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.
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
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
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
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.
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