Get Crafty

By Malu Lambert

“It’s a beer revolution,” Brad Armitage tells me over a frothy STEPH WEISS. This conversation is taking place at BREWERS & UNION. A beer salon and charcuterie, it’s housed in what was once St. Stephen’s Church on Heritage Square in Cape Town. “We built the bar as a shrine to our beer,” he says laughing. 

Inside it is low-key and slick; tiled flooring reflects amber light from above, and wraparound marble-topped counters and brushed steel barstools complete the effect. But it’s sunny today, so instead we’re sitting on weathered wooden benches raised off the cobblestone floor. Cape Town’s busy Bree Street is held back with a fence, and the only intrusion is the waft of smoke from grilling pork.

“South Africans have such a one-dimensional beer palate,” says Brad. “Imagine if you only ever drank Chardonnay. Artisanal beers are about a diversity of tastes, just like in wine.”

Brad says the key differences between commercial and craft beers are “methodology, ingredients and time”. The last three years have seen a growth in the microbrew industry, and countrywide the spotlight is on small producers. Brad thinks it’s a natural reaction. “It’s not about what’s good or bad,” he says. “People are tired of being force-fed generic beers; and they want to be aware of what they’re drinking.”

The bar’s range, COLLECTIVE SÃO GABRIEL, is brewed in collaboration with family-run breweries in Europe. The one I’m drinking, Steph Weiss, is a golden wheat beer. It has a creamy texture, with aromas of bananas and cloves—so typical of a weiss. They also stock an unfiltered lager and a dark lager, as well as an unfiltered amber.

It’s said that craft beer is a more appealing option for women, perhaps because of its similarity to wine. And looking around, it’s easy to see that the crowd is an even mix of male and female.

“Beer is actually easier to pair with food than wine is. It can be more tolerant, once you understand what you’re tasting,” continues Brad. So with ‘We Love Real Beer’, a marketing platform for craft beer producers, Brad has put his money where his mouth is by hosting evenings of food and beer pairings. 

The initiative is a collaboration between Brewers & Union and JACK BLACK. The latter is the beer brainchild of Ross McCulloch and Meghan MacCallum. I first came across Ross at the Neighbourgoods market in Woodstock; he was selling his beer for R10 a go. How could people not try it? Ross describes Jack Black as “a refreshing, clear beer, with more malt flavour than your standard lager. There are layers of complexity, a malt sweetness offset by hoppy bitterness”. He’s right; it’s delicious.

We Love Real Beer also holds two craft beer festivals a year, something Ross says is a clear indication of ‘real’ beer’s increased popularity. Involved in the festival are microbrewers from all over the country and beyond, such as NAPIER, DARLING SLOW BREW, MITCHELL’S and CAMELTHORN.

Mitchell’s in Knysna has been going since 1983, and is now one of the largest of the small breweries in South Africa. It’s also accessible, selling in many bottle stores, restaurants and bars. One of the smallest breweries is Napier. Found in the Overberg town of the same name, the brewery produces a sweet and smoky lager, as well as a rich ale. And then there’s BOSTON, the most prolific craft brewery. They make Jack Black for one (to Ross and Meghan’s recipe), as well as their own Boston Lager, Naked Mexican, and, most recently, Johnny Gold Weiss.

The joy of these festivals is of course, the beer, but it’s also getting to meet the brewers, to shake their hands and hear their stories. The human element is all but lost in the commercial beer world, and this is where craft drinkers are experiencing a disconnect. As Brad says, “We want to identify with what we drink.”

We Love Real Beer is hoping to expand up-country too. In KwaZulu-Natal, there’s a Midlands beer route. Here, SHONGWENI BREWERY produces Robson’s bottle-conditioned brews, one of which is DURBAN PALE ALE. Inspired by traditional Indian Pale Ale, this beer is redolent of oranges and tastes like summer. In Johannesburg there are a number of breweries worth visiting too, such as GILROY’S BREWERY in Roodepoort.

The craft beer trend is nothing new; in America small independent breweries are there in their thousands, as they were in pre-prohibition days before the big guys bought them out. Now coming full circle, the global palate is demanding variety and beers that have a sense of place.

It’s later in the week, and in the spirit of playing ‘Nancy Brew’, I head to SAB NEWLANDS BREWERY to investigate the commercial side of beer making. It’s the oldest brewery in the country, established in 1820. Outside are antiquated beer delivery trucks and wagons; one even has a retro Lion Lager logo on the side.

“Are you looking for me?” asks Reto Jager, walking up to where I’m loitering by the heirlooms. Reto is a fourth generation brewmaster, from a line that originates in Switzerland. His official title is brand brewer, and he oversees a portfolio that consists of CASTLE LAGER, CASTLE LIGHT, PERONI, BLACK LABEL and HANSA as well as a few others. The most apparent, immediate difference from the microbreweries I’ve visited in the past is the size of the plant. We walk through a warren of steel staircases and past conical cement vats. “The average beer drinker in South Africa drinks two litres a day. It would take that person two to three years to empty one of those vats,” he says, pointing at one of them.

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Up in the brew house it’s like a sauna. “It’s normally much hotter,” says Reto. “But we aren’t cooking anything at the moment.”
Giant steel tanks which could each comfortably swallow a car all have different purposes. There’s a ‘mash tun’ that cooks the barley, hops and water into ‘porridge’, the ‘lauter tun’ that separates the liquid from the mash, and a ‘wort kettle’, which begins the process of cooling. There’s also a maize cooker. “We add a liquid adjunct, which is derived from the maize,” explains Reto. “The carbohydrates turn into sugar once the yeast within the beer mixture starts to feed on it.” The maize, the volume (one batch here is equal to 66 000 litres), and the standardisation of recipes are, to me, the most obvious differences between the industries.
Do they put chemicals in their beers? “No, it’s a natural process on a large scale. For those who don’t believe it, I’ll take them on a brewery tour,” Reto says. With that, we resume ours. Along with the brewhouse, there are also fermentation rooms, maturation rooms, and yeast propagation centres, as well as the labelling and bottling factory.

He also shows us how the beer is filtered. “Monks drank beer in pewter mugs; they didn’t care much about clarity. But with the use of glass, it’s a necessity.”

The beer is filtered with silt, harvested from the sea. Reto shows us the muddy dregs. “It’s the only waste product we don’t re-use. (Water, glass, spent grains and even carbon dioxide are all recycled.) But they are experimenting at the moment with making bricks from it for low-cost housing.” 

After the filtration process, the ‘bright beer’ is transported to the bottling and labelling factory, where every hour enough beer is packaged to satisfy a capacity crowd at Newlands Stadium.

On the way to the factory, I spot a colourful tile mural hidden by a tank. On closer inspection I see the scene depicts the history of beer: from the Egyptians to Jan van Riebeeck’s landing at the Cape, even to the original structure of Newlands Brewery. There’s a scene missing, though: the figures of the craft beer revolution. After all, it seems that history has come full circle. 

The Panel’s Top 10 Beers

Wine-of-the-Month Club Panel Votes on the Best Beers

To coincide with this article, members of the Wine-of-the-Month Club panel exercised their palates tasting beers. They tackled 40 brews in all—from both micro- and commercial breweries—and, with some guidance from a couple of experts, had their say on their favourite thirst quenchers. Biggest surprise was the range in quality—there are a number of beers that are decidedly better than others. You won’t know which of them really appeals to you unless you happen to taste a batch of them blind, as the panel did. The panel’s favourites were: 

Drayman’s Weiss: bright white head from a high proportion of wheat malt. Birkenhead Lager: malty, sweeter than usual. Lightly hopped. 
Peroni: slightly sweet with a unique hop aroma. 
Pilsner Urquell: unique, balanced bitterness with toasted aromas of caramel and malt. 
Castle Milk Stout: creamy and toffee-like with good bitterness and lingering aftertaste. 
Paulaner Weiss: naturally cloudy, unfiltered and unpasteurised. 
Carling Black Label: aromas of pears and apples, low bitterness. 
Stella Artois: hint of citrus, full-flavoured. Quite malty. 
Boston Lager: golden, malty character with a smooth aftertaste. Camelthorn Flavoured Weiss: touch of citrus. Malt and hop characteristics are low.

If you haven’t been adventurous in your beer drinking, make sure to give one or two of these beers a try. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Beers Tasted: Anvil Ale Black Anvil, Anvil Ale Pale Ale, Backs, Birkenhead Chocolate Milk Stout, Birkenhead Honey Blonde, Birkenhead Lager, Birkenhead Pilsner, Boston Hazzard Ten Ale, Boston Johnny Gold Weiss, Boston Lager, Boston Whale Tale Ale, Brewers and Union Berne, Brewers and Union Dark Lager, Brewers and Union Unfiltered Lager, Brewers and Union Weiss, Camelthorn Flavoured Weiss, Camelthorn Helles, Camelthorn Red, Camelthorn Weizen, Carling Black Label, Castle Draught, Castle Lager, Castle Lite, Castle Milk Stout, Clarens Blonde, Drayman’s Weiss, Foresters Lager, Grolsch, Hansa Marzen Gold, Hansa Pilsner, Miller Genuine Draught, Mitchell’s Bosuns, Mitchell’s Ninety Shilling Ale, Mitchell’s Milk and Honey, Paulaner Lager, Paulaner Oktoberfest, Paulaner Weiss, Peroni, Pilsner Urquell, Stella Artois.

Hop To It
Pay these craft breweries a visit; you’re bound to have an ’ale of a time.

WESTERN CAPE

Napier Brewery: Located in Napier in the Overberg, this small brewery makes an ale as well as a lager. www.napierbrewery.co.za 
Paulaner Bräuhaus: Visit for German beer brewed right in the Waterfront. Pair a lager or weiss beer with a hot, salty pretzel. www.paulaner-brauhaus.com 
Birkenhead Brewery: Named after a sunken ship, this brewery in Stanford makes a range of microbrews. Do a beer tasting and go on a tour, and make sure to try the Honey Blonde.www.birkenhead.co.za 
Brewers & Union, Cape Town, www.andunion.com 
Mitchell’s, Knysna, www.mitchellsbrewery.com 
Clarens Brewery, Clarens, www.clarensbrewery.co.za 
Boston Breweries, Cape Town, www.bostonbreweries.co.za. 
Darling Brew, Darling, www.darlingbrew.co.za 

KWA-ZULU NATAL

Shongweni Brewery: Robson’s is a range of craft beer brewed in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Try their flagship, the East Coast Ale. www.shongwenibrewery.com 
Nottingham Road Brewery: Try delicious beers with whimsical names such as the Whistling Weasel Pale Ale and Tiddly Toad Lager. www.nottsbrewery.co.za 
Zululand Brewery: Famous for the award-winning Zulu Blonde Beer, they do tutored tours and tastings. www.zulublonde.com 

GAUTENG & MPUMALANGA

Gilroy’s Brewery and Pub: Specialising in micro ales, this brewery can also be a raucous pub.www.gilroybeers.co.za 
Hops Hollow: Relax in the friendly pub atmosphere with a flagon of their malt draught beer or the Blacksmith’s Brew—a Belgian-style white beerwww.hopshollow.com 
De Garve: Do a tour and tasting at this family-owned brewery. They produce a number of ales, from American and Austrian, to Belgian styles www.degarve.co.za 
Anvil Ale, Dullstroom, Mpumalanga, 013-254 0197.
Drayman’s Brewery & Distillery, Pretoriawww.draymans.com .

ACROSS THE BORDER

Camelthorn Brewing Company, Windhoek, Namibia, www.camelthornbrewing.com