JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - Bottles clinked and clanked as Gerry de Souza, wearing a broad smile and a pen behind his ear, filled newly constructed shiny silver shelves with scores of beers from microbreweries all over South Africa.
“I’ve [sold] craft beers for probably the last 20 years. I’ve tried to make a market out of it, but it’s only really, really taken off probably in the last three years…. It’s actually come in and taken over. As I get them, I just put them on the shelf,” he said, while recording his stock on a list.
De Souza, who owns Linden Discount Liquor store in Johannesburg, heaved six-packs of bright-gold blonde ale, with subtle aromas and slight fruitiness, out of their boxes. Then he sorted through varieties of German-style Weiss [wheat] beer, hazy and straw-colored and boasting flavors of banana, cloves and freshly baked bread. Next he turned his attention to a consignment of Saison, orange-hued and Belgian in style, containing strong suggestions of coriander, ginger and citrus.
Before de Souza could price some of the specialty beers, a customer began loading them into his basket.
“That’s what happens!” laughed the genial, talkative de Souza. “People will walk in and as soon as they see a new craft beer, they go for it. They don’t ask the price; they don’t care what it is; they just want to try a new craft beer….”
He added that demand for craft brew had grown “like a tidal wave” in the past six months.
“I’ve had this business for more than 20 years now and I’ve never seen a change in buying habits like this. One minute I was selling a few bottles a month and now I have to order new stock once a week.”
De Souza said his sales of craft beers has risen by 120 percent in the past year, and by 500 percent in the past five years.
The art of making craft beer
Craft beer, also called artisanal beer, is handcrafted in small, independent breweries and not mass-produced in factories. It contains no chemicals or preservatives, only “pure” inputs – usually hops, barley, malt, yeast and water. Its flavors develop naturally and it’s generally much tastier than commercial beer. Depending on the ingredients used, its flavors can vary greatly – from honey and chocolate to tropical fruits and spices.
Craft brews take longer to produce, are made in small quantities and use more expensive ingredients, so they’re pricier than beers made on a large scale.
"Craft beer takes chances and is different in terms of its full flavors,” said Andre de Beer, the man with the most appropriate name in South Africa’s craft beer sector and the owner of the Cockpit Brewery in the diamond mining town of Cullinan in Gauteng province.
“Craft beer is made by somebody that’s got a passion for it, and that passion will show in the end product. Commercial beer, unfortunately quite too often, is brewed by accountants. Their job is to churn out beer that doesn’t take any chances, beer that appeals to as wide as possible an audience."
Brewer Dirk van Tonder took it a step further. He spoke from his “beer farm” surrounded by dry bush and rugged, rocky mountains at Broederstroom in Northwest province: “For me, craft beer should actually be artistic beer because it’s also an art. Most of the craft breweries that are working with it passionately, they are artists; they are beer artists.”
In Johannesburg, Jurie Blomerus has built an entire business around craft beer – the Stanley Beer Yard. Its decor is eclectic, including the heads of dead buffalo and antelope on the walls, religious effigies and cattle whips.
Blomerus keeps his customers doused with a range of exclusive brews as the woeful and sometimes utterly depressing strains of country music wash over them. “It makes people drink more,” he said, laughing.
Blomerus said he decided to sell craft beer because it’s special.
“There’s a saying in wine circles that for wine to be good you must taste the vine, not the vat. It’s the same with [craft] beer. The way it’s brewed and the way it’s nurtured, you can taste it. It’s not as gassy; it actually has distinctive flavors….”
Chefs recommend beers to pair with foods
De Souza’s sales and Blomerus’s bar are just two of many indicators of South Africa’s explosion in craft beer.
Just a few years ago, there were a handful of microbreweries in the country. Now, there are more than 70, with the number set to increase significantly in the near future. Pubs and restaurants selling artisanal beer are opening all over. Festivals dedicated to craft beer are ubiquitous. Women are drinking and brewing craft beer. Websites are selling craft beer.
Winemakers are abandoning the vines to make beer; elderly brewers who once worked for South African Breweries [SAB] are coming out of retirement to make craft beer. People walk the streets wearing caps and t-shirts bearing the names and logos of their favorite microbreweries. Craft brewing clubs have sprung up in all major cities. Chefs are advising customers to pair food with beer. Craft beer brewers are being invited to sell their products at a variety of public events – including recently to a sex expo and another about home decoration. Newspapers and magazines are filled with articles on beer, breweries and brewers.
“I get fed up of hearing the phrase ‘craft beer,’ to be honest. It’s just everywhere, all the time,” said Lucy Corne, snickering as she humbly acknowledged her major role in helping to drive the boom. Her recent book, African Brew: Exploring the Craft of South African Beer, is the country’s bible of craft beer.
“South Africa is currently riding the cusp of a beer revolution,” said de Beer. “We’re living in very exciting times. The variety of beer that has become available is amazing, and it’s such good news.”
Van Tonder added, “It’s very, very exciting. We’re standing at the threshold here of a whole industry opening up.”
Another of South Africa’s top microbrewers, Moritz Kallmeyer, who opened Drayman’s Brewery in Pretoria in 1997, said he can’t quite believe that South Africa is finally acquiring “a culture of good beer.”
He reflected, “I was sitting here one evening drinking a beer, contemplating the early years, and I actually got quite emotional when I suddenly realized that what I had been praying for suddenly is upon me…. And that at one weekend festival I made more money than I made in the first year of starting Drayman’s.”
But amid all the hype around craft beer, Kallmeyer said it’s essential for all concerned in the blossoming industry to remember the times when microbrewers battled to survive in a country where beer drinkers were accustomed only to consuming bland, mass-produced lagers and pilsners.
“We mustn’t get arrogant,” he insisted. “Let’s remember where we come from ….”
Ignorance and hard times
Kallmeyer’s original profession was biokinetics, the science of movement. He rehabilitated many injured athletes and people ill with chronic diseases through carefully structured exercise programs. He said his family and friends thought he was “mad” when he abandoned his career to make beer.
“Looking back, I was!” he exclaimed. Then he became subdued, and serious.
“For me that was an extremely painful survival period of my life…. I had very little money to start the brewery. My wife and I were poor. We survived by selling a keg or two every now and again,” Kallmeyer reflected.
His first beer was an English bitter ale.
“People viewed it with great suspicion. At first no one wanted to drink this ‘strange’ beer that I was making,” Kallmeyer said. “I had to become a public spokesperson for my own product. Who else was going to go out there and tell people, ‘This beer is not yellow; it’s red. It is bitter and it’s got lower carbonation and it’s got a lot more flavor than lager.’”
When Kallmeyer offered his wheat beer, a style that’s naturally cloudy, “things got worse,” he said, laughing. “They told me, ‘What is this dishwater you are giving us?’ Up until recently South Africans thought a beer had to be yellow and it had to be clear and fizzy in order for it to be a beer. They were very unsophisticated in terms of beer.”
A man with similar experiences is Lex Mitchell, the undisputed pioneer of craft beer in South Africa. In 1983, he opened the country’s first – and for a long time, only – independent microbrewery, in the coastal town of Knysna, also making English-style ale.
“My beer was treated like an outcast back then. I had to go out and teach people that what I was making was beer, because South Africans were only used to drinking commercial beer,” said Mitchell.
He added, “I always felt isolated. I felt this way right up until a few years ago. But now the consuming public has picked up on craft beer in a big way and that was the element that was needed to allow it to explode.”
Steve Gilroy received his license to brew on April Fools’ Day in 2000.
“It should have been a sign, shouldn’t it?” he dead-panned, stroking his long white beard while talkimg about the craft his brewery and restaurant in Muldersdrift, near Johannesburg.
“It was difficult in the beginning. Very difficult. South Africans are still very loyal to SAB beer and to get them to taste anything else – especially my British-style ales – was like climbing a mountain,” he told VOA.
During his first eight years of business Gilroy remembered spending every weekend in liquor stores “pleading” with people to try his beer. Now, he puts up “Full House” signs at his brewery every weekend.
“What day is it today, Tuesday? We’re already fully booked for Saturday; we’re fully booked for Sunday. We’ve got no space. We get packed every weekend; it’s insane.”
'It just blows me away'
The trailblazer microbrewers, accustomed to struggling to keep their enterprises and passions afloat, have been surprised at the speed at which craft beer in South Africa has taken off.
“I must admit, I did not see this coming -- not in my wildest dreams,” said van Tonder, sipping amber ale on the shady porch of his rustic pub.
Kallmeyer said, “It was like overnight! It’s taken off like a snowstorm the last two years.”
Mitchell, who fought an often-lonely battle for almost 30 years to open up the world of craft beer to South Africans, admitted that he never foresaw victory.
“It’s taken me by surprise. I’ve known all along that a few stalwarts were making good beer, but to suddenly see this profusion of microbreweries is surprising – almost shocking.”
Kallmeyer constantly reflects on the past – “to maintain perspective, to keep my feet on the ground,” he said, adding: “I used to dream that one day South Africans would wake up and smell the beer, that they would develop a taste for ‘real’ beer. But after more than 10 years as a craft brewer, my dream was dying.
"Now, to see my dream alive and actually happening, it just blows me away.”
And growing numbers of South African beer drinkers are themselves being blown away by the sudden array of choices available to them.
In South Africa, the beer revolution rolls on, with little sign of slowing down soon.