News / Africa

Craft Beer Boom Sweeps South Africa

Part 1 of a five-part series about a surprising success for small brewers

Craft breweries are popping up all over South Africa. Dirk van Tonder’s rustic "beer farm” in South Africa’s Northwest Province is one of more than 70 breweries specializing in revolutionary new beer flavors. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
Craft breweries are popping up all over South Africa. Dirk van Tonder’s rustic "beer farm” in South Africa’s Northwest Province is one of more than 70 breweries specializing in revolutionary new beer flavors. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
Darren Taylor
Bottles clinked and clanked as Gerry de Souza, wearing a broad smile and a pen behind his ear, filled newly constructed shiny silver shelves with scores of beers from microbreweries all over South Africa.
 
“I’ve [sold] craft beers for probably the last 20 years. I’ve tried to make a market out of it, but it’s only really, really taken off probably in the last three years…. It’s actually come in and taken over. As I get them, I just put them on the shelf,” he said, while recording his stock on a list.
 
De Souza, who owns Linden Discount Liquor store in Johannesburg, heaved six-packs of bright-gold blonde ale, with subtle aromas and slight fruitiness, out of their boxes. Then he sorted through varieties of German-style Weiss [wheat] beer, hazy and straw-colored and boasting flavors of banana, cloves and freshly baked bread. Next he turned his attention to a consignment of Saison, orange-hued and Belgian in style, containing strong suggestions of coriander, ginger and citrus.
 
Before de Souza could price some of the specialty beers, a customer began loading them into his basket.
 
“That’s what happens!” laughed the genial, talkative de Souza. “People will walk in and as soon as they see a new craft beer, they go for it. They don’t ask the price; they don’t care what it is; they just want to try a new craft beer….”
 
Listen to Darren Taylor interviews about craft beers
Listen to Darren Taylor interviews about craft beersi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

He added that demand for craft brew had grown “like a tidal wave” in the past six months.
 
“I’ve had this business for more than 20 years now and I’ve never seen a change in buying habits like this. One minute I was selling a few bottles a month and now I have to order new stock once a week.”
 
De Souza said his sales of craft beers has risen by 120 percent in the past year, and by 500 percent in the past five years.
 
The art of making craft beer
 
Craft beer, also called artisanal beer, is handcrafted in small, independent breweries and not mass-produced in factories. It contains no chemicals or preservatives, only “pure” inputs – usually hops, barley, malt, yeast and water. Its flavors develop naturally and it’s generally much tastier than commercial beer. Depending on the ingredients used, its flavors can vary greatly – from honey and chocolate to tropical fruits and spices.
 
  • Bars and restaurants serving craft beer are opening all over South Africa. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
  • Dirk van Tonder’s simple brewery on his “beer farm” in South Africa’s Northwest Province. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
  • Some specialty beers made by Moritz Kallmeyer of Drayman’s Brewery are on sale at a liquor store in Johannesburg. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
  • Demand for artisanal, handcrafted beer shows no sign of decreasing soon in South Africa. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
  • The author of "African Brew," Lucy Corne, prefers the bitterness of what afcionados call hoppy beer. I could drink several of them!” she said with laughter. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
  • Brewer Andre de Beer’s signature craft brew is an American-style pale ale. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
  • South African women are also starting to drink beer; previously this was rare. (Photo Credit: South African Breweries)
  • "We get packed every weekend; it’s insane,” says one of South Africa’s leading microbrewers, Steve Gilroy, who welcomes customers to his brewery near Johannesburg. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
  • Gilroy once struggled to sell his beer … Now his brewhouse is packed every weekend. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)

Craft brews take longer to produce, are made in small quantities and use more expensive ingredients, so they’re pricier than beers made on a large scale.

"Craft beer takes chances and is different in terms of its full flavors,” said Andre de Beer, the man with the most appropriate name in South Africa’s craft beer sector and the owner of the Cockpit Brewery in the diamond mining town of Cullinan in Gauteng province.
 
“Craft beer is made by somebody that’s got a passion for it, and that passion will show in the end product. Commercial beer, unfortunately quite too often, is brewed by accountants. Their job is to churn out beer that doesn’t take any chances, beer that appeals to as wide as possible an audience."

Brewer Dirk van Tonder took it a step further. He spoke from his “beer farm” surrounded by dry bush and rugged, rocky mountains at Broederstroom in Northwest province: “For me, craft beer should actually be artistic beer because it’s also an art. Most of the craft breweries that are working with it passionately, they are artists; they are beer artists.”
 
In Johannesburg, Jurie Blomerus has built an entire business around craft beer – the Stanley Beer Yard. Its decor is eclectic, including the heads of dead buffalo and antelope on the walls, religious effigies and cattle whips.
 
Blomerus keeps his customers doused with a range of exclusive brews as the woeful and sometimes utterly depressing strains of country music wash over them. “It makes people drink more,” he said, laughing.
 
Blomerus said he decided to sell craft beer because it’s special.
 
“There’s a saying in wine circles that for wine to be good you must taste the vine, not the vat. It’s the same with [craft] beer. The way it’s brewed and the way it’s nurtured, you can taste it. It’s not as gassy; it actually has distinctive flavors….”
 
Chefs recommend beers to pair with foods
 
De Souza’s sales and Blomerus’s bar are just two of many indicators of South Africa’s explosion in craft beer.
 
Just a few years ago, there were a handful of microbreweries in the country. Now, there are more than 70, with the number set to increase significantly in the near future. Pubs and restaurants selling artisanal beer are opening all over. Festivals dedicated to craft beer are ubiquitous. Women are drinking and brewing craft beer. Websites are selling craft beer.

Winemakers are abandoning the vines to make beer; elderly brewers who once worked for South African Breweries [SAB] are coming out of retirement to make craft beer. People walk the streets wearing caps and t-shirts bearing the names and logos of their favorite microbreweries. Craft brewing clubs have sprung up in all major cities. Chefs are advising customers to pair food with beer. Craft beer brewers are being invited to sell their products at a variety of public events – including recently to a sex expo and another about home decoration. Newspapers and magazines are filled with articles on beer, breweries and brewers.
 
“I get fed up of hearing the phrase ‘craft beer,’ to be honest. It’s just everywhere, all the time,” said Lucy Corne, snickering as she humbly acknowledged her major role in helping to drive the boom. Her recent book, African Brew: Exploring the Craft of South African Beer, is the country’s bible of craft beer.
 
“South Africa is currently riding the cusp of a beer revolution,” said de Beer. “We’re living in very exciting times. The variety of beer that has become available is amazing, and it’s such good news.”
 
Van Tonder added, “It’s very, very exciting. We’re standing at the threshold here of a whole industry opening up.”
 
Another of South Africa’s top microbrewers, Moritz Kallmeyer, who opened Drayman’s Brewery in Pretoria in 1997, said he can’t quite believe that South Africa is finally acquiring “a culture of good beer.”
 
He reflected, “I was sitting here one evening drinking a beer, contemplating the early years, and I actually got quite emotional when I suddenly realized that what I had been praying for suddenly is upon me…. And that at one weekend festival I made more money than I made in the first year of starting Drayman’s.”
 
But amid all the hype around craft beer, Kallmeyer said it’s essential for all concerned in the blossoming industry to remember the times when microbrewers battled to survive in a country where beer drinkers were accustomed only to consuming bland, mass-produced lagers and pilsners.
 
“We mustn’t get arrogant,” he insisted. “Let’s remember where we come from ….”
 
Ignorance and hard times
 
Kallmeyer’s original profession was biokinetics, the science of movement. He rehabilitated many injured athletes and people ill with chronic diseases through carefully structured exercise programs. He said his family and friends thought he was “mad” when he abandoned his career to make beer.
 
“Looking back, I was!” he exclaimed. Then he became subdued, and serious.
 
“For me that was an extremely painful survival period of my life…. I had very little money to start the brewery. My wife and I were poor. We survived by selling a keg or two every now and again,” Kallmeyer reflected.
 
His first beer was an English bitter ale.
 
“People viewed it with great suspicion. At first no one wanted to drink this ‘strange’ beer that I was making,” Kallmeyer said. “I had to become a public spokesperson for my own product. Who else was going to go out there and tell people, ‘This beer is not yellow; it’s red. It is bitter and it’s got lower carbonation and it’s got a lot more flavor than lager.’”
 
When Kallmeyer offered his wheat beer, a style that’s naturally cloudy, “things got worse,” he said, laughing. “They told me, ‘What is this dishwater you are giving us?’ Up until recently South Africans thought a beer had to be yellow and it had to be clear and fizzy in order for it to be a beer. They were very unsophisticated in terms of beer.”
 
A man with similar experiences is Lex Mitchell, the undisputed pioneer of craft beer in South Africa. In 1983, he opened the country’s first – and for a long time, only – independent microbrewery, in the coastal town of Knysna, also making English-style ale.
 
“My beer was treated like an outcast back then. I had to go out and teach people that what I was making was beer, because South Africans were only used to drinking commercial beer,” said Mitchell.
 
He added, “I always felt isolated. I felt this way right up until a few years ago. But now the consuming public has picked up on craft beer in a big way and that was the element that was needed to allow it to explode.”
 
Steve Gilroy received his license to brew on April Fools’ Day in 2000.
 
“It should have been a sign, shouldn’t it?” he dead-panned, stroking his long white beard  while talkimg about the craft his brewery and restaurant in Muldersdrift, near Johannesburg.
 
“It was difficult in the beginning. Very difficult. South Africans are still very loyal to SAB beer and to get them to taste anything else – especially my British-style ales – was like climbing a mountain,” he told VOA.
 
During his first eight years of business Gilroy remembered spending every weekend in liquor stores “pleading” with people to try his beer. Now, he puts up “Full House” signs at his brewery every weekend.
 
“What day is it today, Tuesday? We’re already fully booked for Saturday; we’re fully booked for Sunday. We’ve got no space. We get packed every weekend; it’s insane.”
 
'It just blows me away'
 
The trailblazer microbrewers, accustomed to struggling to keep their enterprises and passions afloat, have been surprised at the speed at which craft beer in South Africa has taken off.
 
“I must admit, I did not see this coming -- not in my wildest dreams,” said van Tonder, sipping amber ale on the shady porch of his rustic pub.
 
Kallmeyer said, “It was like overnight! It’s taken off like a snowstorm the last two years.”
 
Mitchell, who fought an often-lonely battle for almost 30 years to open up the world of craft beer to South Africans, admitted that he never foresaw victory.
 
“It’s taken me by surprise. I’ve known all along that a few stalwarts were making good beer, but to suddenly see this profusion of microbreweries is surprising – almost shocking.”
 
Kallmeyer constantly reflects on the past – “to maintain perspective, to keep my feet on the ground,” he said, adding: “I used to dream that one day South Africans would wake up and smell the beer, that they would develop a taste for ‘real’ beer. But after more than 10 years as a craft brewer, my dream was dying.

"Now, to see my dream alive and actually happening, it just blows me away.”
 
And growing numbers of South African beer drinkers are themselves being blown away by the sudden array of choices available to them.
 
In South Africa, the beer revolution rolls on, with little sign of slowing down soon.

You May Like

Photogallery Oxfam: Ebola Could Be 'Disaster of Our Generation'

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba, says the Caribbean island nation will 'gladly cooperate' with the US in the fight against Ebola in West Africa More

Multimedia Kobani Fighting Sends 400,000 Refugees to Turkey

Refugees receive help from Turkish authorities and individuals, but say much more is needed More

India’s Ruling Nationalist Party Makes Gains in Regional Elections

Bharatiya Janata Party’s huge margin over its rivals puts it on course to form governments in the northern Haryana and western Maharashtra states More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fighti
X
Zana Omer
October 18, 2014 6:37 PM
The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Syrian Defector Leaks Shocking Photos of Torture Victims

Shocking photographs purporting to show Syrian torture victims are on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The museum says the graphic images are among thousands of photographs recently smuggled out of Syria by a military policeman-turned-defector. As VOA reporter Julie Taboh reports, the museum says the photos provide further evidence of atrocities committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.
Video

Video Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System

A three-year drought in California is causing a water shortage that is being felt on farms and cities throughout the state. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.
Video

Video TechShop Puts High-tech Dreams Within Reach

Square, a business app and card reader, makes it possible to do credit card transactions through cell phones. But what made Square possible? VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Enming Liu have the answer.
Video

Video Church for Atheists Goes Global

Atheists, by definition, do not believe in God. So they should have no need of a church. But two years ago, a pair of British stand-up comedians decided to create one. Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans told the BBC they envisioned “something like church but without God". Their “Sunday Assembly” movement has grown from a single congregation in London to dozens of churches around the world. Reporter Mike Osborne visited with the members of a Sunday Assembly that now meets regularly in Nashville.
Video

Video Robot Locates Unexploded Underwater Mines

Many educators believe that hands-on experience is the best way to learn. Proving that the method works is a project developed by a group of students at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey. They rose up to a challenge posted by the U.S. Department of Defense and successfully designed and built an underwater robot for locating submerged unexploded ordnance. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's JFK Hospital Reopens After Temporary Ebola Exposure

JFK Hospital is Liberia’s largest and one of its oldest medical facilities. The hospital had to close temporarily following the deaths of two leading doctors from Ebola. It is now getting back on its feet, with the maternity ward being the first section to reopen. Benno Muchler has more for VOA News from Monrovia.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Expose Generation Gap

Most of the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are students seeking democracy. Idealistic youths say while the older generation worries about the present, they are fighting for the territory's future. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Hong Kong.
Video

Video Liberians Living in US Struggle From Afar as Ebola Ravages Homeland

More than 8,000 Liberians live in New York City, more than in any other city outside of Liberia itself. As VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports, with the Ebola virus ravaging their homeland, there is no peace of mind for these New Yorkers.
Video

Video Kurds See War-Ravaged Kobani As Political, Emotional Heartland

Intense fighting is continuing between Islamic State militants -- also known as ISIS or ISIL -- and Kurdish forces around the Syrian town of Kobani, on the Turkish border. The U.S. said it carried out at least nine airstrikes against Islamic State positions Friday. Meanwhile the U.N. has warned that hundreds of civilians would be massacred if the town falls to the militants. Henry Ridgwell looks at the strategic significance of the city.

All About America

AppleAndroid