We speak to co-owner of Yamama Gemmer, Mosibudi Makgato, producer of traditional homemade ginger beer with natural ingredients.
The beginning of summer marks the countdown to holiday feasts at home completed by the inclusion of ginger beer and cookies. Ginger beer, or gemmere / irhemere as it is known in Black communities, is a festive and ceremonial drink associated with nostalgic home memories. This rings true too for Mosibudi Makgato and Rosemary Padi, the two sisters behind the local ginger beer brand Yamama Gemmer.
The name Yamama (meaning “mom”) is an ode to family matriarchs known for their delicious ginger beer recipes and on whose shoulders it rests to pass on the method to future generations. In the sisters’ case, the matriarch is their mother, Mmapula Makgato.
“We took the idea from our mother’s recipe. She was the queen maker of gemmere in the community. At family ceremonies or celebrations, there would be two to three versions of gemmere available. Most people would ask for my mom’s one. That is how we remember it being called – gemmere ya mama (mom’s ginger beer),” Mosibudi recalls.
She adds: “Gemmere brings back happy Christmas memories. As much as there was going to be trifle or ice cream, gemmere would add to the festivities as a stamp. It’s almost like a silent South African dessert that we don’t talk about that is part of a wholesome meal.”
The sisters come from a self-reliant family in Soweto, where almost every food in the house had to be homemade. This instilled an intrinsic leaning towards entrepreneurship, especially within the food industry even after trying their hands at corporate employment.
Mosibudi explains: “My mother was a social worker. The main part of her job was teaching other women to do things for themselves. ‘Don’t sit with your hands,’ she used to preach.
“Everything from home was made from scratch. My sister had to learn how to make jelly babies. Pizza was made at home. We grew up with that knowledge of food because of my mother. My dad was a shopaholic for utensils to make food at home. We also had a fruit and vegetable garden.”
Yamama was established in 2010, but the sisters left the corporate industry and concentrated on the business fulltime in 2016. The main intention was to bring back the tradition of ginger beer making at home events. It was important to the sisters to preserve this culture for posterity as they had noticed that fizzy drinks threatened to displace it. Secondly, the idea was to turn ginger beer into a lifestyle and household drink for any occasion throughout the year.
“We grew up in a Christian household. My dad was a preacher. Because of this, there would be people coming to the house all the time. And mom would always make gemmere for them. It became our go-to drink. We didn’t have to wait for December to have it. And that’s how accessible we want to make it. To make it available even at school tuck shops so that our kids know about it,” says Mosibudi.
She has become the face of the brand, while Rosemary prefers to be behind the scenes. The sisters offer both Yamama cordial and ready-to-drink bottles of ginger beer. The cordial is the ginger beer concentrate. When her preacher’s wife duties kept her busy, their mom would always send the concentrate to family functions she couldn’t attend with instructions of what do to next. The cordial provides convenience for those who might not have the time to make the ginger beer from scratch.
Aside from a Spar in Strubens Valley, Yamama mainly distributes to corporate canteens where the ginger beer is as readily available as coffee.
Before Covid-19 hit, the ginger beer brand was a common fixture at food festivals and markets. Speaking on the challenges and triumphs, Mosibudi says: “In the beginning we realised that we had to reintroduce the product to the market. People have different perceptions of what gemmere is. And others have had bad experiences with it. In educating people about it, we got to speak on the beautiful health benefits of ginger. We use natural ingredients. Then Covid hit and the price of ginger shot up because it is now in demand as an immune booster. That hit us hard as a small business because suppliers wouldn’t negotiate on pricing. We went from producing 150 to 200 bottles of the concentrate per week to producing only 20 per week. We then had to pivot and go back to producing the individual ready-to-drink bottles, which weren’t our main focus. However, the ready-to-drink bottles made up the bulk of our sales in the past year because of Covid.”
Future plans include widening their distribution channels and going international. “We want to continue to work with a lot of women who make delicious foods that go well together with gemmere so we have a beautiful offering. We have a passion to empower women in our communities,” Mosibudi says.
Tips on making the perfect gemmere from Mosibudi
For our commercial product, we add a natural preservative. But if you’re making it at home, you don’t need that. The process involves boiling the ginger and tartaric acid or cream of tartar. Once it’s boiled, you add the sugar. Once the sugar is added, you then have to wait for it to cool down.
Depending on your preference, you can have it fresh as is or leave it to ferment to get the beer taste. If you’re pressed for time, add pineapples or raisins to it. Pineapples and raisins have enzymes that help the drink to brew and ferment quicker. The pineapple also adds a lovely flavour to it. If you add raisins, make sure you don’t add a lot of sugar because the sugar will come seeping out of the raisins. If the raisins are over-fermented, it takes away the sugar and then it becomes beer. It all depends on how you enjoy it.