Van Heerden at Triggerfish also says the Cape in particular is fertile ground for ales. “I believe that the wine culture in the Cape contributes to our success and better balance in sales across various styles. Wine drinkers really like new experiences with beer and appreciate variety. Inland breweries still see the public leaning towards the lighter beers reflecting the light lager culture.” In fact, a handful of Cape wineries like Dieu Donné in Franschhoek or Birkenhead farther east near Stanford are making their own beer as well (actually, the latter is a brewery that began growing grapes and making wine).
Imported beers are generally hard to come by in South Africa, though a couple of exceptions have proved influential on the craft scene. While brands like Windhoek Lager and Hansa come in from Namibia, the desert neighbor to the north, and fit into the market in much the same way Mexican brands do in the U.S., Namibia also has a strong craft brewer, Camelthorn. Owner Jörg Finkeldey got his start at the Manhattan Beach Brewing Co. in California in 1992 and went on to work in the U.S. and Europe designing and building breweries; when he returned to his home in Namibia in 2006, he decided to go back into brewing and began selling beer in August of 2009.
Finkeldey finds South Africa an important market, especially since Namibia Breweries Ltd., brewers of Windhoek and Hansa, had an 80-year monopoly at home, creating a conservative and less receptive market.
“South Africa is a welcome and fairly close neighbor able to compensate for the lack of volumes in Namibia. The sheer numbers and higher statistical mass with higher disposable income certainly is an opportunity for Camelthorn to find a niche market. Namibian beers are well known, respected and enjoyed. One can say that the legacy that Namibian beers carry in South Africa can be complemented and added to by Camelthorn. Our unfiltered lager and the American Style red ale are well-received in Cape Town and the eastern Cape as well as in the Johannesburg area.” In addition to his beers, Finkeldey’s old job as a brewery engineer has made him a useful source of equipment for some South African brewers.
Camelthorn’s beers lean toward German styles, in keeping with Finkeldey’s training and Namibia’s heritage; Germany colonized the country in the late 19th century. His red ale reaches back to his days in the U.S., based on a recipe developed by a friend in Tennessee.
Another company, Brewers & Union, imports German-made beers under its own brand name—in essence, contract brewing abroad. Its marketing beats the craft drum pretty loudly, and the beers are solid and well-made; the company has also been very pro-active at pressuring bars and restaurants to improve their selections and introduce people to beer as an accompaniment to food.
Brewers & Union, together with Jack Black, put together the We Love Real Beer Craft Beer Festival, South Africa’s largest craft-only event. Attendance in September 2011—its fourth year—was quite diverse, including almost 50 percent women, and, it’s worth noting given the country’s history, a large number of blacks. There was no sense of exclusivity or elitism. Also rather inclusive is the use of the term “real beer”—in fact, there was no cask ale, as CAMRA in the U.K. defines it, to be found. Instead there were a number of Cape-based brewers, a brewing demonstration from the local homebrew club, the Southyeasters, and a handful of specialty beer importers (in addition to a mouth-watering selection of food; Cape cuisine is an exciting mix of European, African and Asian traditions).