Every winter, aptly named brewer Theo de Beer and his team at the Anvil Ale House hand-peel, julienne and sun-dry the skins of a few crates of naartjies in preparation for his seasonal witbier, White Anvil. The naartjie is a South African tangerine, and after five years of weird looks from farmers unused to buyers wanting to nibble on peel rather than taste the fruit, Theo found the perfect local specimen. “I grew up going to rugby games with naartjies and biltong (dried, spiced meat similar to beef jerky) as snacks,” Theo says. “That fresh, exotic taste still lingers in my mind. I wanted to transfer that flavor to the beer—I don’t think the biltong would have worked so well!”
The fruits themselves get dished out to neighbors, staff and marmalade makers, while the dried peels are added to the beer, along with ginger and coriander. The result is a light-bodied and very drinkable witbier with flavors both fruity and dry.
Naartjies aren’t the only indigenous ingredient Theo adds to his beers. Once a year, he brews Bookoo, a witbier infused with honey and buchu, a pungent menthol-like plant found only in a small pocket of the country. Theo serves these seasonals alongside the regular lineup of pale ale, blonde ale and oatmeal stout in his cozy brewpub in Dullstroom, a town home to just 600 souls, two and a half hours northeast of Johannesburg.
Happily for South African beer enthusiasts, Theo is not alone in his desire to experiment. The beer boom here began in 2010 and, although many brewers still count pale lager in their repertoire, others are challenging the South African palate with hop-forward IPAs, rich stouts and some daring high-alcohol brews that are really testing the taste buds of drinkers long-restricted to little but a flight of light lagers.
One such brewer is another man living up to his surname, André de Beer (no relation). André’s charming brewpub sits in quaint Cullinan, best known for its diamond mine, which in 1905 produced the world’s largest gem-quality diamond. The diamond rush has long-since ended, but people now flock for a different jewel—the Cockpit Brewhouse. Alongside André’s permanent pints—Helles Belles Blonde, Fokker Weiss, Spitfire English Pale Ale, Mustang APA and Black Widow Stout—there is always something interesting on tap.
Six times a year, André adds to his “Brewmaster’s Signature Series”—occasional brews designed to challenge the average South African’s perception of beer. Featuring styles such as imperial IPA, barley wine and a Belgian dubbel, the unveiling of a new beer has become an eagerly awaited event in Cullinan and not just among craft beer connoisseurs. “These beers are extremely well-received by traditional lager drinkers and, surprisingly enough, by wine drinkers,” André explains. To date his most popular creation is the Black Forest Stout, a Russian Imperial refermented with fresh cherries and infused with cocoa nib husks.
Brewpubs are happily popping up in small towns around the country—from the unpretentious pub in arty Clarens, home to one of the country’s biggest beer festivals, to the rustic setup at Emerald Vale, the only brewery on the Wild Coast (a rugged stretch of coastline 680 miles east of Cape Town). Here, brewer Chris Heaton toyed with the idea of an estate brewery, and while efforts to reap and malt his own barley were less than fruitful, he does use a small quantity of home-grown hops in each brew.
Chris has a permanent trickle of thirsty backpackers in his town of Chintsa, but in more-conservative places, trying to convert lager-loving locals to something more adventurous is a risk. Here you’re more likely to find entry-level ales and the occasional all-malt lager to coax patrons into gradually expanding their beer palates.
Elsewhere though, South Africa’s army of fanatical foodies have welcomed craft beer, particularly in the Cape Winelands, a region known for grape rather than grain. At the forefront of “Beerlands” experimentation is Eric van Heerden, owner of Triggerfish Brewing. His beer menu now boasts nine permanent fixtures plus a dozen occasional brews.
“I’d chew off my wrists if I had to brew one or two beers day in and day out,” Eric says of his wide-ranging beer repertoire, which includes American barley wine, sour ales and a beer-wine hybrid. He brews just 250 liters of each “extreme beer,” but is perpetually surprised by the reception they receive. “Last winter we had people coming all the way from Cape Town just for a glass of barley wine,” he says, though it’s the positive reception to his Pucker Puffer Sour Red that shocked him the most. “I was really surprised that I liked sour beer the first time I tasted it,” he says, “but then I set out to brew one. About a third of the people who taste it actually order a pint.” No mean feat since this is the first sour beer available on the South African market.
Of course, bold beers aren’t only to be found in the country’s dorps (Afrikaans for ‘small towns’). In central Johannesburg, Three Skulls Brew Works produces small batches of beers such as peach and rosemary weiss or licorice root and pepper stout, while the young team behind SMACK! Republic is about to launch an IPA with more hops and more IBUs than South Africa has seen in one glass before.
Back in Cape Town, the cradle of South African brewing, there is a lot going on. In and around the regenerated industrial suburb of Woodstock, a mini brew route is emerging, with one of the country’s most respected breweries, Devil’s Peak, at its center. When it was launched in 2011, Devil’s Peak didn’t pander to novice palates with lager or light ale, instead giving South Africa its first real hop injection. The King’s Blockhouse IPA, with its tropical fruit notes and crisp, bitter finish, has gathered a loyal fan club nationwide. As the brewery expands and moves to the city, winemaker-turned-brewer J. C. Steyn is promising exciting new brews to his followers. The Devil’s Peak team is tight-lipped about what those beers might be, but with space being made for a barrel room, it seems some wood aging is definitely in the cards.
Beer quality in South Africa is improving , brewery numbers have doubled in the past two years, and as brewers get more adventurous, so do their customers. At Cape Town’s annual homebrewing festival this year, the unexpected hit was a biltong beer, using smoked malt and coriander seeds to mimic the flavor of the country’s beloved bar snack. It turned out to be the talk of the festival, with attendees seeking out a taste of the beer screaming South African-ness. Although when he was first developing his recipes, Theo de Beer decided against mixing meat and mash, it seems South Africans are so thirsty for something different that a biltong-laced brew suddenly doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.