News / Africa

Will Bloom Fade on South Africa Beer Revolution?

Part 5 of a five-part series on South Africa's craft beer boom

Barley dries in the sun at Dirk van Tonder’s brewery in Northwest Province. He prefers using methods developed centuries ago. (Photo Credit: Dirk van Tonder)
Barley dries in the sun at Dirk van Tonder’s brewery in Northwest Province. He prefers using methods developed centuries ago. (Photo Credit: Dirk van Tonder)
Darren Taylor
Stylish young men and women sit on vintage wooden chairs beneath a large brick wall bearing a mural of sprinting wolves. Some of the men sport neatly trimmed goatees and fedoras on their heads; others are in designer suits, ties and waistcoats. Most of the women display expensive dresses on their lithe bodies; shiny rings adorn their manicured fingers. High heels accentuate their shapely legs.
 
A mosaic of fairy tale character Red Riding Hood in passage over a black-and-white checkered floor continues the wolf motif. People chat and tuck into gourmet hamburgers. But they’re really here for the craft beers.
 
There’s “The King’s Blockhouse,” an extremely bitter India Pale Ale [IPA] with intense flavors of tropical fruit; the “Brauhaus Pilsner,” amber in color and tasting of honey and fruit; the malty “Jack Black Lager,” and many more.
 
The Wolfpack, in Johannesburg’s plush Parkhurst suburb, is just one of many bars and restaurants revolving around craft beer culture that exploded recently in South Africa.
 
Craft beer, otherwise known as specialty or artisanal beer, is made slowly, according to traditional methods, in small breweries using pure ingredients - including hops, malted barley and mineral water. Commercial beer is made fast in factories, often using chemicals and preservatives, and is usually far less flavorful than craft beer.
 
‘Fashiony' thing for The Leopard
 
The Wolfpack’s clientele consists primarily of “hipsters.” These young and wealthy dedicated followers of fashion are an important part of South Africa’s newfound thirst for craft beer, and that has led to some observers in food and drink circles to call the phenomenon an unsustainable fad.
 
While Lucy Corne, one of South Africa’s finest beer writers and the author of African Brew, a seminal book on craft beer in the country, is convinced that its artisanal beer sector is here to stay, she said a lot of people are drinking specialty beer at the moment “simply because it’s cool.”
 
Craft brewers savor the tastes of survival
Craft brewers imagine the tastes of survivali
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

“They don’t necessarily know anything about what they’re drinking. It sounds really patronizing but some people don’t even necessarily know if they like what they’re drinking, but it’s cool to drink it so they drink it anyway,” said Corne.
 
Nick Gordon, co-owner of one of Johannesburg’s top restaurants, The Leopard, who offers his customers craft beer to pair with food, agreed. “People are aware of craft beer but I think they’re doing it kind of as a ‘fashiony’ thing rather than [with an attitude of], ‘This is the best beer that we can get and there’s integrity involved [in its production].’ That’s really the trend. I know I’m sounding cynical, but that’s what I see around me.”
 
Gerry de Souza, owner of a liquor store in Johannesburg, said he’s witnessed a massive spike in sales of specialty beer in the past year. “The first guys who started really drinking craft beer about three years ago did it because they wanted pure beer, high quality beer,” he said. “Now it’s becoming a fad; it’s becoming a fashion. You’ve got to have five different types of craft beers [in your fridge] if you’re worth anything.”

  • Craft brewers target the same young and stylish South African demographic being targeted in this South African Breweries advertisement. (Photo Credit: South African Breweries)
  • Microbrewer Andre de Beer says craft beer isn’t a fad and is “here to stay.” (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
  • Gilroy has transformed his beer into a nationwide brand but maintaned its reputation as a high-quality handcrafted beer. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
  • Specialty beer on sale at a bar in Johannesburg. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
  • Like all brewers in the small industry, Michael Biljon of Gilroy's Brewery is crucial to the quality and success of South Africa's hand-crafted beer industry. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
  • Commercial beers continue to dominate the South African beer industry, but craft brew is making inroads into the upper end of the beer market. (Photo Credit: South African Breweries)
  • “South Africans have such a specific taste bud range," says Nuschka Botha of Black Hose Brewery, displaying tasters of her brews. "We don’t want to go way out and try something crazy.” (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)
 
‘No turning back’
 
But leading microbrewer Andre de Beer insisted that the burgeoning demand for craft beer does not represent a fad that would soon fade away.
 
“It’s here to stay – people enjoy a proper, flavorsome product and as long as we keep on offering that as brewers, the customers will be there,” said the owner of the Cockpit Brewery in Cullinan, Gauteng Province.
 
De Beer maintained that South Africa’s artisanal beer sector is “nowhere close to hitting its peak. Of course, that will eventually happen but that will not result in the demise of the craft beer movement. I believe we’ve still got a long way to go before we reach critical mass and you’re going to see plenty more breweries opening in the next few years.”
 
Another microbrewer, Dirk van Tonder of the Irish Ale House, said, “Everywhere in the world where craft beer has taken off, from America to Australia to Asia, it has continued as a viable and profitable part of their beer markets. Yes, all explosions end and it will also end in South Africa. But we’ll still be left with a strong market.”
 
Now that South Africans realize that beer is about much more than “bland” commercial lagers, said van Tonder, “there’s no turning back.… People are willing to pay that little bit more for something that’s going to give them immense enjoyment. It’s more flavorful and damn right more healthy for them.”
 
‘Teething problems’
 
But, as the craft beer boom sweeps South Africa and new brewers battle to establish a foothold in the market and to get a share of growing profits, several top microbrewers warn of practices that are creeping in that are compromising the integrity of the sector.
 
“I am aware of some guys who make bad batches of beer and then they dump that beer on to festivals [to sell it there] instead of throwing it away,” said van Tonder.
 
Moritz Kallmeyer, one of South Africa’s most respected brewers, said, “Some of the craft beer isn’t good. Some of the people trying to brew beer at the moment just haven’t got the skills and, more importantly, the work ethic needed to make it in this game. Like, I’ve been called in to help some of the guys who want to know why their beer isn’t selling. Then I find that they never clean their beer kegs.”
 
He continued, “You can brew a brilliant beer and you can screw it up by putting it in a dirty keg. And this is what happened; their beer was always sour, always off. Don’t send out beer that is sub-standard. It’ll kill your business.”
 
Corne said consistency remains elusive for some in the fledgling sector.
 
“A lot of the people who are brewing the beer, they haven’t tasted different beers so they’re making beers in styles and they don’t necessarily know what they should taste like. A lot of them have got teething problems.”
 
Steve Gilroy, who owns a very successful brewery near Johannesburg, criticized brewers who are “packing their beer with C02” that adds “excessive fizz” in what he considers a misguided belief that this will make their beer more popular.
“Most of the brewers aren’t listening to the public. They’re turning people away from beer because they’re making it A – too bitter, and they’re making it B – far too gassy,” he said.
 
Kallmeyer said some craft brew in South Africa is “completely out of balance.”
 
“Some guys now are going completely over the top with hops. Their beers are too bitter from the hops and not enough malt to [add] balance and then it becomes biting in the mouth.”
 
Corne said the downside to the craft beer explosion is people “jumping on the bandwagon” and thinking that they know how to make good beer, when they don’t.
 
She said, laughing, “I read tweets of people who drink certain beers and I taste them and I’m like, ‘There’s no way you are enjoying this beer; this beer’s dreadful!’”
 
Too expensive
 
Everyone close to the microbrewing sector agrees that it’s fair that specialty beers are more expensive than their mainstream counterparts. After all, craft beer is made from pricier ingredients – often from imported hops and malted barley. And it’s made in small quantities which also pushes prices up.
 
But some brewers also agree that profiteers within the artisanal beer scene are harming the sector and could endanger its long-term survival.
 
A pint of commercial beer costs 25 rand [US$ 2.50] in most bars in Johannesburg. At 30 rand a pint, de Beer charges just a bit more for his specialty brew. A liter of Kallmeyer’s craft beer sells for between 35 and 40 rand in liquor stores.
 
But some bars and restaurants in South Africa are charging between 40 and 60 rand per pint of craft beer – which de Beer calls “ridiculous.… It’s not worth it. It’s a beautiful product but it must stay affordable.”
 
He added, “Yes, craft beer is more expensive to produce but you only have to charge about 10 to 15 percent more for your beer to make a decent profit, not 100 or 120 percent more. That’s just pure greed. I can’t see any justification in charging double what a commercial beer would cost. Some places are now charging more than what a high-quality imported Belgian beer costs for a South African-produced craft beer. This kind of practice will come back to haunt us.”
 
De Beer warned that overcharging for craft beer could alienate the market in the near future. “As all kinds of people jump on this bandwagon to make money we must be careful that instead of growing our market, we end up shrinking it,” he said.
 
At his brewery Gilroy charges 23 rand for a pint of his beer – cheaper than prices charged for mainstream beer at many pubs in Johannesburg.
 
“We’re not actually keeping our prices down. We’re just not elevating our prices,” he told VOA. “I believe – and I’m seeing this with a lot of the craft breweries at the moment – they’re elevating their prices. Now this gives me the impression that they think that the venture that they’re in is a short-term venture, and that they’ve got to recover costs in the shortest period of time. It’s a sign of weakness.”
 
Gilroy continued, “Those absurdly high prices don’t do your product or your credibility or the way that the public view your ethic any good at all. But worse than that – this behavior damages the entire craft beer sector.”
 
Corne, however, sees no immediate end to the rising prices of craft beer as it becomes more popular.
 
“To be honest, it’s getting more expensive. Over the last year or something I’m seeing the prices going up. I’ve got a friend who runs a bar in Cape Town and he can get a keg from an American brewery, and even taking into account transport costs and customs [duties] and everything, at the end it only costs a couple more rand for him to put that on tap in his bar than it does some of the locally produced beers – which is kind of ridiculous!”
 
De Beer added, “Offer the people a good, honest product, at a good, honest price, while still making a decent profit. That’s the only way that craft beer will become a major player in South Africa’s alcoholic beverage sector.”
 
The branding of the artisanals
 
Despite the pricing controversy, some in the specialty beer sector see certain craft breweries turning into brands, or companies, in the near future. Gilroy said this is, in fact, “essential” if they’re to survive long term.
 
“Craft brewers who don’t, or can’t, maintain their brands into the future in this country…well, they have no future,” he said.
 
Martin Brooks, who as chief brewer at South African Breweries [SAB], the second largest commercial brewer in the world, keeps a close watch on the country’s craft beer sphere, said some local microbreweries could become big businesses in the future.
 
He pointed out that this has happened in other countries that have experienced craft beer booms, such as the United States. There, specialty beer makers like Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams have grown into large companies, brewing millions of gallons of beer every year.
 
“Their beer is still considered to be a craft product,” said Brooks. “I think over the next five to 10 years you’ll start to see some of the main current smaller craft players [in South Africa] start to grow into becoming more commercial, but hopefully still maintaining their independence and the integrity around the different styles of products which they’re producing.”
 
Substandard beets will soon disappear
 
Gilroy is convinced that the future of craft beer in South Africa is healthy but he predicted that a significant number of artisanal beer breweries will “die off” relatively quickly.
 
In this regard, he turns to events in the US in the 1990s, when that country was experiencing rapid, booming demand for specialty brew.
 
“You had thousands of craft breweries coming up, and within six months, two years, maybe five years, [most] died – because they weren’t any good at it or they didn’t have the passion. The same will happen in South Africa; people making substandard beers here are very soon going to disappear,” he said.
 
Gilroy quipped, “In about three years’ time South Africa’s going to have a huge amount of second-hand brewing equipment kicking around.”
 
Kallmeyer said many more microbreweries will open in the country in the short term, before it is left with fewer ““but far higher quality” craft beer makers.
 
“The future of craft beer in South Africa is safe because the days of South Africans accepting that beer is factory-produced lager are dead and buried. The demand for craft beer is going to continue growing because of this,” he said.
 
Corne is convinced the next chapter in South Africa’s craft beer revolution will ensure that the specialty beer sector thrives.
 
“South Africans who are now starting to drink craft beer in all its various forms will learn more about it. They will be more demanding of the brewers, saying, ‘You know what? This product isn’t good enough. You’re not making it right,” she said.
 
Corne, like others close to the craft brew industry, is certain that it’s this type of quality control that will ensure its long-term feasibility.

You May Like

US Border Patrol Union Accused of Taking Sides on Immigration

Report alleges agents leaking info to immigration opponents, appearing at their private events; Center for Immigration Studies director defends agents' actions More

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Reporting from Somali capital for past decade, Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal has been working at one of Mogadishu's leading radio stations covering parliament More

Video Rights Monitor: Hate Groups' Use of Internet to Inflame, Recruit Growing

Wiesenthal Center's Abraham Cooper says extremists have become skilled at celebrating violence, ideology on Web More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Interneti
X
Mike O'Sullivan
June 30, 2015 8:20 PM
Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs