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Science has never tasted this good! 
iQhilika - a product with a golden future

by Garth Cambray 
Rhodes University and Makana Brewery PTY (Ltd) 
Grahamstown,  South Africa


"iQhilika - when I drink it I can hunt a lion! And the next day I will wake up strong and my skin will look healthy!"

Mathews Makwana- iQhilika brewer, Grahamstown.


Garth Cambray, Winston Leukes and Vuyani Ntantiso, developers of iQhilika raising a toast with the mayor of Grahamstown.iQhilika is a unique fermented honey beverage(mead), produced within the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. The Xhosa people, and the descendants of the Khoi-San group of peoples who inhabit this region produce the beverage by taking the specially prepared roots of succulents of the Trichodiadema genus and mixing this with a sugar source such as honey and certain fruits, and more recently brown sugar. Sometimes pollen or an extract of bee larvae similar in nature to royal jelly is added to the brew. The resulting brew can have as much as 7% by volume ethanol and is reported to have health giving properties, as well as having the interesting distinction of not giving one a hangover.

Traditional beverages around the world have a number of things in common. They are often made from wild sugar sources, such as fruits, honey and malted grains. They are often a little murky and may have a limited shelf life.

Improvements in the traditional process, brought about by careful analysis of process components allow commercial production systems to be developed that make products which have mass market appeal and are able to last long enough to get to a large market. During the European Renaissance these technological advances resulted in mead being replaced by wine and beer as the more common beverages of the peoples of that continent. Beekeeping technology lagged behind, as did mead brewing technology, resulting in honey being too expensive to brew the mead.

In 1997, Dr Winston Leukes and a student, Garth Cambray began investigating the iQhilika brewing process in order to develop a commercial iQhilika production system. Over the next 5 years the microbial populations of the beverage were investigated and those essential to its production were identified and spoilage organisms isolated.

In the same time period, Vuyani Ntantiso joined the project to develop methods of keeping bees and cultivating Trichodiadema intonsum. This would ensure a steady supply of these components to allow the scale up of iQhilika production. Methods of trapping pollen, swarms and queen rearing techniques were adapted for use with the indigenous cape honeybee, Apis millifera capensis.

The next step in the development of a process from this point was to select a brewing configuration which would keep the iQhilika yeasts at optimal productivity in the same way the traditional brewers did, but under more sterile conditions. This meant that a choice had to be made as to which of the traditional ingredients were the most suited to commercialisation. The drink should contain honey, imoela (Trichodiadema sp. roots) and either pollen or the royal jelly like extract of larval bees. Pollen can be trapped from commercial beehives, meaning that the bees do not actually need to be killed in order to make iQhilika. This is better than using the brood extract, and hence in a commercialisation step it is logical to use the more sustainable of these two interchangeable ingredients.

In the alcoholic fermentation world two major options are available for potable alcohol production, namely batch systems and continuous systems. In the first a tank of ingredients is prepared and innoculated and allowed to ferment until it is ready to be prepared for bottling. In the second system ingredients are constantly fed into a fermentor in which the yeast is growing, and an equal amount of product is drawn of. Yeasts which clump together in little granules called flocs are ideal fora continuous system as they remain in the system while the ingredients flow over them and are converted to a beverage which then exits the system.

A continuous fermentation system was developed by the iQhilika research group. Aspects of this technology allow the production of a high alcohol content, smooth iQhilika with none of the off tastes encountered sometimes in batch iQhilika production. Traditional brewers are unanimous that this system produces an authentic iQhilika which has highlighted the good aspects of iQhilika, and removed the things which can sometimes spoil a batch.

The final step in any such process is development of a way of stabilising the product so it will last for long periods of time, enabling it to reach a wide target market. In beer production this normally involves pasteurising and/or filter sterilising the product. In wine production products are often treated with anti-microbials or filter sterilised. Filter sterilisation is the ideal sterilisation system as it has a very small impact on the flavour, and this small impact is often beneficial as certain unpleasant flavours may be removed. Chemical sterilisation is becoming less and less fashionable. An alternative to chemical sterilisation is to produce a product with a sufficiently high ethanol content that few microbes would be able to survive in it. This would however be dependent on the process yeast being able to produce this much alcohol. Filter sterilisation would then clarify the product giving it a clean taste and pleasant appearance.

The iQhilika production process developed by the iQhilika research project continuously produces a product which is smooth tasting, golden in colour and has an alcohol content in the region of 16%.

The Makana Brewery Pty (Ltd) iQhilika production process has thus been perfected in Grahamstown and will benefit the population of this region through sustainable job creation and technology transfer. This will, we hope have a similar effect on our region as some of the great process developments that have occurred for other beverages around the world have had on their regions.

iQhilika was put to the test in its first public tasting during the 2001 Sasol Scifest. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive- iQhilika was onto a winner.  The editor-in-chief was on hand to sample the product and agrees- science has never tasted this good.

Please E-mail all queries and feedback for this article.

or visit the iQhilika web-site



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