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.