JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - Bearded men wrapped in bandoliers of bullets give steely stares into the camera in an image from 1900. Most are gripping rifles, wearing hats and have pipes in their mouths. In another photograph on a sand-washed wall of the simple bar, a little boy, skeletal and sallow from malnutrition, sits on a chair, gazing blankly into the distance.
The Irish Ale House, a few stone buildings on a dusty, rocky farm in South Africa’s Northwest Province, is more than just a brewery. It’s a monument to the Irish Brigade, a group of Irishmen who fought with the country’s Boers against the English in the Anglo-Boer War, from 1899 to 1902.
Many thousands were killed in the conflict. Boer women and children died in masses in concentration camps. Following victory, the English executed the surviving Irish fighters as traitors to the British crown.
Ale House owner Dirk van Tonder honors the Irish rebels in the best way he knows: by making some of South Africa’s finest craft beer.
This specialty brew is handcrafted, using “pure” ingredients, including hops, barley, malt and water. The flavors of craft beer vary greatly, from fruit to honey to coffee and many more; the beers can be bitter to pleasantly sweet. Commercial, mass-produced beer is often made using chemicals and preservatives, and is generally much less flavorful than craft beer.
At one of the Ale House’s rough wooden tables sits a group of Belgian tourists, their pale faces becoming progressively redder from the harsh sun and consumption of spicy Orange Blossom Weiss [wheat] beer. Two Irishmen slouch on the bar counter of planks, their humor oiled with pints of ruby-red Irish ale. Nearby, van Tonder’s donkeys loiter, eager for a feed of carrots.
“I’ve kept things humble here. My focus is on beer, not on flashiness,” said van Tonder, one of the many characters involved in the current boom in South Africa’s craft beer sector.
In the country’s recently published bible of artisanal beer, African Brew, the authors call him a “maverick brewer, a guy who would not only throw out the rule book, but would never deign to buy a rule book in the first place.”
Van Tonder smiled at the description.
“Describing me as a maverick is very generous of them. They could have maybe described me as a pauper – a very creative pauper. Basically, I think that’s what I am! My greatest wealth and assets does not lie in money; it lies in my friends and my followers, and that’s how I see it.”
Van Tonder continued, “I am not trying to get rich. I don’t want to sell beer in fancy bars and restaurants. I don’t even want to bottle my beer to sell it in bottle [liquor] stores. I live simply and I don’t have a lot of money and possessions. All I want is to make true beer lovers happy by making beer for them here on a very small scale and serving it to them on my beer farm.”
‘Way ahead of his time’
Van Tonder said he first tasted microbrewed beer in the late 1980s.
“It was at a small festival in a rural area north of Johannesburg. There were three men there who had brewed their own beer. I was in awe. I couldn’t get enough of this. I had maybe a sip or two of the products there and I thought, ‘You make your own beer? Wow! This is too good to be true.’”
Not long after this, he said, “another inspiration” behind his decision to become a brewer happened after he bought some Mitchell’s ale in a liquor store in Johannesburg.
“Here was beer that was just so different from the boring, gassy SAB [South African Breweries] beer that I was used to drinking in the army. I fell in love with it.”
Lex Mitchell, the undisputed pioneer of craft beer in South Africa, opened his brewery in the coastal town of Knysna in 1983, making ales modeled on classic English brews.
“He was way ahead of his time,” said van Tonder. “He actually went to university and got a degree in chemistry just so that he could make beer. His sole purpose in doing that was to start his own brewery. He was a visionary, but South Africa wasn’t ready for his vision in the 1980s. It’s only now that people are realizing what a great man Lex Mitchell was, and still is. I mean, he was even ahead of America’s craft beer explosion, which only really took off in the early 1990s.”
From his new brewery in Port Elizabeth, Mitchell told VOA, “I’ve been into beer since I was a kid. I was at boarding school, and we made some pineapple beer in a locker….”
His brewing continued at university, and eventually landed him a job at SAB in Cape Town. But Mitchell soon became restless working at the company that’s now the second-largest commercial beer brewer in the world.
“I always knew I wasn’t a corporate man,” he said. “SAB was so huge, and my mind worked better in a micro way. I thought there would be much more satisfaction to be gained from making beer in a small way.”
Mitchell was inspired by the world’s first beer brewers, in mediaeval Europe. “They made beer completely naturally, using pure ingredients and methods, making beers slowly,” he said. “I wanted to do that as well.”
Testing beer in a gymnasium
Old brewing methods also motivated Moritz Kallmeyer to become a brewer.
“I had the privilege of growing up on a farm with a rural black man from the old era when people knew how to make everything themselves. He showed me how to make beer using sugar and water and sorghum,” he explained.
Kallmeyer’s mother noticed her son’s interest and, in a move that he acknowledged not many parents would make, bought him a book on how to make wine at home.
“The author, Anna Olivier, was an old boeretannie [Boer auntie] who knew how to make everything by hand, and she wrote about how to make all these wonderful alcoholic drinks just by using stuff that you grow in the garden, like mulberries and pumpkins,” he said.
“I started making my own wines from apples. And anything that the greengrocer would give me for free I would use, and used Anna’s book and I made wine – quite successfully – at a young age.”
The next step towards his destiny came when Kallmeyer was 15. He distilled schnapps in his father’s old camping kettle, took it to school and passed it around to his classmates. “Naughty, hey?” he said, chuckling.
His hobby continued at university and later in his garage at home, as he pursued a career rehabilitating injured athletes and people battling chronic diseases by means of carefully designed exercise programs.
“I had my own gym and I would brew the beer, taste it myself, decide if it’s good or not and then take it to the gym; after the gym session the guys had the opportunity to get a free beer so long as they gave me feedback on what’s the flavor like,” Kallmeyer said.
Eventually his passion for making beer usurped his career, and in 1997 he opened Drayman’s Brewery in Pretoria. After years of struggling and under the near constant threat of bankruptcy, Kallmeyer is finally turning a significant profit because of South Africa’s sudden thirst for specialty beer.
“The money is welcome, of course, but that was never my motivation in making beer,” he said. “That’s why I’m still in the business today. If money was my main driving force I wouldn’t have been here today. My passion and my ambition [were] to create a beer culture and to share with other people the unique flavors in craft beer.”
‘Horrible’ beer as inspiration
Unlike van Tonder and Kallmeyer, Steve Gilroy believes in keeping his customers happy with much more than his award-winning beer. His elegant restaurant and pub on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg swings with live music. The TVs are tuned to sports. On weekend afternoons he pauses the party to recite his poems, which more often than not feature stinging criticisms of the government, corrupt police departments and other social ills.
But Gilroy is most famous – or rather infamous – for his “beer speeches,” in which he enlightens his audiences about his beer and how it’s made, and during which he seems more of a standup comedian than a brewer.
At one such event recently Gilroy told the crowd to thunderous laughter, “There are a few benefits to my job -- like I’ve never faced my wife sober. If I go home sober she thinks I haven’t been working.”
His talks also feature his disdain for wine, to which he applies various denigrating labels, including “vinegar that’s in the process of rotting.”
Gilroy was born in Ireland but grew up in Liverpool and London; he moved to South Africa in 1970. It wasn’t the climate or the culture of the country that shocked him, he said – it was the “horrible” beer.
“When I came to South Africa I couldn’t drink the beer. I was used to the bigger [bodied] beers and they simply didn’t have it; it was just a sea of generic lagers. So I started home brewing,” the genial Gilroy explained.
He owned a pharmaceutical printing company in Johannesburg and brewed beer at the back of the premises.
“Brokers I used to deal with were always asking me for my beer. They’d deliver work for me whenever they knew I was brewing up some beer. My beer got really popular,” he remembered.
Gilroy said the complete computerization of printing in South Africa finally forced him to do what he’s always wanted to. “I thought, ‘Do I really, at my age, want to get involved in all the new technology, when anybody with a computer is a printer? Or do I follow my passion?’ And my passion has always been beer. So we started off a little microbrewery.”
That little microbrewery is now one of the busiest in South Africa, and Gilroy’s beer is turning into a brand that’s available across the country.
Blues inside The Cockpit
“Whiskey and women almost wrecked my life,” drawls John Lee Hooker, the great American bluesman, as people drink beer inside the bar of The Cockpit Brewery in the diamond mining town of Cullinan in Gauteng Province.
While pouring another pint, brewer Andre de Beer laughed and said, “The hardest workers in my brewery [are] the yeast cells; I’ve got billions of them working for me. And I’m convinced that they’re happier when they listen to decent music. So always when I brew I love to listen to Pink Floyd, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, JJ Cale – nice laid-back blues – and it makes my yeast happy, I believe.”
The brewhouse is decorated witi all things aviation: navy, gold-braided pilot uniforms, model airplanes, portraits of airplanes….
“I called my brewery The Cockpit because I love aviation. In a previous life me and two friends, who are now also microbrewers, owned a little four-seat plane and we flew all over the country. I decided to join my love for flying and for beer and to give my brewery an aviation theme,” de Beer explained. “All my beers are named after famous planes and The Cockpit is where I’m happy, where I’m in control.”
The former entrepreneur’s signature beer is a hoppy pale ale that he’s named “Spitfire,” after the Second World War English fighter plane.
De Beer began brewing beer at home in 2000, after, like many others in the craft beer sector, he became increasingly disillusioned with the mass-produced beer on offer in his homeland.
“It still all tastes the same,” he scoffed. “It was after the first beer that I made that I realized South Africans deserve more than commercial lager. Honestly, after the first batch of beer and I tasted the results, I realized, ‘Okay; I’ve got something here that I won’t be able to keep to myself.’ I started sharing with friends; it’s a hobby that got out of hand.”
Especially when one of his brews “exploded all over the wall…. My wife said, ‘That’s the last time you mess up my kitchen; you get your own place now.’”
De Beer said his life has become “enriched beyond my dreams” since he opened his brewery in 2010. “I want to spread this love of beer that I’ve got.… I do it because it’s my passion. Yes, I do make a little bit of money out of it; I’ve got no false hopes of becoming stinking rich out of it, but I enjoy what I do….”
'I'm young and I'm female'
Deep in the Magaliesberg Mountains in Gauteng, in the genteel, luxurious surrounds of an estate that once bred Friesian horses, is a brewery run by someone who’s an anomaly in South African microbrewing.
At 21 years of age, Nuschka Botha is the youngest commercial brewer and one of only two female commercial craft brewers in the country.
“It’s very nice to be able to say, ‘Yeah; I’m young and I’m a female.’ That makes me very proud to say we can do what we do. I’m not alone though; I’ve got a good team behind me as well,” she said, standing next to her copper brewing equipment in the spacious Black Horse Brewery.
Botha, who has a degree in marketing, jokingly blamed her father, Bernard, for her “fall” into beer brewing.
“How it all started was, one night my dad got really drunk and he promised a whole lot of friends that he would start a brewery. And he realized that, ‘It’s too expensive to just be a hobby, so we’ll have to change it into a business.’”
Soon after that, she said, her phone rang.
“I was living in Cape Town at that stage and my dad with the whole brewery story phoned me up and said, ‘Listen, someone’s got to make the beer so you’ve got to learn how to do it.’”
Botha said she was “a bit thrown” but soon accepted the challenge, and immediately began acquiring “beer-making knowledge.”
“I went around Cape Town speaking to guys who literally made beer in their garages. All of them taught me something small and then when I came back to Johannesburg I did an apprenticeship at the Heineken brewery,” she explained.
“Then, once our brewery was set up it was trial and error; serious trial and error. But we got there. We’ve been brewing for about two years now and it’s going well.”
South Africa’s other leading craft beer brewers are almost exclusively middle-aged or elderly men. Botha acknowledged she initially struggled to fit into the tightknit circle.
“In the beginning it was a bit…yeah, intimidating, basically. But you get used to it after a while,” she said, and then added with a laugh, “Not everybody likes me a lot. I don’t mind. That actually just tells me that I’m really good at my job. I know some people skinner [gossip] behind my back, but I don’t care.”
But Botha is clearly irked by what she perceives sometimes as “negativity” towards her by other brewers.
“I think people think I’m a spoilt brat. I think that’s what a big part of it comes down to. You know: ‘Daddy gave her a brewery; sy’t met haar gat in die botter geval…’” [She fell with her bottom in the butter]
Nevertheless, Botha’s beer is in demand.
“We presently make 2,200 liters a month but we seriously need to expand. People are phoning us all the time to ask to stock our beer in their bars and restaurants,” she said. “Our sources are there and the people want our beer and our new brewery is on its way; it’s being shipped out of China as we speak. Then we’ll be going up to about 18,000 liters a month….”
All the brewers driving South Africa’s artisanal brew boom are mirrored in the beers they produce: unique, with idiosyncrasies. They’re often divided in their approaches to their craft, but ultimately united in their attempts to make good beer.