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Forget eggnog, Ghanaians sip local drinks at Christmas

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Above: A kokroko drink is pictured at the Republic Bar & Grill in Accra. Kokroko is a cocktail made from Sobolo, a West African hibiscus drink and Akpeteshie, a traditional Ghanaian spirit made by distilling palm wine or sugar cane.

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Above: Kokroko is a cocktail made from Sobolo, a West African hibiscus drink and Akpeteshie, a traditional Ghanaian spirit made by distilling palm wine or sugar cane.

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Above: Residents buying pito in Accra. Pito is a traditional drink from the North of Ghana and some parts of West Africa and is made from fermented millet or sorghum.

Accra

COME December and Ghana's coastal capital, Accra, is abuzz with people celebrating the holidays over a glass of Kokroko, pito or palm wine.

For Ghanaians, it is traditional and locally made drinks that have been resurrected or often given a new twist that are de rigueur during the festive season.

This month is all about "parties, drinking and enjoying", says artist Tijana Jawarah Ali, sipping a scarlet Kokroko cocktail at a bar in Osu, the beating heart of Accra's nightlife.

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The Kokroko is made with the Ghanaian spirit akpeteshie, a liquor that comes from sugar cane and is common in rural areas but is being repurposed by the glitziest bars and restaurants.

At the Republic Bar, the cocktail is made with crushed ice and sobolo, a drink made from hibiscus leaves. Co-owner Raja Owusu-Ansah set up the venue in 2012 with the express hope of one day being able to show off local spirits, such as akpeteshie.

When he was growing up, akpeteshie used to be served on special occasions in Ghana and he said he wanted to bring it into the mainstream.

Artisan akpeteshie distillers now produce the bar's own brand, relying on local farmers along the coast to supply the sugar cane. The result is a clear liquid, with a sweet aroma and flavour, similar to Brazil's Cachaca, Owusu-Ansah says.

In the nearby harbour city of Tema, Ghanaians battle the heavy festive season traffic to grab a seat at Pito House. For over three decades at her neighbourhood bar, 67-year-old grandmother Veronica Dakurah has been making her famous pito, a brew from dried sorghum and water. Pito has substance; it's not carbonated but has a lingering sour aftertaste.

Dakurah serves her pito in a calabash - a container made out of a hollowed gourd - or serves it in plastic bottles, both in the bar and to take away. Large iron cauldrons of her brown liquid brew for hours over an open fire made from wood and bamboo.

Dakurah knows that demand will likely increase as the holidays reach a crescendo and partygoers flock to clubs and beaches to dance under the stars. "They know that pito has no chemicals, that's why they like it," she said, all the while patrons coming in and out of her simple bar. She serves two versions, one with alcohol and the other without.

Pito, a drink traditionally served in the country's arid north, is becoming more popular in the south. John Buabassah, a truck driver working in Tema, regularly comes in for a pito and chats with other people on the simple wooden benches. He sits with farmer Mamudu Sully and security guard John Acquah who both extoll the virtues of the drink. "I take pito and I feel strong all the time!" said Acquah, punching the air.

The enthusiasm for local drinks has flowed into the beer market. Traditionally, the beer market in Accra has been dominated by the big multinationals, such as Guinness Breweries Star beer and SAB Miller's Club lager, which are found everywhere from high-end hotels to shacks by the sea.

But professional brewer Clement Djameh is increasingly receiving requests for his small batch beers, including his full-bodied golden caramel-coloured pale ale made with malted sorghum.

Between parties, weddings and funerals, Djameh says he can't keep up with demand. His Inland Microbrewery, set up in the outskirts of Accra in 2003, was the city's first microbrewery and occupies the bottom floor of a large house.

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away in Washington, in the United States, others are following suit.

Recognising the potential of a beer with African flavours, entrepreneur Kofi Meroe and his partner have made Hypebiscus pale ale, a premium craft beer with a floral top note of hibiscus. Meroe and his partner, who both grew up across West Africa, hope one day to sell their beer in Accra.

"The market is very nascent in countries like Ghana, but it's growing and the recent launch of a few strong local brands is an indication of that," said Meroe.

Demand is coming too from Ghanaians living abroad. Just outside Accra, Steve Ocloo, of Nkulenu Industries, is bottling palm wine for export, to be served on tables from Rio de Janeiro to London.

"It would bring back the sweet memories that they will have of the natural palm wine at home," he said. AFP