There is no “typical” student debater, but young people who tend toward extracurricular squabbling often share a few characteristics. They’re intellectually curious. They’re politically engaged. They’re probably a little nerdy. And they likely have a taste for Yakka, a DIY party fuel of nebulous provenance that, in the last 20 years, has grown into the essential cocktail of the international college debate community.
Traditionally “brewed” in a trashcan à la Jungle Juice, Yakka is basically big-batch limoncello: a combination of bottom-shelf vodka, white sugar and lemons, left to macerate for hours, or sometimes days, before it’s ladled out at debate functions. Deceptively strong and consumed almost exclusively by young adults with minimal drinking experience, it’s an effective lubricant for undergraduate mythmaking—an ice-cold open for colorful indiscretions. It is South African in origin, but coming by any more intel on Yakka has proven to be a bit of an academic challenge—which is to be expected, considering who makes it.
“You have athletes, the hippy-dippy types, the bookworms… people from all sorts of walks of life,” says Mandy Frank, a University of Vermont debater now pursuing a masters in higher education at the University of Kansas. “But I would say the common thread is a curiosity and a desire to make things better. In the debate world, people can’t stand to not understand what’s going on.”
“[They’re] the kids that your college puts in the alumni magazine,” adds Allison Hamlin, PUNCH’s social media editor and another former UVM debater, of her kind. It was Hamlin who introduced me to Yakka, regaling me with tales of brews executed in hotel wastebins and plastic dorm organizers. Yet even her in-the-know attempts at tracing the historical thread of his drink, and how it made its way into debate, were met with as many questions as answers.
I’ve since concluded this is by design. Some debaters, enamored with the exclusivity of their proprietary drink, are unwilling to share everything they know about Yakka, and/or are content with discussing it in generalities. Of course, there’s also the possibility that they’ve sincerely forgotten, as Yakka seems to have that effect.
“There’s all sort of mystery around it—I can’t tell you it all,” says Rob Marrs, an Edinburgh-based policy advisor and former University of Glasgow debater who’s credited with introducing Yakka to the U.K.
“The huge fiction and sets of rules that have arisen around it have made it an institution,” says Richard Stupart, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics who first had Yakka in the year 2000. He’s originally from Johannesburg, 14 or so hours from Stellenbosch, the South African city where most believe Yakka and debate met cute.
“There was a Worlds where it was made in a hotel bathtub. People came to refill their cups, only to find a near-naked Scot in the tub shouting that he was absorbing it through his skin.”
Every year, hundreds of British Parliamentary teams convene at the World Universities Debating Championship (WUDC). Known informally as “Worlds”—the past three years, it’s been held in India, Malaysia and Greece—this high-level tournament features elite rhetoric, rivaled only by elite Yakka consumption at a barn-burner that takes place once the octo-finals are set. A contingent of debaters that attended the 1997 Worlds at Stellenbosch University lays claim to hosting the very first edition of this blowout. Andy Hume was there, another University of Glasgow alum who now teaches debate in Seoul.
Nowadays, this party is where the most outlandish instances of Yakka abuse take place, at least among the people I talked to. (A typical example, via Stupart: “There was a Worlds where it was made in a hotel bathtub. People came to refill their cups, only to find a near-naked Scot in the tub shouting that he was absorbing it through his skin.”) Back in ’97, though, things were a touch tamer. Hume recalls he and 20 or so others sampling a drink poured from a citrus-studded trash bin that sat beside a rugby pitch. “I thought it was ridiculous at first,” says Hume. “But after a couple of small plastic cups, I realized that the goal posts were swaying.”
Everyone’s fairly vague about what distinguishes Stellenbosch’s Yakka from the rest of them, though South Africans do tend to add lime cordial to their brews. It’s also pretty hazy when it comes to where that city’s Yakka-makers first picked up the skill; there’s talk that Yakka was a post-scrum specialty of a local rugby team, reaching the debaters via campus cross-pollination. “There is a pedigree attached to the original Stellenbosch variety,” says Joe Roussos, a debate-mate of Stupart’s. “It had the feel of buying Champagne rather than a local sparkling.”
That session in Stellenbosch two decades ago laid the groundwork for Yakka to grow in notoriety among the global debate network, bolstered by traveling South Africans spreading the gospel and indoctrinated foreigners adding it to their own regional competitions. “The true recipe remains a closely guarded secret,” says one Dublin-based debater who now works in finance. “There have been many variations over the years, but I think only the South Africans are certain they’re right.”
Today, recipes are passed from one brewmaster to another in hushed, ceremonial tones; there’s talk of secret songs, Yakka-making hats and even a non-denominational blessing that goes along with all that, but no one would discuss it on the record. Aside from a publicly circulated Google Spreadsheet out there that allows one to calculate the proper proportions of vodka, sugar and lemon, the particulars of the process seems to be a mostly oral tradition, save for one or two outlying examples.
The Yakka party, meanwhile, has become such an in-demand aspect of Worlds that the WUDC made it an official “social” at the Berlin tourney in 2013, complete with ticketed entry and mandatory safety briefings. The gathering wound up getting busted by German police, with some hospitalizations, stirring a good amount of controversy—subsequently legislated the only way debaters know how, with well-reasoned pro and contra arguments.
Regardless of the WUDC’s official take on the unofficial fuel of collegiate debate, Yakka nostalgia is as potent as its ABV. It’s something debaters remember fondly—I talked with one Englishman who served it at his wedding—even if they can’t quite remember everything. But why is that? What is it about this pale yellow elixir that speaks to such a fastidious class of well-versed over-achievers?
“It allows you to tell yourself that you’re sharing a meaningful cultural experience with people from across the globe,” says Hume, “when in actual fact you’re just getting drunk.”