Brooklyn Brewery has said a lesser-known, west African grain known for its drought resistance has the potential to become “mainstream” in the US.

The grain, fonio, requires no irrigation, pesticides nor fertilisers and can also be eaten like couscous.

In the US, it is sold in supermarkets as a dry-food item next to couscous and rice and as an ingredient in savoury snacks.

Brooklyn Brewery CEO Eric Ottaway said the appearance of fonio in food items will help with consumer uptake when beers containing it hit shelves.

“African flavours are very much having a moment right now. It’s growing all over the world,” Ottaway said at the International Beer Strategies Conference held by Just Drinks‘ sister events arm Arena International last week.

“Hopefully, that’ll also help the overall recognition of fonio itself as an ingredient and a flavour.”

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Last month, the US brewer launched a campaign to promote the use of fonio in brewing.

Williamsburg-headquartered Brooklyn released a series of limited-edition fonio beers alongside breweries, including Diageo and Carlsberg, its UK licence partner.

Ottaway said: “I very much think [fonio] can become a mainstream grain. Traditional brewing is 100% barley but the reality is that a lot of mainstream brewing uses also corn and rice, for various reasons.”

He proposes fonio be used as around 10-20% of the mash, adding a 100% fonio tastes like a ”Sauvignon Blanc crossed with a sake”. This is a similar proportion breweries already blend with rice.

Ottaway said beer drinkers are most concerned about flavour and sustainability – and fonio provides “a nice combination of the two”, he claimed.

Fonio can grow in “terrible conditions” which suits arid regions where other crops fail. “It literally needs nothing. I mean, they just throw it on the ground and it grows,” Ottaway said.

As the “desertification of the world continues”, Ottaway said, planting fonio is “a way of reclaiming that land” and empowering small farmers.

A black man in a leopard print jumper and boater hat smiles at the camera with his arm on a bar
Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, has spearheaded its fonio work. Credit: Brooklyn Brewery

As well as its sustainability-led benefits, Ottaway said the fonio project is a mission of “climate justice”.

“What we’re not trying to do is get western farmers to grow fonio in the US or Europe.

“Really, what we want to do is give a livelihood to people who, through colonialism, were essentially abused and neglected and left beholden to Western agricultural powers, trying to grow grain that doesn’t grow very well [in the region].

“We can re-empower them, give them back their livelihood, give them back their purpose. If we can help that entire sub-Saharan belt regain some control over their economic lives, we will have made an impact on the world.”

Fonio costs around eight to ten times as much as barley but Ottaway hopes that come down as the grain becomes more widely used.

Brooklyn’s brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, has led the brewery’s use of the grain. He said: “If what we’ve started truly catches hold in the industry, we will hopefully start seeing the wider use of a grain that has no need for irrigation, fertilisers, pesticides or other chemical inputs.

“It also supports soil regeneration while providing a vital source of income for thousands of smallholder farms in west Africa, which are predominantly female-led – all while making some really fantastic beers. What more can you ask for?”

Also involved in the project are Maison Kalao in Senegal, Thornbridge in the UK, Omnipollo in Sweden, US brewery Russian River and Jing-A from China.

In April, Maison Kalao released its Brooklyn A Dakar pilsner and this month Thornbridge released a cask ale with fonio.

Next month, Omnipollo is set to release its Blacker Chocolate Stout followed by Carlsberg’s brew in July. The final release will be Diageo’s Guinness Fonio Extra Stout, in November.