KALAMAZOO — Sorghum is not a common ingredient in beer produced in the United States, but it is used widely in Africa, where the grain is favored for its drought-resistant properties.
But a collaboration between Tillers International, a nonprofit headquartered in Scotts, about 12 miles southeast of Kalamazoo, and Kalamazoo-based Arcadia Brewing Co. aims to give patrons a chance to sample a beer made with sorghum at a tasting event on April 30.
Tillers grew the sorghum, which Arcadia’s brewers then used to create a beer that is informally known as the “Ugandan Hammer.”
“We talked about the fact that in Africa, sorghum is a valuable crop and it occurred to us that no one here has tried to make sorghum beer,” said Lem Montero, marketing manager for Tillers. “We reached out to Arcadia because they seemed like the perfect go-to. We knew that Arcadia might be nuts enough to try this.”
That was 18 months ago, and the work that has gone into producing about 30 gallons of Ugandan Hammer involved some heavy-duty research for Colt Dykstra, the head brewer at Arcadia.
He read through hundreds of pages of technical articles written by scientists in Africa and also translated articles written in French to create a recipe for the beer.
“As big as craft beer is in the U.S., I couldn’t find articles from American sources,” Dykstra said. “Guinness has been experimenting with sorghum since the 1960s. Since the 1970s, 20 to 30 percent of the grains for Guinness beer brewed in Africa come from sorghum.”
While some craft brewers such as Milwaukee-based Lakefront Brewery Inc. have used sorghum to create gluten-free beers, the ingredient has been slow to catch on, according to industry sources.
The sorghum crop grown at Tillers yielded 80 pounds of sorghum seed, which resembles a flower, and six quarts of sorghum molasses. They steeped the seeds in hot water, cooled them down and dried them in preparation for the brewing process, which took place on Arcadia’s pilot brewing system.
The result is a beer that’s 6 percent alcohol by volume.
“When we saw it, it looked like a dark cider,” Montero said. “It has a certain sweetness to it; it’s more of a dessert beer with a pleasant aftertaste to it.
“In America, sorghum beer is not popular at all. The original intent was to make two different beers — one that’s gluten-free and another one that’s sorghum-inspired — (but we) combined the two batches instead. We were surprised at how good it was.”
The beer-making venture served to showcase what Tillers does and garner support for its mission.
Tillers was founded in 1981 by Dick Roosenberg, a former attorney. The organization is dedicated to improving the lives of people in rural areas around the world. Tillers works with farmers and artisans to create effective, innovative and sustainable solutions to their problems.
The nonprofit’s specialty is in draught animal power, but they also offer expert instruction on blacksmithing and woodworking.
During time spent in the Peace Corps in the 1970s, Roosenberg saw how poorly farming animals were being treated because their owners weren’t educated about other, more humane methods.
“He came from a farming family, so he knew how animals should be treated,” Montero said. “In the United States, we have a long history of farming and that long history has taught us that yokes are more economical and more comfortable. Our cattle here use yokes that don’t cut into their skin.”
According to Montero, even as Roosenberg worked as a lawyer, he continued to be troubled by how he saw animals being treated. He started Tillers with a focus on helping farmers in developing countries to access better and sustainable ways to perform their work. The organization is working in Mozambique, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others.
“Tillers started with the intention of going back to other countries and having farmers work more efficiently and effectively,” Montero said. “We teach them how to make plows and planters.”
Prototypes of the equipment and tools are developed and tested at the 400-acre property in Scotts, where six people work. The materials used to make the prototypes are similar to what is available in the countries where the organization works. Once the prototypes are deemed workable, a group of 30 people with Tillers in Africa and in developing countries work with the farmers to make the equipment and tools.
Besides the farming equipment, Tillers’ farm produces several test crops, including sorghum and different varieties of hay, wheat and rye for use in the countries where they work.
“Everything is adapted to what’s available locally. It’s a matter of resources and where they’re likely to find certain types of metal,” Monetro said. “With the planter, there’s a disc inside of a bucket and the disc is complicated to make, so we may work with a local fabrication company.”
For many of the farmers working with Tillers, the type of equipment used in the U.S. is an unaffordable luxury.
“For them, it’s just too expensive, but having an ox is attainable and that serves as a central power source for a farm,” Montero said.
The farm in Scotts includes working oxen that are attached to equipment used to grind the sorghum for the beer.
In addition to the oxen, Tillers also has draught horses, and the property includes buildings that house blacksmithing forges and barrel-making, both of which are taught to members of the general public in addition to being used for Tillers’ overseas work.
“Our forges here are older style. When we go abroad, we don’t know what kind of forges people have,” Montero said. “We teach people, so we have to be on top of different forge techniques.”
Because much of what is produced at Tillers is similar to the tools and equipment used by the Amish, the organization has a strong relationship with that community, who have hired Tillers to work on a project in Ethiopia.
“This project in Ethiopia is the first time we’ve ever been hired exclusively by the Amish,” Montero said.
Tillers generates income by subcontracting with larger entities doing work in developing countries. The organization recently participated in a project overseen by the University of Kansas.
“We’re a subcontractor. The United States Agency for International Development will say that they want to help the people of west Africa, but they don’t want to run the project and they will hire it out somewhere else,” Montero said. “Our money comes from these projects.”
In other examples, the Adventist Disaster Relief Agency hired Tillers to work in Madagascar and the philanthropic arm of Land O’Lakes Inc. also has worked extensively with the organization on dairy-related issues.
“We are an international development organization that teaches farmers in developing countries how to farm more efficiently,” Montero said. “We’re farmers without borders.”
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