The Beers of Southern Africa
Brewing in Many Traditions
Beer was born in the Fertile Crescent, but it was honed and perfected in Africa, the continent where traditional brewing has continued uninterrupted ever since.
The ancient Egyptians had a separate hieroglyph for ‘brewer.’ This maker perfect sense if you consider all the pyramid building they accomplished. I mean, nowadays, nine holes of golf on a sunny day is enough to send your average hack racing down to the pub for a quaff. It’s quite surprising that the Egyptians, after a hard day’s work—and boy were their days’ work hard—didn’t decide to replace King Tut with the brewer as the object of their laborious adoration. History may have taken a distinctly more convivial turn if they had.
As a matter of fact, the earliest records of fermentation, circa 10,000 BC, are from Sumeria, which was in the northern regions of the Middle East, in the area of modern Iraq. But some zymologists and even early Greek historians agree that the fermentation process was honed and perfected in Egypt, on the African continent, before following the belligerent anti-clockwise sweep of civilization around the Mediterranean Sea. Ironically, the only beer found in Egypt today is, for religious reasons, non-alcoholic.
Whereas the Greeks and Romans frowned upon beer as a poor substitute for their fermented grape juice, African societies continued to brew and savor the rich and cultured beverage whose properties were supposed to elevate the drinker’s soul and no doubt liven up many a moonlit tribal gathering.
There are literally as many varieties of traditional African beer as there are tribes and clans in Africa. Some of the more popular strains are brewed using mielie (maize/corn) meal, others with sour milk (maas).
The tropical central African climate yields a particularly sanguine form of fermentable cereal known as sorghum. Sorghum beers differ widely, however, not only from region to region, but between neighboring households. Each family has its own traditional brewing methods, its secret recipes, and the beer produced is used in rituals ranging from weddings to medicine to ancestor worship.
To this day, even urban Africans mark a special occasion by slaughtering a goat and drinking sorghum beer. For some occasions, Western-style ‘clear’ beer just won’t do. The sorghum beer, brewed almost exclusively by women, is usually transported over vast distances by rural relatives who still practice the traditional brewing methods. And in the Johannesburg gold mining hostels, the call for sorghum beer is so great that mine unions order that the women be accommodated near them to provide the inimitable, indigenous homebrew.
This says a lot about political and cultural imperialism. When European colonisers settled on the African continent, there was a juxtaposition of cultures, but no real integration thereof. Westerners continued to brew (and import) beer the way they knew and liked it, and the Africans did the same.
In fact, during the European missionaries’ drive into Africa for converts, a Belgian Trappist monastery was established in what is today known as The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). The Trappist monks are famous for their fine and potent brews, but the monastery, Notre Dame des Mokoto, only produced beer for its own consumption. If the holy brothers had shared their dubbels and tripels as well as their faith, there might have been a smoother political transition, and an eighth Trappist brewery in the world. As it happened, the monastery was destroyed in 1996, during central Africa’s spate of civil wars.
Traditional brewing methods continue into the 21st Century, despite what some analysts describe as a gradually declining demand and the efforts of some governments to discourage and even outlaw the practice. The real reason for the persistence of this ‘underground’ brewing is poverty. Most people simply can not afford the commercial lagers and stouts on sale at liquor stores. In East Africa, some 80 percent of the beer consumed is produced by illicit or at least non-commercial means.
One of the more dangerous symptoms of the informal brewing of traditional beer is the lack of quality control. Towards the end of last year in Kenya, hundreds of people died and others were permanently blinded after drinking a toxic batch of illegal chang’aa (sorghum beer) containing either methanol, battery acid or formalin. In South Africa, the cheap but legal red-and-white cartons of Joburg Beer—mainly sold in the bustling micro-economy of Johannesburg’s sprawling, teeming taxi ranks—are nicknamed takunyisa (‘running stomach’).
Nevertheless, umnqombothi (pronounced oom-kom-bo-tee) remains a firm favorite among southern Africans in particular. Neither commercial nor illegal and brewed by individual households, this smooth, rich and slightly sour indigenous sorghum beer is made by adding sugar, water and corn to soft-cooked sorghum-meal porridge, allowing it to stand, then repeating the process to taste. The natural fermentation process gives the beer a thick and creamy head of various-sized bubbles. Umnqombothi is traditionally drunk from a communal calabash.
This beer has a long and proud history. It was first brewed in the grass-hut kraals (tribal villages) on the Southeastern tip of the African continent, and fuelled the indomitable imperial armies of the Zulu nation in the mid-nineteenth century. This is the preferred alcoholic beverage of the nation that delivered the British Empire its biggest defeat ever at the Battle of Isandlwana—still a selling point among the more heritage-conscious people of the humid KwaZulu-Natal coastline, I’m sure. Not to mention the reason for the famous, rock-hard potbellies of so many of the Zulu kings.
The South African Goliath
Africa itself only represents some 5 percent of global beer production, but of this South Africa constitutes about 54 percent. This means that one country comprises half of an entire continent’s commercial beer market. The reason for this is that the African beer market is virtually monopolized by the corporate giant South African Breweries (SAB), the fifth largest brewing company in the world.
SAB was established in 1895 by Charles Chandler, Anders Ohlsson and brewer Charles Glass, and became the first industrial share to be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. It filled what was more a yawning abyss than a mere niche in the market during the South African gold rush. Thirsty miners were drinking raw potato spirits mixed with tobacco juice and pepper before SAB opened the first proper bar in the northern gold prospecting regions of the country.
Despite an economic tug-of-war between Britain and its colony, SAB landed squarely under its homeland’s auspices when South Africa declared its independence in 1961.
In 2000, SAB produced no less than 53 million hectolitres of beer (or 44.5 million barrels). Its flagship brand is Castle Lager, first launched in 1898, with another 14 labels comprising its production portfolio. These include several lagers, two ales—a milk stout and a “fruit ale,” a number of European brands brewed under contract, and commercial versions of sorghum beers. SAB also controls a significant percentage of the South African soft drinks market.
SABI Africa, SAB’s international division in Africa, runs operations in almost all Southern African countries and has recently reached deeply into the eastern, central and even western African beer markets. By buying incremental percentages of shares in regional brewing companies, SABI has made its presence in these regions a force to be reckoned with.
When SABI agreed to a joint venture with Tanzanian Breweries in East Africa, this immediately sparked an intensive ‘beer war’ with Kenya. Kenyan Breweries was selling a lot of beer in Tanzania due to the mismanagement of Tanzanian Breweries Ltd. But after the joint venture with SABI, Tanzanian Breweries tripled its production, leaving Kenyan Breweries scratching for a hold in the niche.
As SABI bought up more and more of the African beer market, even in Kenya itself, Kenyan Breweries decided to fight fire with fire by entering into a partnership with Guinness International. Guinness has long held a grudge against SAB for thwarting its efforts in the South African market. This new partnership has balanced things out somewhat, but the fierce competition for a slice of the African beer pie (hmmm—beer pie) continues today.
SABI’s latest and most significant strategic alliance in Africa is with the Castel Group’s Beer Division (CBB). Whereas SABI was the dominant force in southern and east Africa, the CBB controlled the majority of the markets in central and western Africa. The alliance expands and consolidates both companies’ positions in Africa by way of a nil premium share exchange. CBB acquired a 38 percent stake in SABI and SABI now owns 20 percent of CBB.
CBB does not produce sorghum beer, but has extensive interests in the mineral water and carbonated soft drinks markets. It is interesting to note that SABI produces slightly more sorghum beer (7.2 million hectolitres/6 million barrels) than clear beer (6.7 million hectolitres/5.6 barrels) in Africa.
SABI is growing, with 79 breweries in 21 countries, and beer production increasing at 28 percent last year. In Asia, SABI owns 49 percent of China Resources Enterprises Ltd., a government-owned brewing company. China is the second largest beer market in the world. SABI has also embarked on joint ventures with an Indian brewery, which is currently under construction.
In Europe, SABI has brewing operations in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Russia and the Czech Republic, where SABI has just bought Pilsner Urquell. the best known Czech pilsner internationally.
The domestic success of South African Breweries is no doubt bolstered by two of the country’s most popular pastimes: braais (barbecues) and spectator sports. Both activities traditionally involve a tremendous amount of beer drinking. A single game of cricket takes five whole days to complete. That’s five whole days of sunburnt spectators dousing themselves with cold beer. Moreover, every noteworthy cricket ground (stadium) in South Africa exclusively sells SAB’s flagship brand Castle Lager from a bar called Castle Corner.
Now, if that’s not cornering a market, I don’t know what is. In Africa, and especially South Africa, SAB is to beer what Microsoft is to computers.
Microbreweries in South Africa
Despite the virtual monopoly that SAB has established in South Africa, microbreweries do exist. All four of them: Bavaria, Royal Brewery, Mitchell’s and Birkenhead.
Mitchell’s, by far the largest and most popular of the four, has recently been bought by the Scottish and Newcastle, the biggest brewer in Britain. Though it is only one case, Mitchell’s recent history hints at the as yet unrealized potential for craft beer in South Africa.
Since its inception in 1983, the original Mitchell’s brewery in Knysna (South Africa) has grown by leaps and bounds. In 1983 the brewery produced 40,000 litres of beer. The beer became so popular thereafter that the general manager, Dave McRae, found himself struggling to keep up with demand. He was churning out 10,000 litres of beer per week in a brewery which was designed to make 2,000 litres a month! The plant size was quadrupled in 1989.
By the early nineties, Mitchell’s was producing 500,000 litres per annum—that’s over 1000 percent growth in ten years. Knysna locals are particularly fond of a mixture of Mitchell’s Forester’s Draught Lager and Bosun’s Bitter which they call “half-and-half.”
The portfolio also includes Raven Stout (thick head, thinnish, sweetish body, 8 percent ABV). Mitchell’s beer is remarkably natural and therefore doesn’t last as long on the shelf: a keg must be consumed within two weeks of leaving the brewery.
Among the other micros, Royal, which produces Tollies Lager, and Birkenhead, whose hoppy, amber draught is almost as heavy as a Guinness, are both estate breweries nestled in the scenic valleys of the southern Cape Province. Birkenhead uses a natural mountain spring on its estate to produce its beer. Bavaria Bräu, as the name suggests, specializes in lagers in the German tradition.
The complete absence of microbreweries in the other countries of Southern Africa (Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Madagascar) is not too surprising: the populations are poor, and the brewing sector in many has been dominated by the state.
However, the dearth of microbreweries in more properous South Africa is a surprise. Most of the SAB beers, and certainly all of its most popular brands (Castle, Lion, Black Label) are of relatively poor quality, probably because of the quantity and speed with which they are produced. In fact, in what can be seen as a sub-conscious admission of low standards on SAB’s behalf, the South African ad copy for Amstel is “Slow brewed. Extra matured.” Amstel is brewed and distributed in South Africa by SAB under license from Heinecken. Perhaps the corporate board who approved the advertisement thought that no-one would notice its subtler implications.
Also, some of the stiffest competition for SAB in South Africa is Namibian Breweries’ Windhoek range (Lager, Light, Export and Special) which is brewed in the neighboring country under German brewing regulations. The difference is marked by a much richer flavor. Beck’s has recently purchased 51 percent of Namibian Breweries.
So why, one may well ask, are there so few microbreweries in South Africa? The answer is twofold: Domination by SAB has all but snuffed brewing culture among South Africans, and the popularity of imported brands as a quality alternative to SAB’s industrial lagers makes it difficult for any microbrewery to get a foot in the door.
But SAB has recently revealed that despite (or perhaps even because of) its flourishing international interests, its production figures in South Africa have decreased. In addition, Tony Manning, one of SAB’s strategy consultants, has expressed concern over SAB’s “unpopular” image as a monopoly. There is also the issue of alcoholic fruit beverages encroaching on the younger market.
This means that a chink has appeared in the armor of the corporate Goliath SAB, leaving a proportionate gap, however minute, in the beer market. It is these small gaps to which microbreweries are ideally suited, and to which South Africa’s burgeoning free economy is ideally geared.
If you consider Mitchell’s astounding success, there should be a lesson for future entrepreneurs here. We can expect to see many more microbreweries spring up in the region in the very near future.
When he isn’t creating crop circles or surfing dangerous reef breaks, Ami (pronounced ëuh-mee’) Kapilevich attempts to drink his own body weight in fine beers. His favorites include Namibian Breweries’ Windhoek Export Lager, Guinness, Sol, Miller, Grolsch, Pilsner Urquell and anything Belgian. Having traveled to the United States, with a hair-of-the-dog-raising sojourn in London along the way, today Ami is the music and nightlife editor of SAcitylife Magazine in Cape Town, South Africa. Needless to say, this job entails a lot of beer drinking.