Could an ancient, climate-friendly crop be the future of beer?

Pierre Thiam and Garrett Oliver are on a mission to introduce brewmasters to fonio, a small and mighty west African grain

There’s a certain magic to fonio, a tiny golden grain believed to be Africa’s oldest cultivated cereal. The ancient grain’s potential to solve pressing modern environmental and economic challenges inspired Pierre Thiam, the Senegalese-born chef, to become fonio’s No 1 champion.

After rediscovering the grain and showing home cooks how easy to cook and versatile it is, now Thiam is introducing brewmasters around the world to what fonio can do in beer.

It all started when Thiam ran into Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, at a 2018 party hosted by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. They decided to make a test batch of fonio beer.

“Fonio creates beautiful flavors in beer. I’m sure people have been brewing with fonio for thousands of years,” said Oliver, who is also the editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer. He notes that South Africa has a traditional beer called umqombothi brewed from sorghum, a grain in the millet family. In Burkina Faso and Togo, people brew a beloved fonio beer called tchapalo, and today, the most popular beer at La Maison Kalao, a pan-African brewery near Dakar, is a blonde fonio brew.

“It’s creamier, there are floral and fruity notes that remind me of lychee or gewürztraminer and there is a slight bitterness reminiscent of the amino acid bitterness that forms the backbone of sake,” Oliver said. “It’s just a part of the grain that gives the beer a really crisp edge.”

Thiam believes that if more people bought fonio – instead of rice, wheat or barley – it could help alleviate big issues facing west Africa and the world like poverty, food shortages, the climate crisis and drought. “People are realizing we need to figure this out and the food system is the solution. [So] we’re creating the demand for fonio,” said Thiam, who featured fonio at Teranga, his restaurant in New York City, and his cookbooks – and made the compelling case for how rural Africa could be transformed if the west embraced the grain in a fonio Ted Talk.

Now, he’s starting an international trend of brewing beer with fonio, to help the environment and give small west African farmers economic security and sustainable income.

“Brewers are interested in this because they have the opportunity to be part of the solution by integrating fonio, a climate-friendly crop, into their product,” said Thiam.

For example, growing a pound of malted barley has a 327-gallon water footprint while a pound of wheat requires 219 gallons of water, and a pound of white rice requires 400 gallons of water.

Meanwhile, fonio can thrive with just 600mm annual rainfall, and none of the irrigation, pesticides or fertilizers needed by other grains. Brewing with fonio follows the same process as making beer from other grains. And breweries are trying it out, thanks to Oliver, who is fonio’s leading beervangelist.

Oliver and Thiam’s first commercial fonio beer was called Teranga, the Wolof word for hospitality. Kirin has a 24.5% stake in Brooklyn Brewery, so they launched it in Japan in 2020.

Now, whenever someone approaches Oliver about developing a craft beer, he says: “Why not fonio?” That’s how the hip hop duo Run the Jewels ended up dropping a double pilsner made with fonio called 36” Chain last year.

Thiam’s line of fonio products, Yolélé, started selling at Whole Foods in 2017, and Run the Jewel’s front man, El-P, had some in his Brooklyn kitchen cabinet, so it was an easy sell. They later made a Yolélé fonio white beer that sold out quickly at Whole Foods. Their next release in Europe and the US is a beer called Fonio Rising due in the fall, and they’re talking to a large European brewery about a collaboration.

The biggest launch to date though, has been the Brewgooder Fonio Session IPA, made with 10% fonio from Senegal and Togo that launched this spring.

The fonio IPA, which has notes of lychee, grapefruit and florals thanks to the grain, will fund clean water projects in Africa, while putting a spotlight on brewing with fonio.

Fonio has been cultivated under organic practices for nearly 5,000 years. Photograph: Joseph Soriero/Courtesy of Brewgooder and Brooklyn Brewery

“We call it a small grain with big impact,” said Alan Mahon, executive chair of Brewgooder, based in Glasgow. “This small-but-mighty grain is a metaphor for the power of fonio potentially. We’re building a supply chain that empowers people.”

But before we see fonio beer on tap at brewpubs worldwide, Thiam and other fonio advocates must first pull off a couple feats: bringing modern technology to fonio processing and reversing some of the cultural and culinary effects of colonialism on west Africans.

White fonio (digitaria exilis), an indigenous grass in the millet family that grows quickly and almost as easily as a weed, has been cultivated under organic practices for nearly 5,000 years. People in Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Togo grew and ate a variety of gluten-free millet grains like sorghum and fonio. “They call it the lazy farmer’s crop,” said Simballa Sylla, president of Sustainable African Foods (Saf), a grain processing company co-founded by Thiam.

During the French colonial occupation of Mali and Senegal in the late 1800s, Europeans dubbed fonio “hungry rice”, believing it to be an inferior famine food. Perhaps they were unaware that fonio outranks most grains by delivering more protein, iron and fiber as well as rare amino acids methionine and cysteine, or that ancient Egyptians took fonio into their pyramid tombs.

In Mali, the French decided that farmers should grow cotton and eat rice imported from Asia. “We are one of the biggest producers of cotton in Africa, but it came at the cost of turning our back on our ancient grains and relying on rice for our food consumption,” Sylla said.

Today, if you order Mali’s national dish, a peanut and meat stew called tiguadege na, it’s served with white rice instead of fonio. “People eat so much rice that the farmers don’t think there’s a market for fonio,” Sylla said. “Which in turn makes fonio more expensive than rice.”

All that could change though, once there’s a state-of-the-art facility to process fonio.

Cleaning the sand out of fonio is a time-consuming, manual process that requires beating the grassy fonio paddy to release the grain, and using a lot of water to rinse out dirt and sand. Sylla said an experienced hand processor can clean 50 to 100kg of fonio a day. While a Senegalese mechanical engineer developed a fonio milling machine in 1996, it’s still relatively expensive for small farmers.

But a new Mali processing plant developed by the Swiss company Bühler – which Thiam calls the “Rolls Royce of milling equipment” – will yield two to four tons of fonio per hour using 40 times less water when completed in late 2024.

As processing fonio gets faster and easier and the international demand increases, Thiam and Oliver believe more farmers will grow it. And with a larger supply, the price of fonio will fall, encouraging more west Africans to eat fonio – and more beer makers to add it to their brews.

Generations of African Americans in the US were told soul food was simple and unhealthy, Oliver says. “People were told the same thing about fonio: the colonizers’ food, and language, and everything about them is better,” he said. “This is about reversing that and going back to the land. [Fonio] is making a comeback.”

Oliver is the founding chair of the Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling, which invests $100,000 annually in brewing projects by people of color. He believes the story of west African fonio and grain beers will change the brewing narrative and help more Black people feel included in its history, community and culture.

“As an African American brewer, I have been told my entire career, more than 30 years … that beer comes from Europe. That’s not even vaguely true; in fact it’s entirely false. Beer is from Africa. It’s always Africa. Every single society, north, south, east to west, on the entire continent has its own brewing traditions.”

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