James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

How to Join Rwanda’s Breakfast Drinking Club

Photo by: Antoshananarivo

How to Join Rwanda’s Breakfast Drinking Club

Ikigage in Rwanda

Ikigage is a homemade Rwandan beer brewed from the sorghum grain. I had been obsessing over it since seeing some old pictures showing large groups of men and women crowded around canoe-sized wooded troughs sipping the fermented beverage through long cane straws.

My friend Fabrice folds his flip phone and looks at me with gentle disappointment.

“There is a problem. The lady is all sold out for the day.”

“Sold out? It isn’t even 11 a.m. yet.”

Fabrice stares into the distance, “The people who are drinking this have it for breakfast. Tomorrow you will have to start drinking early.”

That night I sat awake in bed imagining my morning bender around the sorghum-drinking trough. Would I be expected to bring my own straw?

We arrive around 9 a.m. and are met on the street by the owner and head brewer, Dorocele. She is tall, warm, and cautious.

Upon entering her living room we are met by the confused gaze of the club’s ten morning regulars. I am surprised to see that there is no massive wooden trough; everyone is drinking from their own containers, which include coffee mugs, gourds, and large plastic jugs that once held cooking oil.

I offer thanks for the invitation, handing Dorocele a small bottle of my homemade birch sap beer and a stack of Bronx Beer Hall coasters. Fabrice explains that I brew alcohol as well. Dorocele shows genuine intrigue and hands me a large gourd filled with ikigage. As I settle into an old crumbling couch between two morning revelers, I can see the foaming sorghum paste bubbling through the neck of the calabash. I stab a long plastic straw deep into the urn and take a long, slow pull. A kombucha tang awakens my tongue, followed by an oaty richness, finished with a mild bite of ethanol.

I can feel everyone in the room watching and awaiting my reaction. Wanting to compliment my host and show my respect to the regulars, I decide to clear the gourd in one go. I close my eyes and continue to drink. The gourd seems bottomless. All present parties seem concerned that I am attempting to drink the entire contents. As I continue to straw chug the stiff porridge, I hope I haven’t broken some age-old club etiquette. Was I expected to share? Too late for that. I clear the gourd with a loud slurp and yell out,

“Ikigage!”

The room erupts in laughter and clapping. One of the men sitting next to me hands over a large rubber cooking oil tub full of ikigage expecting to see a repeat performance.

Two others consult Fabrice, who then looks to me.

“Everyone wants to know if you will join the ikigage club.”

“What do I have to do?”

“Nothing. You have already done it.”

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