WATCH: Drinking the Strongest Brew in South Africa with a Shebeen Queen

·Editor at Large
Pinky's illegal bar in Johannesburg South Africa
Pinky's illegal bar in Johannesburg South Africa

Hanging out at Pinky’s. (Yes, Pinky is the one in the pink sweater and wonderful pink head scarf.) (Photo: Andrew Rothschild)

On a Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m., Pinky’s Place is popping. The bar, located across from a park in a residential area of Soweto, just outside of Johannesburg’s downtown, is a local favorite at all hours. But then, not much has changed in the 50 years since it opened.

Pinky Mary Jane Kobe has lived at her namesake bar all her life, in the small house in the back. Her grandmother started the bar in the family’s main house located on the road. After it became popular for its homemade brew, Pinky, her mom, and grandmom all moved to a smaller house in the back.

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Perhaps one of the most annoying yet smaller quality-of-life crimes of the apartheid era (especially for those of us who like a cold one on a hot day) was that nonwhites weren’t allowed to make or sell beer. The enterprising residents of Soweto did it anyway, brewing their own and hiding it under beds or in the ground when the police popped in every so often for a raid.

These local watering holes were called shebeens, and the women who ran them shebeen queens. Back when ingredients for beer were expensive, the shebeen queens would skimp and make alcohol by soaking bread in battery acid, sometimes killing a few customers. But these days, beer making and selling is legal, and ingredients are cheaper, so there’s no battery acid necessary.

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Shebeen Queen South Africa
Shebeen Queen South Africa

Appearances can be deceiving. (Photo: Andrew Rothschild)

Today, the reigning shebeen queen is Pinky, whose operation is so big she has warehouses and a factory making her brews. But she still does it old-school at her house, too.

In the courtyard, customers Ezekial, Afraim, and the guy who goes by “The Electrician” sit around 100 cases of Pinky’s beer, all ready to be shipped out across the city. The relaxed atmosphere has less to do it being 10 a.m. on a Sunday and more to do with a fear of Pinky.

“People like it here because she doesn’t let things get out of hand. If someone gets too drunk or there’s a fight, she will grab you by the back of your shirt and kick you out," Dimi Roro, a customer and friend of Pinky’s, tells me.

Drinking in Soweto Johannesburg
Drinking in Soweto Johannesburg

I can handle this. (Photo: Andrew Rothschild)

Out back, the experienced drinkers pour the beer from the cartons into large tin cans. It is kind of pinkish in color. Of course it is. It tastes deceptively weak. One moment you are completely fine, and the next you are down for the count.

Dimi and I try the strongest brew — the Leopard. It has a leopard on the packaging and a public service announcement on the side: “If you drink and walk on the side of the road, you may be killed.” It’s not bad.

"Is this even alcoholic?” I ask. I’m used to Kentucky moonshine.

“It doesn’t taste strong, but that’s what gets you,” Dimi says with a smirk. “You think you’re fine, and then ­bam! You’re down.”

At that moment, another customer who had overimbibed, strolls up to us sideways and yells: “I want to take a picture with the white sheik lady!”

“Got it,” I say, extricating myself from the situation and what promised to be a nasty hangover the next day.

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