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

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    Factions Shift as Civilians Die in Syrian War

    Scenario likely only to further confuse military situation on ground and potentially worsen humanitarian crisis that already has grown to epic proportions

    Presidential Hopefuls Woo Minorities, Evangelicals

    Four GOP candidates to speak at forum at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina

    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.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.