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

Arrested Football Officials Come Mainly From the Americas

US Justice Department alleges defendants participated in 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through corruption of international soccer More

Video Kenyans Lament Al-Shabab's Recruitment of Youths

VOA travels to Isiolo, where residents share their fears, struggles to get loved ones back from Somalia-based militant group More

This US Epidemic Keeps Getting Worse

One in 4 Americans suffers from this condition 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.
A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensionsi
X
May 26, 2015 11:11 PM
When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

VOA Blogs