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The Evolving Craft Beer Scene of South Africa

Craft Beer in the Land of Lagers (Issue 25)
The view from Cape Brewing Company's beer garden. (Photo Credit: Lucy Corne)

This year, on IPA Day (August 4th), some bars in Cape Town, South Africa, will have upwards of 25 India Pale Ales on tap. This might not seem like anything spectacular, but consider this: Five years ago, few people in South Africa knew what an IPA was and not a single local brewery produced one.

South Africa has long been a land of lagers. SABMiller, the world’s second-largest brewing company (which will soon be taken over by the world’s largest, AB InBev) is based in South Africa and controls around 90% of the local market. The corporation has always championed pale lagers and until quite recently, beer drinkers had very few other options. But craft beer is booming here now, and things are changing rapidly.

The country’s first microbrewery – Mitchell’s Brewery – launched way back in 1983 and while its founder Lex Mitchell is sometimes referred to as the “godfather of South African craft beer” it would be another couple of decades before the concept of craft beer would truly take off. And it wouldn’t be a massively hopped IPA or a thick, potent stout that would lure people away from their mainstream beer, but rather another clean, simple lager.

This shift occurred in 2007, when local lad Ross McCulloch and his Canadian wife Megan MacCallum set up Jack Black Brewing Company in Capetown and managed to convince macro brand-loyal South Africans to switch to a flavorful, microbrewed lager.


Cape Town's Jack Black Brewing Company helped convince macro-loyal South Africans to switch to more flavorful craft lager. (Photo Credit: Laura McCullagh)


When Jack Black’s lager first found its way into South African fridges, there were fewer than 10 microbreweries across South Africa, a country about half the size of the Midwest with a population of 55 million. Today, less than a decade on, there are more than 160 craft breweries scattered about the country, with hundreds more navigating the web of red tape to obtain a brewing license. Jack Black is still a major player in the industry, and following nine years of contract brewing at various breweries around Cape Town, the brand finally has its own brewhouse, a 25-barrel (3000-litre) Kaspar Schulz system imported from Germany.

The brewery opened at the start of July in a small industrial complex in Cape Town’s suburbs. The lager is joined on tap by a pilsner, a pale ale, a weissbier and an IPA. Beer-loving locals swarm the hip taproom with its furniture fashioned from brewhouse packaging materials, street art etched on the walls and food trucks parked outside. It might seem like a small setup, but by South African standards, Jack Black’s new brewery is a significant size. The average batch of beer produced in South Africa is around 3.5 barrels (400 litres) and few breweries put out more than 42 barrels (5000 litres) in a month.


Few South African craft breweries produce more than 42 barrels per month, including Darling Brew, which tops out at 25.


Of course, larger producers do exist. Darling Brew, another local veteran that also began as a contract brewer, launched their 25-barrel (3000-litre) brewery complete with restaurant earlier this year in the rural town of Darling, an hour’s drive north of Cape Town. Then there is Cape Brewing Company, where up to 42,000 barrels (50,000 hectolitres) of lager, pilsner, weissbier and IPA are produced each year. Sitting in the Cape Winelands, Cape Brewing Company is one of an increasing number of breweries challenging wine on its own turf. In fact, many wineries are opening small breweries on their farms, keen to get on board with the Cape’s current passion for beer and to offer something a little different in the heavily saturated South African wine market.

 

Back in the city, there is an urban brew route emerging in the arty suburb of Woodstock. Here, you can ditch your car and walk from taproom to taproom, starting at Riot Brewery, known for its heavily-hopped IPAs. Just half a mile away, Drifter Brewing Company also produces a popular IPA, alongside a red lager and an ale infused with coconut. A five-minute walk away is one of South Africa’s most interesting breweries, the Brewers Co-op. Established in 2015, the Co-op sees 15 former homebrewers coming together to brew 120-liter batches of anything from a blonde ale using South African-grown malt and hops to a rye IPA that took the top spot in the country’s 2015 National Craft Championships.

The nearby Woodstock Brewery is known for its seasonal ales, which are on sale in the taproom alongside the core range, developed by an American homebrewer who used to call Cape Town home. And then there is Devil’s Peak Brewing Company, considered to be at the forefront of craft brewing in South Africa. They were the first to introduce the American IPA to a wider South African audience and while their lager far outsells the superb King’s Blockhouse IPA, the latter has won numerous awards as well as a cult following around the country. Their barrel-aged saisons, sour ales and beer-wine hybrids have a smaller fanbase but the new, limited-edition releases ensure that Cape Town’s growing contingent of beer geeks keep coming back to Devil’s Peak’s urban taproom.


Devil's Peak in Cape Town is one of the most well-known South African breweries due to the cult following of its King's Blockhouse IPA.


Cape Town is certainly the center of the South African brewing scene, with close to half of the country’s breweries in or around the city, but that’s not to say that there’s nothing happening elsewhere – breweries are scattered around all nine of South Africa’s provinces. There are breweries with 25-barrel (300-litre) systems cobbled together from old milk or wine or olive tanks; there are tiny 4-barrel (50-litre) breweries sitting on farms near the famous Kruger National Park; there are part-time brewers producing thirst-quenching lagers in surfing hotspots along the coast; there are cozy brewpubs serving warming Belgian styles in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains; and there are stylish taprooms opening in the gritty city centre of Johannesburg. The newest addition to the so-called “City of Gold” is Mad Giant, yet another brand that has traded in contract brewing for a real-life brewhouse, this time in a spectacularly revamped building in a gentrified corner of Johannesburg.


Jonannesburg's Mad Giant transitioned from nomadic contract brewing to a brick-and-mortar establishment, which is a common trend among South Africa's craft breweries.


One thing that many of these breweries have in common is that somewhere in their range, you’ll find a pale lager or a blonde ale so lager-like that most drinkers can’t tell the difference. Whether it’s the weather or the country’s long-term love affair with lager, it’s still the style that most South Africans reach for while they’re watching cricket or hosting their beloved braai (barbeque). But while most breweries do produce a crowd-pleaser, the beer repertoire is expanding swiftly and in some very interesting directions. For the most part, of course, South African brewers are producing global beer styles – Belgian witbiers, German weissbiers, American Pale Ales and Irish stouts – but there is an increasing trend towards giving beer recipes a South African twist.

Those of you that occasionally drink something other than beer might be familiar with rooibos, also known as “red bush,” a type of herbal tea produced solely in South Africa. The indigenous plant has recently found another use with a handful of breweries using it to flavor their beers. Grown in similar areas and also used in tea is buchu, a medicinal herb with a pungent, menthol-like aroma. Used in small quantities, it can add a pleasant sweetness to a beer and offers interesting aromas of mint and blackcurrant. It is perhaps best represented in Loxton Lager, a 4.8% ABV pale lager flavored with buchu, honey and other indigenous herbs. It’s one of those beers that you’ll love or loathe, but it’s a must-taste if you’re visiting – it doesn’t get much more South African than this!

 

Loxton Lager is brewed under contract by Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela, one of the country’s few female craft brewers, at Brewhogs brewery on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Loxton is brewed alongside Apiwe’s own beers, all of which speak of her proud South African roots and her brewing background with SABMiller. While the rest of the country attempts to get their lager-loving public to embrace the IPA, Brewhogs are trying to lure the IPA drinkers back to the beer that they started out on. In their range is a pilsner, a red lager, an India Pale Lager (IPL) and a black IPL.

“Lagers are much more interesting than many beer drinkers – and brewers – think, and our aim is to show South African drinkers that lagers can have the same variety in color, flavor and aroma [as ales],” Apiwe says. You might think that drinkers flock to the Brewhogs stand at a beer festival because they see ‘lager’ etched on the chalkboard menu but that’s not the case.

“What I find interesting is that a lot of beer drinkers still refer to our beers as ales,” explains Apiwe. “Most South African beer drinkers consider a lager to be ‘what SAB and Heineken make’ – everything else is considered an ale, so I have to do a lot of educating and explaining.”


Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela (front left) is one of the country’s few female craft brewers at Brewhogs, which delivers interesting styles to its lager-loving public.


Although it’s growing rapidly, the South African scene is still very young and there is a lot more for drinkers – and brewers – to learn. But the thirst for beer knowledge is almost as strong as the thirst for the beer itself. There are half a dozen major festivals around the country each year, homebrewing shops are cropping up all over the place, courses and conferences are beginning to take hold and while the vast majority of bars still offer only SAB lagers, there are a growing number of restaurants with more than 20 taps of local craft beer to choose from.

South Africa might still be a land of lagers, but on IPA day, groups of beer lovers will descend on taprooms, brewpubs and dedicated beer bars to work their way through flights of local IPAs. Some pints might be flavored with buchu or rooibos and others will feature coconut, roasted malt or bushels of imported C-hops, but all will be raised to toast a young, flourishing industry at the southern tip of Africa.

 

Photos Courtesy of Lucy Corne, except where noted.


 

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