The Next Big Grain in Beer? It’s Called Fonio.

Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver is leading a multi-brewery effort to incorporate this ancient African grain into new types of beer

April 25, 2024 8:09 am
Pierre Thiam/Yolélé, Garrett Oliver/Brooklyn Brewery
(L to R) Pierre Thiam of Yolélé and Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery collaborated on a fonio beer in the past.
Brooklyn Brewery

One of the best grains for making beer has secretly been with us for a long time. It’s called fonio, an ancient African grain that’s now part of a large craft brewing initiative to highlight its versatility and sustainability. That initiative is “Brewing for Impact,” and it’s a major part of a celebration of Garrett Oliver’s 30th anniversary as the James Beard award-winning brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, a New York institution that’s helped foster the craft beer movement and promote social change within the beer industry. 

The new campaign, centered around both sustainability and social awareness, finds Oliver collaborating with numerous diverse brewing partners around the globe, including fellow American brewers Russian River, Maison Kalao (Senegal), Thornbridge (UK), Omnipollo (Sweden), Carlsberg (Denmark), Jing-A (China) and Guinness (US/UK). Each of these breweries was tasked with crafting a beer from fonio, a staple in West Africa for more than 5,000 years. 

Brooklyn Brewery Is Bringing an Ancient African Grain to Mainstream Beer
Fonio is drought-resistant, grows quickly and is full of flavor

With that kind of history, it’s interesting that fonio hasn’t yet found a home in craft beer. Oliver first learned of the grain in 2017 through Senegalese Chef Pierre Thiam, whose food company Yolélé has helped reintroduce fonio into the modern world. “I met Pierre at an event at Questlove’s home, of all things,” Oliver tells InsideHook. “He told me about the work he was doing surrounding this grain, which I had never heard of in the 30-plus years I’ve been making beer. Obviously, I’m of African ancestry, and I was completely fascinated by what he was telling me. And I also thought, ‘I’m sure you could make beer out of this.’”

So, why fonio? According to Oliver, it pretty much has every property you could want in a grain, from sustainability to nutrition to the ability to grow in less-than-ideal environments. “Modern machinery was never applied to fonio because it was ripped away by colonial powers who did not want people to have it and be self-sufficient,” Oliver says. “The modern age never came to fonio, which is good and bad. It never needed fertilizer, irrigation or pesticides. It’s adapted to the edge of the desert. Now, harvesting it by machine, it can be the major crop it should and could be.”

How it does work with beer? In food, Oliver says fonio imparts a lightly earthy and nutty flavor, something akin to unbuttered popcorn. In a brew, however, you could find notes of white wine, lychee fruit and other tropical notes. “It’ll be interesting to see what Guinness is doing with it — it’ll still be a stout, but you’ll see all these fruity flavors you haven’t experienced before,” he says. 

The limited-edition fonio beers launch this month with a Brooklyn A Dakar pilsner from Maison Kaleo. The next few months will see the grain utilized in a pale ale cask beer, a chocolate stout, a 100% fonio beer (the minimum requirement for the initiative was 15% folio), a Belgian blonde ale, a West Coast IPA and a stout, along with Brooklyn Brewery’s variation, a yet-to-revealed pale ale that will take into account Oliver’s previous experience brewing with the grain. You can find the full release schedule of the beers here.

Another early fonio release from Brooklyn Brewery
Another early fonio release from Brooklyn Brewery. The new release will be out in September.
Brooklyn Brewery

A portion of the proceeds for the “Brewing for Impact” beer collaborations will support The Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling, an organization founded by Oliver that is dedicated to funding scholarship awards for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) within the brewing and distilling trades. As Brewing for Impact launches and Oliver and the Brooklyn Brewery team celebrate his 30th anniversary at the helm, the venerated brewmaster is also continuing to look at how he can use his status to positively impact the brewing industry at large. And fonio is part of that.

“As an African American brewer, it’s important that people realize beer is not from Europe,” Oliver says. “Beer originated in Africa, and every single African society, north to south, east to west, has its own beer. So it ties into their culture. And I have this foundation that brings educational opportunities to people of color in brewing and distilling. Plus, in the brewing industry, we’re going to have to deal with climate change and how we source our ingredients. All these things tie together.” 


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