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International Artist and Houston Brewery Harness City Flavors in New Beer With Nigerian Community’s Input

A project spearheaded by Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts, Japa is a smoky, spicy, and sweet representation of Clutch City

A can of Japa beer, with a star, next to a frothy draft in front of a neon Astral Brewing sign.
The sweet, spicy, and smokey Japa beer was created with the input of Houston’s Nigerian community.
Brittany Britto Garley

If you could capture Houston’s most prominent flavors in a beer, what would it taste like?

This is the exact question international Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh has asked the city’s Nigerian community for his latest beer project. The result? A smoky, spicy, sweet, and savory stout.

In collaboration with Astral Brewing and Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts, Ogboh has crafted Japa beer, encapsulating the Nigerian community’s thoughts about Houston’s signature flavors.

The artist sent out a survey to Houston’s Nigerian community — one of the largest in the nation — to summarize Houston as a flavor. “It’s a difficult question,” Ogboh says, but from the resulting feedback, Japa was born — a combination of ancho chiles, Scotch bonnets, and habanero peppers with smoky and bitter notes, and a nutty, chocolatey sweetness thanks to milk sugar.

Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh and Astral Brewing head brewmaster Alex McDonald hold up beers.
International Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh and Astral Brewing teamed up to make a beer that encapsulates the local Nigerian community’s perception of Houston flavors.
Astral Brewing/Emeke Ogboh

The name “Japa” — a Yoruba phrase that means to run or free from a dangerous situation — is also significant, says Ogboh, noting that it relates to the local Nigerian community, whose members have immigrated from their birthplace for a variety of reasons.

“There’s a lot of Japa going on in the country,” he says. “When you look at a lot of Nigerians in Houston, many immigrated, or ‘Japa’ out of Nigeria to Houston, so that’s also how we designed the beer.”

Ian McDonald, head brewer at Astral, says he and Ogboh began working on the collaboration around a year and a half ago to perfect the recipe, evolving from Zoom meetings to in-person tastings and discussions of flavors.

“The beer process is like cooking. Depending on the ingredients you’re using, you have different profiles and tastes, which makes it unique in that sense,” Ogboh says.

Taking in the feedback from the community, the duo settled on a lower-alcohol milk stout as a base beer that would be sweeter in flavor, with a building spice from the peppers and a smoky flavor from smoked malt — providing a medium in which people can experience art through taste and reflect on their sensations of Houston, Ogboh says.

“It’s a challenging flavor to work with since a lot of people just really don’t like smoke in beer, so we tried to keep it at a level that was present but not offensive,” McDonald says.

Ogboh, who lives in Berlin, has long used beer as a medium of examining migration and has created more than 20 types of beer to explore the Black experience in contemporary Europe. Germany’s 506-year-old beer purity law, for example — which states that beer can only be made with hops, barley, and yeast — has been a fixture of Ogboh’s beer art, dissecting the assumed purity of Europeans and how that affects Black European citizens or residents who are often “othered” because of their skin color or their appearance. Beer, he says, lends particularly well to the conversation considering that they come in different shades, much like skin colors.

Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh stands sideways for a portrait.
International Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh uses beer as a way to reflect the Black experience in countries around the world.
Michael Denner

As for Japa, Ogboh says he has big dreams for the project. He’ll market the beer with commercials, advertisements, and film, and has plans to collaborate with fashion designers, musicians, and chefs to pair the beer with food, using the beer as an entry point for more conversations.

The beer, which is available on draft and in canned four-packs at Astral Brewery, can also be purchased at the Moody Center for Art in its cafe, which corresponds with its Urban Impressions: Experiencing the Contemporary Global Metropolis exhibit this fall. Launched in September, the exhibit seeks to explore perceptions and memories of urban life and what “informs and shapes our experience of the city in the 21st century,” according to a release.

The art center will host an event on Saturday, November 5, during which Ogboh will offer samples of Japa from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. that can be paired with a host of dishes featured at the international food truck park on-site. For more information on the exhibit, visit the Moody Center for the Arts website.

Astral Brewing

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