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

Photogallery Pistorius Sentenced, Taken to Prison

Pistorius, convicted of culpable homicide in shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, will likely serve about 10 months of five-year sentence, before completing it under house arrest More

UN to Aid Central Africa in Polio Vaccinations

Synchronized vaccinations will be conducted after Cameroon reports a fifth case of the wild polio virus in its territory More

WHO: Ebola Vaccine May Be in Use by Jan.

WHO assistant director Dr. Marie Paule Kieny says clinical trials of Ebola vaccines are underway or planned in Europe, US and Africa More

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

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
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 North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
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.

All About America

AppleAndroid