbean Sea (1618-1620). Relation of an unfortunate voyage made to the West Indies by Captain Fleury with the description of some islands encountered there, collected by one of those of the company who made the trip. Transcription and study of a manuscript preserved in the Ingubertine library of Carpentras called "L'anonyme de Carpentras".)

Mabi-beer and domestication of the sweet potatoArticle 3 of 16 The mabi-beer and its variants in the Caribbean