South African craft beer is fighting lager with lager

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 33, Issue 5
November 1, 2012 By Jim Clarke

Beer has deep roots in South Africa. That’s no surprise, since it was colonized in the 17th century by the Dutch and later by the English. In addition, some tribes such as the Zulu and Xhosa have a history of sorghum and maize-based brewing. The brewing industry there is younger, however, dating to the 1895 founding of Castle Brewery, which catered to the mining industry after gold and diamonds were discovered in the area around Johannesburg. A century of consolidation, aided by anti-apartheid embargoes that led foreign companies to withdraw from the market, and eventually South African Breweries (SAB) controlled 98 percent of the country’s market, selling a number of brands including Castle and Carling Black Label. Internationally, of course, SABMiller is the second-largest brewery in the world.

So there’s a lot of pale lager to be had; Macrobrewing has been no more creative in South Africa than elsewhere in the world. But the end of apartheid 18 years ago opened up the outside world to South Africans once more, and as they traveled, many brought a taste for other styles of beer back home with them.

Some of the leading craft breweries in South Africa are going head to head with South African Breweries by making golden lagers their flagship products.

American craft beer got its start exploring ale styles that the macro companies didn’t offer, but some of the leading craft brands in South Africa are going head to head with SAB by making golden lagers their flagship products.

Going Head to Head

“Our premise was to make a Pre-Prohibition style lager,” says Ross McCulloch, founding partner in Jack Black Beer—an all-malt beer with no additives or preservatives, which is in fact named for a brewer who operated in upstate New York in that period. Their original recipe, developed while McCulloch was living and working in Canada, “was a lot more bitter, but we decreased the IBUs a few points” in response to feedback from South African consumers. They ferment it a bit warmer than is usual for a lager, lending it some more fruit expression in a way akin to a California common, and use three sorts of hops: the local Southern Promise for bittering and Cluster and Saaz hops for flavor and aroma.

McCulloch feels session-style beers with moderate alcohol are an important bridge for educating South African beer drinkers and that stronger, more flavorful styles don’t yet suit South African drinking habits.

Darling Brew, named after its hometown on the Western Cape, also puts forward a lager flagship, invoking the slow food movement and hinting at the extra time lagering demands by naming it “Slow Beer.” Owner Kevin Wood was actually inspired locally by a friend who homebrewed. “I didn’t drink homemade beer, but his beer blew me away,” Wood says. He was hooked. “I was brewing 100 liters a day. After about the 25th batch, I thought, ‘What do I do with all this beer?’” After three years learning and developing recipes, he and his wife, Philippa, released their first commercial beer in April of 2010. “I remember looking at first 1,000 bottles, thinking, ‘How am I going to sell all these bottles?’” Kevin says. “In three weeks they were gone.”

Today his range includes several seasonal beers, each inspired by local wildlife, an interest of his. Bone Crusher, for example, owes its name to the spotted hyena, and is a Bavarian-styled Weissbier rather than the Imperial IPA the name suggests—the name’s about the white, cloudy color, not its ABV.

The Cape—essentially the southwest corner of the country—is home to South Africa’s craft beer scene in a way analogous to the West Coast of the U.S. in the late 1980s; about three-quarters of the country’s 20 or so craft brewers are based there.

The suspiciously named Boston Breweries in Cape Town is home to several brands that contract brew there, but the name has nothing to do with Sam Adams. When founder and brewmaster Chris Barnard started brewing outside his home, he borrowed some space inside the Boston Bag Co.’s factory. As he was making more than he could brew, he gave some away to the workers in the plant, who subsequently stuck their “Boston” labels on it and sold it on to local shebeens (a sort of informal township pub). Barnard only learned of his unconventional distribution system when a shebeen owner called and asked why a Boston rep hadn’t come to see him. Suddenly Barnard found he had moved from homebrewer to professional without being aware of it.

Now 12 years old, Boston Breweries is one of the larger, more established players. It expanded rapidly at first, doubling its initial 8,000 liters-a-month capacity in the first year and quickly grew further to its current 32,000 liters a month. Jack Black is brewed there, preferring for now to invest its capital in its distribution system. “The contract brewing model was very attractive to us, allowing us to use our capital elsewhere,” McCulloch says. “When the numbers work, we’ll look into building our own brewery.” Darling actually outgrew a facility in NieuBethesda, farther east, and subsequently moved production to Boston Breweries; in January it moved back to expanded facilities in Darling, an hour or so north.

Barnard enjoys the mix of work contract brewing affords him. “Our contact brewing works well, and it allows more people to enter the market with their own brands. I also enjoy the variety of beers I get to make.” Boston Breweries’ own range of beers has focused on classic, mostly Germanic styles; Barnard developed his program with an eye toward the brewing traditions of Bavaria. At 10 percent ABV, its Hazzard Ten Ale, which Barnard describes as a bock, has made waves as South Africa’s strongest beer to date.

Further experimentation may be in the cards, prompted by local interest. “We just released a seasonal pumpkin ale. This was from all the telephone calls I got after Discovery showed their documentary on Dogfish Head! Thanks, Sam!”

European Influence

Germany, Belgium and the U.K. all have outposts of one sort or another on the Victoria & Albert Waterfront in Cape Town. The Paulaner Bräuhaus is a pillar of consistency and quality, and one of the most successful of several brewpubs Paulaner has opened around the world. Brewmaster Wolfgang Koedel has been there since its opening in 2001; he customizes recipes for its system based on Paulaner’s classic styles, but with some modifications, a few of which have made their way back to the recipe book in Bavaria. All demonstrate stereotypical German precision; the Dunklweiss, made with 80 percent dark malt and an extra hit of bittering hops, is a notable standout. The Bräuhaus is the local focal point for Oktoberfest celebrations, which push the 2,500-liter system to capacity; it typically sells 72,000 pints in four weeks.

While the Brauhaus is the only brewpub on the Waterfront, the Belgian restaurant Den Anker sells the expected mix of imported Belgian classics as well as an amber ale, made for it in Belgium, which re-ferments in barrel on its way to South Africa. Mitchell’s, on the other hand, is the eponymous outpost of a brewery in Knysna, six hours east, and focuses on classic British styles like stouts and bitters. Lex Mitchell, a former SAB employee, founded the brewery in 1983, making it the granddaddy of South African microbrewing. At the time the Eastern Cape had no other suppliers for draft beer, allowing Mitchell’s to corner the market, and while the company does sell bottles, the brand remains very much associated with draft beer. The company has changed hands a few times and been split up and reconstituted, but today Mitchell’s is South Africa’s second-largest brewery.

The cutting edge, in South African terms, may lie just outside Cape Town in the seaside community of Somerset West, where two breweries have set up shop, Triggerfish and Devil’s Peak. Triggerfish founder and owner Eric Van Heerden has been brewing for about five years. “After a year in the USA, continuing my homebrewing there, we returned to South Africa, and I started looking at stepping up and opening my own brewery. Triggerfish is the result. Right now we are focusing on American styles and are probably known for hoppy beers, even though we’re not nearly as hoppy as the same styles would be on the West Coast.”

Van Heerden’s description of his beers is spot on. American craft beer drinkers will readily recognize Triggerfish’s Pale Ale Ocean Potion, Sweet Lips Blonde Ale, Roman Red American Amber Ale, and Empowered Stout as falling well within their described styles, if without any of the more pungent bitterness, extravagant hoppy aromas or elevated alcohol that have become more common in the U.S. It’s rather like tasting well-made American craft beers from the early 1990s, and the beers are eminently sessionable.

In the Contract

Devil’s Peak is going whole hog with accurate, truly contemporary American “extreme” styles like IPAs and Imperial Coffee Stouts, marketing research (if it even did any) be damned. Brewer Greg Crum, a Californian and unrepentant Deadhead (albeit rather a clean-cut one) moved to South Africa six years ago. A homebrewer since 1993, he missed the sort of beers he grew up with and two years ago approached Chris Barnard about contract brewing there. Boston, however, was at capacity and couldn’t accommodate him, so he and his South African partners Dan Badenhorst and Russell Boltman built their own facilities at the foot of Devil’s Peak, right at the edge of Cape Town (in your typical postcard of Table Mountain, it’s the peak to the left).

They are starting off with small—500-liter—batches and distribute to a handful of restaurants and bars as well as sell bottled beer directly. They import American hops like Centennial and Cascade, and if those distinct hop aromas aren’t enough to raise eyebrows in South Africa, Crum’s already talking about sourcing used brandy barrels from their connections with the wine industry, which they intend to use both for aging and to cultivate Brettanomyces and other microbes. A pale lager is not in the cards; Crum saw the rise of craft beers in the U.S. and feels that blondee lagers, no matter how craft or micro-, are not going to make a deep impression on South Africans: “Sierra Nevada conquered the U.S. with pale ale, not lager.”

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).

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.

Overcoming Obstacles

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.”

Jim Clarke
Jim Clarke is the sommelier and beverage manager at the Armani Ristorante in New York City. He has written for a number of trade and consumer publications. His passion for craft beer developed while studying classical music composition in Seattle, London and Holland. Jim lives on a boat in the Hudson River and spends his spare time trying to keep his ’78 MG Midget on the road.