The Muslim world and the brewery in black Africa.


At the beginning of the Hegira, discussions on the nature of the nabid signal a dilemma that arose as soon as the Koran banned alcohol. The nabid is a puree of crushed dates (fresh or dry-rehydrated[1]). This sweet porridge goes into delicious pastries. When diluted, it makes a refreshing drink. But held for one or two days in a container, it ferments. Should we forbid the nabib in the name of the Koran? Yes in its fermented state, no in its initial sweetened state. The same rule governs the consumption of fruit juices.

This practical pitfall will persist over the centuries: at what point will we know that the nabid or a fruit juice begins to ferment? When in doubt, every Muslim should abstain from drinking these drinks. The difficulty will reappear with cereal porridges, which oriental cultures classify among the foods a priori not suspected of containing alcohol.

From wheat, barley, rice or millet, a porridge falls into the food category. After several days, it becomes tart, and according to the acid hydrolysis process, it ferments slightly provided yeasts are present. This fermented porridge is a low-alcohol beer (about 1% to 2%). This tricky and thin border between a sweet porridge and a light beer runs like a white thread among all the peoples converted to Islam.


In Black Africa, Muslim populations know this mobile line between the mil-sorghum slurries and the barely fermented beers, long after their conversion to Islam. On the banks of the Niger, an attentive traveller like the French explorer René Caillié observed it at first hand in 1828 in a region between Djenné and Timbuktu:

« At sunset, they brought me a beverage of tamarind, and a second made ​​with honey and sour milk drained and dried in the sun, a sort of very hard cheese that the Moors, who like it so much, bring in the country: it is powdered to blend it with the drink. The following days, we add to it a slurry of flour very clear, mixed with a little tamarind to make me wait more patiently for the dinner. » (Caillié T. 2, 225 [2]). This recipe has everything you need for a light and tangy beer, as long as you wait 24 hours for a spontaneous fermentation.

« On the 23rd in the morning, he called me at home. I took my bag with me, that he did take on board the pirogue, and my bundle of goods as well. He prepared before me a good amount of millet flour, in which he put a lot of honey; this preparation was intended to be placed in the water I had to drink; it gave me a lot of delight during the journey ... » (Caillié T. 2, 227).

During his downstream journey on the great Niger River towards Timbuktu :

« I did encounter, in this village, a Moorish merchant from Timbuctoo in an ordinary pirogue loaded with salt; he told me he took a month to come from Cabra to Couna;, I urged him to come aboard our boat to refresh with a little dokhnou and water. The dokhnou is, as I said above, a mixture of millet flour and honey, then diluted before drink it. He invited me to wait for the sunset because of Foulahs who, if they saw us drink, would have a bad opinion about us; » (Caillié T. 2, 236).

This beer is also a desert beverage. On the way back, Caillié takes the caravan road to the north and crosses an arid area between the Niger loop and the south of Morocco. On the way, he has again the opportunity to taste the beer named doknou on the way :

« That was not all: he provides me food to reach el-Arouan ... and lastly, he spared nothing to make my journey endurable : I still received from him two goatskins for keeping my supply of water on the road, some doknou, some wheat breads cooked like our biscuit, some melted animal butter, and a good amount of rice. » (Caillé T. 2, 357).


John Lewis Burckhart crossed Upper Egypt and the Nubian desert between 1812 and 1815 and made two observations. The first one : in Egypt, the brewing of bouza is a commercial activity of women, most often victims of the slave trade which continues throughout the region:

« Indeed there are very few houses of people called here respectable, where such women are not lodged, either in the court-yard itself, or in a small room adjoining the yard, but without its gate; in the house where I lodged, we had four of these girls, one of whom was living within the precincts, the three others in contiguous apartments. They are female slaves, whom their masters, upon marrying or being tired of them, have set at liberty, and who have no other livelihood but prostitution, and the preparation of the intoxicating drink called Bouza. » [3].


The second one : the caravaners that criss-cross the desert between Donghola and the Red Sea quench their thirst with beer. About the customs of these caravanners in the town of Berber[4] :

« Drunkenness is the constant companion of this debauchery, and it would seem as if the men in these countries had no other objects in life. The intoxicating liquor which they drink is called Bouza (ﻩﺯﻮﺑ). Strongly leavened bread made from Dhourra[5] is broken into crumbs, and mixed with water, and the mixture is kept for several hours over a slow fire. Being then removed, water is poured over it, and it is left for two nights to ferment. This liquor, according to its greater or smaller degree of fermentation, takes the name of Merin, Bouza, or Om Belbel (ﻞﺒﻠﺑ ﻡﺃ), the mother of nightingales, so called because it makes the drunkard sing. Unlike the other two, which being fermented together with the crumbs of bread, are never free from them, the Om Belbel is drained through a cloth, and is consequently pure and liquid. I have tasted of all three. The Om Belbel has a pleasant prickly taste, something like Champagne turned sour. They are served up in large roundish gourds open at the top, upon which are engraved with a knife a great variety of ornaments. A gourd (Bourma ﻪﻣﺮﺑ) contains about four pints, and whenever a party meet over the gourd, it is reckoned that each person will drink at least one Bourma. The gourd being placed on the ground, a smaller gourd cut in half, and of the size of a tea-cup, is placed near it, and in this the liquor is served round, to each in turn, an interval of six or eight minutes being left between each revolution of the little gourd. At the beginning of the sitting, some roasted meat, strongly peppered, is generally circulated, but the Bouza itself (they say) is sufficiently nourishing, and, indeed, the common sort looks more like soup or porridge, than a liquor to be taken at a draught. The Fakirs or religious men, are the only persons who do not indulge (publicly at least) in this luxury; the women are as fond of it, and as much in the habit of drinking it, as the men. A Bourma of Bouza is given for one measure of Dhourra, three-fourths of the measure of Dhourra being required to make the Bourma, and the remainder paying for the labour. » (Burckhart, 201)

In the desert, the caravanners at the camp have the habit of cooking dourra pancakes and soaking them to obtain a light and tangy beer :

« The chief article of food is Dhourra bread. As they have no mills, not even hand-mills, they grind the Dhourra by strewing it upon a smooth stone, about two feet in length and one foot in breadth, which is placed in a sloping position before the person employed to grind. ... With this paste an earthen jar is filled, containing as much as is necessary for the day’s consumption. It is left there from twenty-four to thirty-six hours, during which time it slightly ferments and acquires a sourish taste. No leaven is used; the sour liquid is poured in small quantities upon an iron plate placed over the fire, or when no iron is at hand, upon a thin well smoothed stone: and if the iron or stone is thoroughly heated, the cake is baked in three or four minutes. ... Sometimes the crumbs are soaked in water, and when the water has acquired a sourish taste it is drank off; this is called by the traders “the caravan beverage, Sharbet el Jellabe (ﻪﺑﻼﺠﻟﺃ ﺔﺑﺮﺵ)". » (Burckhart, 203)



[1] Same process with dried raisins. See Koran and the fermented beverages, note 1.

[2] René Caillié, Journal d'un Voyage à Temboctou et à Jenné, dans l'Afrique centrale, Paris 1830. Tome II.

[3] Burckhart John Lewis, 1822, Travels in Nubia, (2nd edition) London, p. 198. Burckhardt John Lewis, Travels in Nubia, chapter 2

[4] Berber was a Sudanese large village on the Nile (between the 5th cataract and Khartoum), 800 km as the crow flies from Mecca.

[5] Dhoura or Durra  is a typical Sudanese cereal belonging to the sorghum family (dura, botanical Sorghum durra spp.).

18/06/2012  Christian Berger