SAB, however, was not invited, and South Africa’s craft brewers are sometimes wary about interacting with the elephant in the room. Kevin Wood was astonished to find that when Carling, an SAB beer, sponsored the Rocking the Daisies Festival in the town of Darling, its motto was, “It’s not Darling, it’s Carling”—a clear swipe, it seems, at his brand. “It’s fascinating that SAB would bother,” given Darling Beer’s small size, “but it’s actually a compliment.” McCulloch, on the other hand, says he sees SAB becoming more interested in supporting craft beer; the company sponsored the newly created Cape Town Festival of Beer in October 2011, which included its brands as well as craft brewers like Jack Black, Triggerfish and Devil’s Peak. “SAB sees craft brewing as a beer culture builder, a way to get people drinking beer instead of wine. At the same time, I’d hate to get in their way.”
SAB isn’t the only hurdle between craft brewers and the market. Batch variation remains common, and diacetyl, off notes and other tell-tale signs of sanitation or hygiene problems aren’t unknown. Kevin Wood, for example, confesses to selling flat beer at one point, and at Jack Black McCulloch says 1 in 15 batches gives the brewery trouble. Distribution is also difficult in a hot country where refrigerated transport is expensive and many pubs and restaurants lack enough walk-in cooler space for kegs. McCulloch says that breweries are expected to install their own draft systems for their beers (including cooling units and taps, and also providing cleaning and maintenance), and while draft beer is up 85 percent for Jack Black—and is more profitable in the long run—it’s meant a huge capital outlay and is the main reason Jack Black’s money has gone there instead of into a brewery.
Raw materials and supplies are also an issue. Wood says hop and grain selections are very narrow, noting that SAB owns all of the country’s hop farms and is the only domestic supplier of crown caps as well. “I believe SAB are forced by anti-monopoly legislation to sell base malt to local breweries,” Van Heerden says. “That gives us a good low-cost source for our base grains. They also sell bittering hops, but for all the specialty grains and aroma hops we have to import. The current shortage of IPA hop varieties and our declining currency is making that an expensive exercise. Our equipment is mostly custom-built, but there’s no limitation on importing if you have the capital to invest.” Several breweries have even banded together to source imported ingredients in bulk.
Whatever the challenges, at least one outside expert sees South Africa as a place with potential. “I think the South African palate is used to food and wine of good quality, which should make the transition to quality beers easier. The hotter climate may also be a factor that will benefit beer drinking before wine or stronger alcohol,” says Christian Skovdal Andersen, founder of the Danish gypsy-brewer brand Beer Here and previously of Ølfabrikken. “The argument that a hot climate benefits pale lager is BS if you ask me. Dry beers are good in a hot climate, which includes dry stouts such as Guinness and flavorful yeasty beers like Belgian-style saison and wheat beer.”
Andersen’s South African project, Bierwerk, initially brewed at Boston, but the brewery had too much other work going, so for now Andersen is brewing his beers at Camelthorn’s facility in Namibia. Bierwerk’s two beers so far are Aardwolf, a barrel-aged stout made with coffee and local molasses, and Vlakvark, a sessionable bitter featuring domestic Southern Promise hops. What drew him to South Africa in the first place? “I knew that South Africa was quite unique, as it is one of the few places outside Europe and North America where both grains and hops are grown commercially. Also I saw a lot of synergy with the wine industry using used barrels and oak in my beers. It was not until I moved to South Africa that I saw there was a small but thriving craft her industry on the verge of really taking off.”