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
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

Jihadist Assassin says Goal of Tunisia Murders Was Chaos

Abu Muqatil at-Tunusi’s remarks in a propaganda interview also cast light on attack on Bardo Museum More

Russia Denies License to Tatar-Language TV Station in Crimea

OSCE official says denial shows 'politically selective censorship of free and independent voices in Crimea is continuing' More

Kenyan Startups Tackle Expensive Remittances Through Bitcoin

Some think services could give Western Union a run for its money, though others say it’s still got a long way to go More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leadersi
X
Aru Pande
April 01, 2015 9:09 PM
The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leaders

The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Buhari: Nigeria Has ‘Embraced Democracy’

Nigeria woke up to a new president-elect Wednesday, Muhammadu Buhari. But people say democracy is the real winner as the country embarks on its first peaceful handover of power since the end of military rule in 1999. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Abuja.
Video

Video Tiny Camera Sees Inside Blood Vessels

Ahead of any surgical procedure, doctors try to learn as much as possible about the state of the organs they plan to operate on. A new camera developed in the Netherlands can now make that easier - giving surgeons an incredibly detailed look inside blood vessels, all the way to the patient’s heart. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Latin American Groups Seek Fans at Texas Music Festival

Latin American music groups played all over Austin, Texas, during the recent South by Southwest festival, and some made fans out of locals as well as people from around the world who had come to hear music. Such exposure can boost such groups' image back home. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Stockton Community, Police, Work to Improve Relations

Relations are tense between minority communities and police departments around the United States following police shootings that have generated widely-publicized protests. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Stockton, California, where police and community groups are working toward solutions, with backing from Washington.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More