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

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

Studies point to possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees 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.
Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Imagei
X
Marthe van der Wolf
March 03, 2015 9:03 PM
Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.

All About America

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