Chibuku Shake Shake

Scary Rumors flying around Blantyre:

  • There will be a massive shortage of Carlsberg beer (greens as they’re called here) because they are having trouble importing the bottle tops.
  • They are going to stop making Malawi Gin because they are having trouble importing the powder that they use to make it.
  • Malawi Gin is made from a powder.  (what?!? seriously?)
  • We are all going to have to acquire a taste for Chibuku Shake Shake since it will be the only thing left to drink.

Many would argue that chibuku, a popular traditional African beer, doesn’t have a very nice taste.  Some say it tastes like yeast, or dirt, baby throw up or sour milk, with the consistency of weak porridge.  They say you get the added bonus of little pieces of silt in your teeth.

And they would be right.

But Chibuku is so much more than that.  It is a cultural phenomenon.  Made from sorghum or maize, the recipe has been around for centuries and was formalized by a Zambian in the 1950’s.  The company that makes Chibuku is now owned by SAB Miller.  It’s cheaper than bottled beer (about 75 kwacha or $0.40), and for some, could constitute a whole meal.  Lots of people will just call it ‘shake shake’. (The liquid and solid separate while sitting on shelves, so it’s necessary to shake the carton thoroughly before drinking – ewww.)

The great (or bizarre) thing about chibuku is that it has very little alcohol content, but continues to ferment while on the shelf – or in one’s stomach.  So you could drink chibuku …  and then be drunk three hours later.

Chibuku is sold in lovely blue, red, and white cartons and there is an understood etiquette associated with drinking from them.  If you open only one side, like a milk carton, then you are showing that you intend to drink the carton alone.  If you grab your panga  knife and chop off the top, you intend to share the carton and pass it around to everyone.

Chibuku is the good stuff – it’s made in a warehouse (just next to Sandy’s office, actually).  But in the villages, people often make their own maize brews.  You can see people selling it in recycled water bottles – it’s thick oatmeal consistency baking in the sun.

I remember a few months ago being in a small village with a friend.  We pulled over the car when he spotted his grand-mother and her sister walking down the road.  They were elderly and friendly and were happy to see their relation visit from the big city.  He asked them where they were headed.  They were off, they told him, in search of local beer.  Drinking a local chibuku was going to be their day’s activity.  I could easily see my grandmother and her sister doing the same.  After all, as my often grandmother says, “it’s five o’clock somewhere.”

Because chibuku is an important aspect to daily life in Malawi, I felt the need to try it.  A few months ago, a large group of us gathered round and passed the chibuku carton.  We stood in a circle and it was like some horrible hazing experience.

As I said before, it tastes like sour milk, with the consistency of weak porridge, and you get little flecks of dirt (?) stuck in your teeth.  But strangely, as you pass the carton, you slowly start to get used to it.  Personally, I preferred the slightly less expensive version – Napolo (70 kwacha as opposed to 75 – I’m a cheap date).

Now I’m not saying that I would order chibuku in a restaurant (I’d love to see a waiter’s face if I did – “would you like the wine list?” “oh no, I’ll just have a carton of chibuku – could you put that in an ice bucket for us?” but, should the rumors be true and we’re left with no carlsberg or gin, we might be shake shaking for the next few months….

You know you want some.

See, I really did try it


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17 responses to “Chibuku Shake Shake

  1. Nancy

    My stomach hurts looking at those two pictures… and I love beer!!! You are so brave!
    Can’t wait to see you both in December!!!
    Love you!

  2. Anonymous

    okay….ewwwww…you are a brave soul to try it! looks horrid though!!

  3. Barbara Jones

    Okay Katie poo – perhaps it IS time to come home!!!!

  4. Hi Kate. I tried the drink at a wedding. As you say it is an acquired taste. But I managed to drink all the content of the glass I was given.

    Our part one in Malawi is ending on 19th November and we still did not manage to meet you both! Maybe you can organise another crocket session at Hundingdon House. We liked it there when we went last weekend.


    • It’s amazing how fast time goes! So glad you liked Huntington House (and impressed with your chibuku drinking!) – we’re around in Blantyre – would be great to see you before you head out!

      • Are you available anytime this weekend? Ruth goes to a Birthday Party in the afternoon from 2.30 but we can meet up for a coffee/ drink after 5pm or before 2 after/ for lunch.

  5. Anonymous

    it’s opaque beer and I gather what looks like dirt is bits of sorghum. It’s not disgusting, just different strokes for different folks. Others like clear beer, others like opaque beer. Same difference. nothing ‘eewwwy’ or ‘horrid’ about it I’d say.

  6. Christiane

    Lovely – I am thirsty only by looking at your pictures! If it is an acquired taste, I managed the acquisition in one gulp 😉 and now am missing Chibuku sorely in our German supermarkets …

  7. Jag

    Drank it in Zambia. Tastes bad first, but after a few minutes you have developed a long relationship with it, and suddenly it begins to taste nice! Well done…

  8. bwanajon

    I grew up in Malawi and spent the first 25 years of my life there. Recently I just have this insane craving for Chibuku. Anyone fancy sending a case over to England?

  9. John

    It’s amazing, admittedly an acquired taste,but you can’t get it outside southern Africa. I’m here trying to find a recipe!

  10. I celebrated independence day at a village chibuku tavern in Zambia this weekend. I didn’t know what I was in for. Besides witnessing some slightly depressing alcoholism, the shake shake here was a shock. I’d had tried the stuff in the carton before, and lets just say, compared to the village brewed version, drunk out of oil jugs, the carton shake shake is of premium quality.

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  12. tarnner

    Am a true son of Malawi but currently am in RSA, once u mentioned about Chibuku ooooops you remind me of my sweet home. Malawi the warm heart of Africa.

  13. j K masilo

    are we have a milk in chibuku

  14. Walle

    My beer of choice. Its food and drink at the same time, the only downside is that you develop a pot belly and you will need to brush your teeth before kissing anyone ; )

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