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October 29, 2013

South Africans Acquire Taste for Craft Beers

by Peter Cox

South Africa's beer market has undergone some noticeable changes over the last few years. The country, dominated by commercial lagers, has started to develop a thirst for craft beer, and the number of microbreweries in the country has quadrupled in just four years.

Last weekend, Chris MacRoberts and a few of his friends spent an afternoon at the Stanley Beer Yard in South Africa doing a very South African thing... drinking beer.

"So the South African staple is lager of about five to six percent, and everyone drinks whether it’s a green bottle or a red bottle or a brown bottle. It’s basically all the same stuff with a slight variation on a theme. Which is not, it's not bad beer, but this stuff, the craft stuff is a lot more interesting," said MacRoberts.

South Africa has long been a beer drinking country. South African Breweries the second largest brewery company in the world, owns brands like Miller and Foster's, and national brands like Castle and Hansa.

For years, those beers dominated liquor store shelves and the bar scene. Tastes have evolved, though, making way for a craft beer boom.

"And there was a big move a few years ago, toward artisanal products in farmers markets. People wanted to try locally produced cheese and bread and jams and chutneys and all of this kind of thing. A lot of people attribute the craft beer boom to these kinds of markets," said Lucy Corne, author of the book African Brew. She said four years ago, there were about 15 or so microbrews in the country. Today there are roughly 70 craft breweries. That could reach 100 by next year.

Along with the foodie movement, Corne said craft beer is about image as well.

"There's this company called Brewers & Union - they imported beers from Germany and Belgium," she said. "They made it very hip to drink craft beers and that played a huge part, because the hipsters sort of cottoned on to it. In Cape Town, the hipster culture is huge… It exploded it then. People see the hipsters drinking it and say 'ooh, this is cool, I'll do this.'"

Yurie Blomerus is the owner of the Stanley Beer Yard, a trendy microbrew pub in Johannesburg that opened in April. After running biker, and rock and roll bars, he saw a new opportunity.

"People are loving it. People are realizing that product is far superior than just your commercial average beer. It's like you can literally taste the good liquor as such, the good ingredients and of course the next day you have the evidence because you don't feel that hung over… cause it’s a good product and that's the bottom line," said Blomerus.

Grant York and brothers, David and Andrew Martin, started home brewing a few years ago. Their passion led them to open their own brewery - Smack! Republic Brewing Company, one of the first craft breweries in Johannesburg proper.

They rent a small space in an old panel beaters [auto body shop] warehouse in a hip neighborhood in Johannesburg called Maboneng.

David and Grant spent a recent night brewing a batch of beer, after both had worked a full day at their respective engineering jobs. Inside the cramped space, they washed out kegs, boiled a kettle of a coffee-infused Dunkelweisen, and poured a Belgian Style ale into the fermentation tank.

Smack! Republic Brewing Company produces upwards of 3,000 liters of beer per month, and its volume should double by year's end as it launches a bottled beer line.

 "A lot of people told us we were crazy. We love it and it certainly paid off. The reception we've gotten so far has been phenomenal. We can barely keep up with demand four months in," said York.

After another night of hard work, David Martin and York raised a glass.