•Why we can’t do without the drinks, by consumers
•Experts warn on health impli cations, urge caution
By Tope Adeboboye
The commercial motorbike suddenly pulled over and the passenger, a young man obviously in his early 30s, called out to the woman in the kiosk. She emerged with two small bottles of Agbara Bitters, an alcoholic beverage, and handed them to the man. He deposited one inside his shirt pocket and gave the seller some money. He then opened the other bottle, threw his head back and emptied the contents in three quick gulps. Discarding the empty bottle, he gently nudged the rider and the bike took off again.
The balcony of the two-storey building where the reporter loitered at Eleshin, a community along Ijede Road, Ikorodu, Lagos provided a vantage view of the goings on downstairs. Right across the road is a makeshift, nondescript kiosk housing assorted alcoholic beverages popularly known as bitters. From when the kiosk opens shortly before noon till late in the night, the address is a popular destination for men of assorted ages and class. Everyone visits Madam Dora’s kiosk to get whatever alcoholic bitters they desire.
And as they congregate mostly outside the kiosk, sitting on wooden benches while consuming the drinks, the men engage in assorted debates, mostly on football, entertainment and politics.
In Iwo, a sleepy town in Osun State, a small, roadside shop a few metres from a private elementary school houses assorted low-grade alcoholic beverages, mostly in small bottles. The young woman operating the shop told the reporter she made great sales each day on the various products. But by far the most preferred products, she informed, were the alcoholic bitters.
“People buy everything, including the gin in miniature sachets,” she asserted. “But the ones that most people really go for these days are the bitters. Those are the ones that many people prefer. You can never lose on them.”
As she spoke, two men strolled in and demanded two bottles of Swagga Bitters, an alcoholic beverage in small, 100ml bottles. Each was sold for N100.
Bitters, bitters everywhere
Everywhere you go these days, what you see most people consuming are the alcoholic bitters. It is like a scourge suddenly unleashed on the land. In the bars, hotels and at social functions, everyone seems to be quaffing bitters. They have become so popular that even respected retailers of wines and spirits have added certain alcoholic bitters to their stock. It’s like everyone wants some share in the lucrative bitters market. In fact, from Lagos to Lokoja, from Abakaliki to Abeokuta, it’s like a raging, bitter war of alcoholic bitters at every shop and bar.
“My wife owns a big supermarket in an upscale area on the Island,” a major insurance executive told the reporter. “She sold different items, including assorted wines and spirits. Lately, she told me she was contemplating adding alcoholic bitters to her stock. I was shocked. But when she told me that most people now prefer the bitters to all other spirits, I had to give my consent. Since she started selling the bitters, she has been making huge sales. That is what is reigning now. It’s the reign of bitters,” he said.
Oladele Ajayi is a reporter with an online news platform. He concurred that the highest selling alcoholic beverages in town these days are the bitters.
“You find them everywhere you go,” he informed. “They are the kings of all drinks. The fact that they are cheap, alcoholic and the belief that they are natural, having been made from herbs, leaves and barks, made many people to easily fall in love with them. The general belief that they boost sexual performance is the basic reason many people go for the bitters. And everyone wants a piece. That is why you see so many variants of bitters everywhere you go.”
What are these “bitters?”
Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, described bitters as “traditionally an alcoholic preparation flavoured with botanical matter, such that the end result is characterised by a bitter, sour or bittersweet flavour. Numerous longstanding brands of bitters were originally developed as patent medicines, but are now sold as digestifs and cocktail flavourings.”
Ingredients used in preparing bitters have, for long, consisted of aromatic herbs, bark, roots and fruits for their flavour and medicinal properties. Some of the more common ingredients are cascarilla cassia, gentian, orange peel and cinchona bark.
Most bitters contain water and alcohol. The alcohol in the bitters, the reporter learnt, functions as a solvent for botanical extracts as well as a preservative. The alcoholic strength of bitters varies widely across different brands and styles.
Bitters have been in existence even from the time of the ancient Egyptians, who were believed to have infused medicinal herbs in jars of wine. In the middle ages, more concentrated herbal bitters and tonic preparations were developed. Since then, different peoples and civilisations have developed their own bitters. The Chinese, it is believed, have been consuming bitters for over 5000 years.
A study conducted by some researchers from the Department of Clinical Pharmacy and Pharmacy Administration, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Ibadan noted that bitters contain complex carbohydrates, alkaloids, vitamins and minerals that have antioxidant, antiviral and antispasmodic properties. The study noted that the ingredients work together to reduce inflammation, control pain, relax muscles and improve digestion and elimination. Bitters can also be effective as appetite stimulants in some people, the study, conducted by Showande S. J. and Amokeodo O.S, asserted. It was published in the October 2014 edition of Tropical Journal of Pharmaceutical Research. Side effects of bitters include dizziness, loss of taste, nausea and vomiting, the study also discovered.
Curiously, none of the bitters being sold in the country has admitted to having any negative side effects.
In the beginning
But Nigeria hasn’t always been a nation of “bitters.” Until the past decade, Nigerians’ incredible, suddenly discovered passion for alcoholic bitters would have confounded many a soothsayer. In fact, in those days, there was nothing like alcoholic bitters. Indeed, there were some very bitter drinks known as ‘bitters,’ but not a single drop of alcohol was added to such drinks. Prominent among such drinks was the Swedish Bitters, a herbal tonic whose promoters claim could cure a number of ailments. It was an imported brand that was very popular in its days, with many local manufacturers producing their own brands of the Swedish Bitters.
Soon, some Nigerian companies decided to make their own brands. Yoyo Bitters, produced by Abllat Company Nigeria Limited in Lagos, became the most successful of such brands. Yoyo Bitters is also devoid of alcohol.
Before the bitters
But even before the days of Swedish Bitters, Yoyo Bitters and others, many men and women across Nigeria have been patronising sellers of herbs and roots. The agbo, herbs and water mixtures that served as remedies for assorted ailments, have thrived for centuries.
There were also those, notably men, in love with herbs and roots soaked in local gin, popularly known as ogogoro. In Lagos, for instance, sellers of such locally made mixtures often sit at motor parks, bus stops or just by the roadside, with people, mostly men, coming from far and near to patronise them. The agbo jedi sellers have different bottles and different names for each concoction. They claim the mixtures can cure anything, from haemorrhoids to erectile dysfunction, low libido, low sperm count and other uncomforting sexual conditions. They are also believed to be strong aphrodisiacs. Collectively known as paraga in street lingo, the mixtures, the reporter learnt, have different names and different uses.
“There are basically four types that a regular paraga consumer would mix to make a potent brew,” Ajayi, a retired motor park tout who now drives a danfo buses, informed. “We have the jedi, opa eyin, aleko or ale, and afato. The jedi is to cure your pile, while opa eyin is good for the back. It will straighten your spinal cord and cure your backache. Ale is to strengthen the manhood, while afato cures low sperm count. The herbs are usually soaked in local gin or schnapps, but most sellers prefer ogogoro, the local gin because it’s cheaper.”
Back in the days in most parts of Lagos, it was not uncommon to see people congregating by the stands of paraga sellers in the evenings. Fuji artiste, Abass Akande Obesere, in the late 1990s, did a song hailing the efficacy of paraga. In the song, he informed everyone of how he could go as many as eight rounds of sex without experiencing the slightest hint of lethargy after consuming a generous dose of paraga!
Enter the bitters
The reporter learnt that the Ghanaian company, Kasapreko, introduced the Alomo Bitters into the Nigerian Market around 2007. Described as a very bitter drink with 42 per cent alcoholic content, the drink’s manufacturers and marketers embarked on an aggressive campaign, promoting the beverage as capable of boosting mental and physical alertness, indigestion, weight loss, youthfulness, vigour and strength. In no time, it became the most popular drink in many parts of the country. Most of the consumers saw it as an aphrodisiac, and they consumed bottles upon bottles in incredible quantities.
In no time, small bottles of adulterated Alomo Bitters started flooding the market, causing unmitigated loss for the producers.
A land flowing with bitters
Following the success of Alomo Bitters, many Nigerian manufacturers quickly jumped on the bandwagon and started producing their own bitters. From the very suggestive names of the drinks, the reason for the products couldn’t be too hard to understand.
The first company to join the list was Yemkem International Centre for Alternative Therapy, Lagos. Its product was called Osomo Bitters. Soon, adulterated versions of Osomo Bitters also flooded the market. And then, many other products came in quick succession, flooding the Nigerian space with assorted, low-grade products with extremely suggestive and funny-sounding names.
“When Alomo Bitters came, many Yoruba speakers interpreted it to mean something like ‘User of girls.’ Of course, if Alomo meant ‘user of girls,’ Osomo could also be interpreted to mean ‘Doer of girls.’ And so, manufacturers of all other products thereafter started giving suggestive names to their drinks. That is why you have names like Kerewa (a slang for copulation), Kondo (cudgel), Dadubule (lay her down), Wafekulaleyi (You’ll nearly die tonight) and so on,” Oladele Ajayi, the reporter, intoned.
Today, wherever you go in Nigeria, alcoholic bitters exist in their numbers. Some of the common ones include Alomo Bitters, Osomo Bitters, Kerewa Bitters, Orijin Bitters, Baby Oku Bitters, Kogbebe Bitters, Ibile Bitters, Durosoke Bitters, Dadubule Bitters, Agbara Bitters, Action Bitters, Shapiro Bitters, Koboko Bitters, Ogidiga Bitters, Pasa Bitters, Wafekulaleyi Bitters, Dorobuchi Bitters, Gidigba Bitters, Pakurumo Bitters, Muscle Bitters, Power Bitters, Charger Bitters, Awilo Bitters, Swagger Bitters, Agya Appiah Bitters, Erujeje Bitters, Goko Bitters, Edges Bitters, Jedi-Jedi Bitters, Opa Eyin Bitters, Kokoma Bitters, Pankere Bitters, and many others. Besides Orijin and Alomo, which come in bigger containers, virtually all others are in 100 millilitre bottles.
There are other drinks like Dogoyaro, which are locally prepared herbs and roots soaked in local gin. Another drink called Monkey Tail is also a concoction of herbs and roots as well as marijuana leaves soaked in local gin.
Most of the drinks are in small plastic bottles, and are quite cheap. The reporter was told that most sell for N100 per bottle. Only a few, like Alomo, Osomo, Orijin and Action Bitters, sell for between 200 and 500 a bottle, depending on the location.
Determined to have their own share of the market, some major brands also joined the bitters’ fray. Guinness, for instance, launched the Orijin Bitters, while International Distillers Limited came out with the Action Bitters. Nigerian Breweries has already launched Ace Roots, but consumers say it is more of lager flavoured with herbs and roots than the conventional bitters.
In spite of the claims by manufacturers of these bitters, the reporter learnt that the major ingredients in many of the products are mainly ethanol and caffeine. It is believed that some quantity of marijuana might be included in the preparation of some. A dark, extremely bitter substance mainly found in the northern part of the country is also used by some of the producers of the bitters, it was gathered.
Why we love our bitters
At a kiosk off Old Ojo Road in Mazamaza, Amuwo Odofin, Lagos, young and middle-aged men hold sessions at least three times a day. All that the woman sells are bitters of assorted types as well as locally prepared Dogoyaro mixture. At all times, the men are found quaffing the drinks and smoking cigarettes.
Asked why he consumes bitters, Chinedu (not real names) explained: “They help me a lot by making me strong and energetic. For instance, after drinking a bottle, I don’t experience indigestion. These days, I no longer experience pile. I’m very fit as a man; you know what I mean? And they are very cheap. These are my reasons for drinking bitters.”
Mike, who operates a mini-bus between Maza Maza and Satellite Town, also told the reporter why he’s a regular consumer of bitters.
“It is very good for men, but it is even better for those of us that sit all day behind the wheel,” he said. “It’s better than drinking all these local herbs that are produced in dirty environments. These ones are made by companies and they have NAFDAC numbers. You know the government must have been satisfied that they are safe for public consumption before they are certified by NAFDAC. So, there is no cause for alarm,” he said
Lanrewaju Solomon (not real names), a journalist, said the advent of bitters and other herbal drinks in the Nigerian market has saved a lot of marriages from untimely collapse.
“Let’s be sincere to ourselves. these