The social lives of many Zulu people are underpinned by one crucial beverage—sorghum beer (utshwala). Said to be associated with a good harvest, the production and consumption of utshwala in Zululand (specifically the KwaZulu-Natal region) is a fundamental element in hospitality including the hosting guests, weddings, and community meetings. Utshwala is also considered to be the "food of ancestors" as Zulu ancestors are believed to be drawn to the smell "from first brewing to full flower." As in hospitality, the drinking of utshwala plays a central role in ceremonial events—baby naming ceremonies, coming-of-age ceremonies, 'the Feast of First Fruits', and funerals—where the "sociable" spirits of ancestors insist on maintaining involvement during these key events in Zulu life, "for those occasions are held in their honour and enhance their posthumous reputation."1
Just as the production and consumption of utshwala are critical to Zulu life, so too is the production of the vessels that utshwala is brewed, stored, and served in. Strict guidelines guide the production of the large, dark clay pots that hold the beer—dark because ancestors are drawn to the quiet and darkness that these blackened vessels provide. Only Zulu women, those that are deemed "pure" in the eyes of society—those not pregnant, menstruating or breast-feeding—are allowed to create the pots for utshwala.
The vessels are made by slowly layering rings of rolled clay around a flat base, smoothing out the sides and edges into a thin-walled, often spherical or 'bag-shaped' vessel after which the clay pot is fired in a shallow pit filled with cowpat and adry grass. Once baked, the vessel is then rubbed with animal-fat, soot, and left-ash, using a polishing pebble and refired a second time to create a finished vessel with a polished and glossy black varnish. Beer vessels are often decorated with incised or applied patterns (raised patterns are known as amasumpa meaning 'warts'), giving the pots textures that contrast strongly with their glazed black surfaces.
There are four distinct types of beer vessels according to size and function: