Crossing a Continent for a Dark Beer
Stout in Harar
“Everything is about the khat here. All the cars coming, all the cars going, carrying khat. You see.”
Our guide Mohammed shouted at us as about the popular catha edulis plant grown in this region as our 1992 Hyundai passenger van careened up a switchback in the Dire Dawa mountains. The road was inching its way towards the low clouds, and the symphony of the transmission and suspension left little room for casual conversation. We stared out the window as the town melted away with the fading daylight and our guide continued to update our progress with sporadic facts and itinerary details. It had been a long day traveling to Diredawa, with connections from Bahir Dar back to Addis Ababa only to arrive late in the afternoon; wearily, we watched the mountain pass turn into sorghum and teff fields, khat crops and grass pastures. My thoughts turned to dinner as we passed street vendors selling roasted corn and cafés plastered in Harar Beer advertisements.
“Fifty kilometers, we go through Jelo, Alem Maya, through the khat town, and then to Harar and the brewery. Tonight it’s closed; tomorrow, you see.”
Traveling from my home in Morocco, I crossed the breadth of the African continent to chase down the rumor of an African stout beer. Anyone who spends enough time in Africa will notice that pilsner and lagers are popular and brewed often in many countries on the continent; yet a true local stout is a rarity. Mauritius, a volcanic island nation, brews its own Flying Dodo stout; Nigeria brews a version of Guinness with sorghum, and of course South Africa has a growing craft beer scene. What’s left to sample is the trifecta of Heineken, Guinness, and the local pilsners and lagers that, many times, feel uninspiring.
As we arrived in Harar, I could barely contain my excitement. Considered the fourth holiest city in Islam, with over 83 mosques, Harar sits in the eastern highlands of the oldest Christian region in the world, and it continues to be recognized as the home of khat production and Ethiopian beer brewing. At last I would get a chance to taste the Ethiopian stout made by the Harar Brewery.
The streets were already dark as our driver navigated the maze to the Harar Ras Hotel, which happened to be the only hotel in town. Enjoying the warm evening air, we settled into plastic chairs on the front veranda of the hotel, and watched Harari teens pick at plates of french fries and drink draft Harar pilsners. Our waiter placed a cold bottle of Hakim stout on the table next to a glass, and let me do the pouring. With a lighter head than I would have expected, the malty dark brown beer smelled of currants and dried fruit. Possibly one of the better dark ales that I’ve enjoyed in my life, and at minimum, the only one I’ve crossed a continent for. I took several long sips of the stout and settled back into my plastic chair, smiling.