News / Africa

    Zimbabwean Makes Beer at One of Africa's Few Microbreweries

    Former farmer Fred Van Der Merwe at cusp of African micro brewing industry

    Former Zimbabwean farmer Fred Van De Merwe is now a master beer brewer at Africa's highest brewery on a mountain pass in South Africa
    Former Zimbabwean farmer Fred Van De Merwe is now a master beer brewer at Africa's highest brewery on a mountain pass in South Africa
    Darren Taylor

    Fred Van Der Merwe remembers creeping through the red dust, “wide-eyed with fear” and rifle at hand, a young boy ready to “kill and die” to protect his family’s farm north of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.  It was the mid-1970s, and civil war was raging between the troops of the white minority Rhodesian government and the black liberation forces, led by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo.  

    “I can’t say I ever remember my parents talking about politics,” Van Der Merwe says.  “Our carrying weapons on the farm was only geared towards protecting our land from whoever attacked it.”  

    But the family’s dream of “forever” farming in a democratic Zimbabwe ended in 2001, when Mr. Mugabe’s war veterans seized their land by force.  

    “From a very early age, I guess my life was defined by conflict,” Van Der Merwe reflects.  “But everything changes,” he adds.

    Indeed, the Fred Van Der Merwe of today describes himself as a “changed man – forced by circumstance” to transform himself from a successful tobacco, maize and cattle farmer into a master beer maker – albeit as an “exile” in South Africa.

    The view from Van Der Merwe's brewery on the high Long Tom Pass in South Africa's Mpumalanga province
    The view from Van Der Merwe's brewery on the high Long Tom Pass in South Africa's Mpumalanga province

    He acknowledges his path to business here has been “a sometimes traumatic” metamorphosis…but one that’s bringing pleasure to the many beer lovers from across the globe who visit his brewery on top of the precipitous Long Tom Pass in South Africa’s mountainous Mpumalanga province.      

    ‘Whisky water’ is the secret

    Rolling green hills and ghostly mist add to the mysterious atmosphere of Van Der Merwe’s distillery, which – at an altitude of almost 2,200 meters – is the highest brewery in Africa and one of the highest in the world.  “Drinking our beer in such thin air gives it a very unique taste,” the brewer comments, while standing among huge stainless steel boilers that hum and hiss as water, malt, barley and hops ferment into beer.

    “It’s not the type of thing that you can brew from your house or your garage.  It’s complicated,” Van Der Merwe says.

    His ingredients are steamed in “mash tanks” and then pumped into big copper kettles, where it’s stored for a few hours “to get the concentration right.”  Then, it’s channeled into tanks, where yeast is added.  The blend is allowed to ferment for a week, after which the beer has its required “kick” – namely a healthy percentage of alcohol.  The brew’s then pumped into “conditioning tanks,” where gas is added.  Van Der Merwe’s beer is now ready to be put into kegs to be served from the tap to thirsty customers or bottled for transport elsewhere.

    The brewer says high-quality water, whose source is the pristine Whiskey Creek, is the most important ingredient for great beer
    The brewer says high-quality water, whose source is the pristine Whiskey Creek, is the most important ingredient for great beer

    “Altogether it’s a very expensive process,” he says.  To maintain consistency of flavor, the brewer spends many thousands of dollars every year on malt, barley and hops bought from the same local and European sources.

    “If we import from a certain place in Germany or the United Kingdom, it’s got to come from there all the time,” he tells VOA.  “We can’t buy hops of a certain type from Russia, for example, and then buy the next batch from the UK, because of the climate differences (in these different places) that change the quality (and taste) of a product.”

    But it is “simple H2O,” maintains Van Der Merwe, that’s the most important additive in high quality beer.  “Water makes a good brew, not costly foreign-sourced grains,” he says.  “They are secondary.”  Van Der Merwe uses water from a natural spring on his property.  “The water is pure, it’s clean and it has a taste all of its own.  It still contains all the minerals; none of that gets filtered out,” he says.

    The spring’s called the Whisky Spruit (Creek).  It was named centuries ago by pioneers to South Africa’s interior who camped at the stream and mixed its cool water with their fiery whisky.  

    The ‘big gun’ of the beer world

    The location of Van Der Merwe’s brewery, on one of the many steep, hairpin bends that characterize the Long Tom Pass, ensures that his link with conflict hasn’t yet been severed, for his business is at the scene of one of the most famous battles in South African military history.  For five days in 1900, as the Anglo-Boer War between British forces and Afrikaner Boers reached its zenith, Boer General Louis Botha – with only 3,500 men and three “Long Tom” cannons – repulsed 30,000 British troops armed with 88 extreme-range howitzers, before finally being defeated.

    Van Der Merwe's brewery is on top of the Long Tom Pass, named after one of these 'Long Tom' cannons South African Boers used to fight British forces here in 1900
    Van Der Merwe's brewery is on top of the Long Tom Pass, named after one of these 'Long Tom' cannons South African Boers used to fight British forces here in 1900

    The Long Tom Pass is named after one of Botha’s famous guns, preserved at a monument near Van Der Merwe’s homestead, which now shelters not soldiers, but thirsty beer connoisseurs.

    “We basically brew four different kinds of beer,” he explains.

    Van Der Merwe’s Blacksmith’s Brew is “very light, and tart, and naturally cloudy, based on the centuries-old tradition of Belgian white beer, or witbier.”

    His signature Digger’s draught beer is based on Kölschbier, which originated in the German town of Köln in 1254.  Van Der Merwe says it's "light in body and flavor; quite fruity” – the result of the South African pale malt and imported German winter wheat malt used to make this beer.

    Van Der Merwe describes his Mac’s Porter brew as an “old English style” beer, with a “malty, creamy fullness, smooth as silk, with chocolate and coffee undertones and a deep ruby color.” Then, plopping a mug of thick, golden liquid on the mahogany bar counter, he presents what he calls his “big gun,” a mischievous smile creasing his tanned face.

    “The Old Bull Bitter is based on a British ale type of beer.  It’s high in alcohol – not for sissies,” Van Der Merwe says.  “It’s spicy; lots of aromatic floral flavors” – the result of what the brewer calls the “late addition of unprocessed Styrian Goldings leaf hops” imported from Britain.

    African microbrew explosion

    Van Der Merwe is what’s become known around the world as a “microbrewer” – a rarity in Africa, where the beer industry is dominated by immense corporations that mass-produce the continent’s most popular alcoholic beverage.  He’s at the vanguard of what he hopes in the future will result in increasing numbers of Africans turning away from “bland factory beer” and towards “microbrews,” made with “absolutely no enhancers or unnatural additives being used anywhere in the brewing process.”

    Van Der Merwe makes beer- such as Old Bull Bitter ale-from British hops
    Van Der Merwe makes beer- such as Old Bull Bitter ale-from British hops

    Van Der Merwe, however, acknowledges that his quest may remain unfulfilled.

    “Brewing beers on such a small scale is virtually unknown in Africa.  Africans remain very loyal to the commercial, mass-produced beers and many aren’t willing to experiment with others.

    "So at the moment, our local, home-grown and produced beer is very much for a niche market – these are people with a bit of money to spend on indulging in fine beer; they are like wine lovers of the beer world, so to speak.”

    The Zimbabwean doesn’t hesitate to equate the consumption of microbrew beer with that of fine wines.  “Just as a great Shiraz goes excellently with a steak, so too can a unique microbrew.  Just as a wine snob will swirl wine in his mouth and comment, ‘Very fruity, with hints of vanilla,’ so too will an appreciator of a microbrew beer swirl the beer in his mouth and comment, ‘Ah! A coriander flavor….’”  

    Substandard beer

    But at the moment, says Van Der Merwe, African microbrewers are “somewhat isolated.”

    “We’re all small guys; we thrive because of word of mouth, not big, multimillion rand advertising campaigns….  So it’s going to take time for us to establish ourselves.”  He adds that some South African microbrewers “haven’t exactly helped the cause” by producing beer that’s “not up to scratch.”

    “(African) microbreweries still need to achieve a standard as far as the quality of the beer is concerned,” Van Der Merwe says.  “The more established microbreweries do keep a reasonably high standard.  However, there are many microbrewers still in a very early stage as far as the perfection of their beer is concerned.”

    The quality of beer from these manufacturers, he says, “fluctuates too much.  They might have had a batch of beer that tasted fine; the following batch tasted different.  That sort of fluctuation puts people off.”

    As Van Der Merwe reflects on his journey from farmer “under siege” in Zimbabwe to premier beer brewer in South Africa’s beautiful Mpumalanga highlands, he sips at another of his creations and says softly, “South Africa’s been good to me….”

    And now, he’s passing some of that goodness on to his customers, in the form of some of Africa’s most extraordinary beer.


    You May Like

    Video Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.