JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - South Africa is a nation of beer drinkers. It constitutes 34 percent of Africa's formal beer market, according to government statistics from 2012. On average, South Africans consume almost 60 liters of beer per person every year – far more than the 14.6 liters per person in the rest of Africa, or the global average of 22 liters.
But up until relatively recently, the only beers widely available to South Africans were commercial lagers and pilsners brewed in factories.
Now, however, the country is in the throes of a craft beer revolution, with small, independent breweries opening everywhere. South Africa’s beer landscape appears to be changing irreversibly.
Craft beer is brewed slowly, according to traditional methods and using natural ingredients, including hops, barley, malt, yeast and mineral water. Commercial beer brewers often use chemicals to rush the brewing process, but true artisanal beer makers shun them. Mass-produced beer also generally tastes bland compared with craft brew, which is made in a variety of styles and flavors.
The Spitfire and a stout called Black Widow
Inside The Cockpit Brewery in Cullinan, a town more famous for the diamonds mined here than its beer, Andre de Beer tapped a pint of dark orange ale with a rich, creamy head.
“My signature beer is a Mustang IPA, an India Pale Ale in the American style, very fruity from all the hops; and then the Black Widow Stout, a nice rich, full-bodied stout with some beautiful roasted [coffee] flavors,” he said, alongside a poster reading, ‘24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence? I think not.’
De Beer said the “soul” of his beer is the hops he uses. Hops are the conical flowers of the humulus lupulus plant, grown on vines. They add bitterness and flavor to beer.
Like many of South Africa’s specialty beer brewers, de Beer imports his aromatic hops from the Yakima Valley in Washington State in the United States.
“In my IPA, to add flowery, citrus and spicy tones, I use three different American hops – the Cascade, the Amarillo and the Citra. I also import British and German hops for the English and German beer styles that I brew.”
De Beer explained that the hops so far available in South Africa are not suited to making intensely flavorful craft beers. “There are very good local hops available but they’re being cultivated for lager brewing – adding bitterness, but not much more, to a beer,” he said.
De Beer uses malted barley imported from Germany to create his tasty beers. “This is character malt, darker malt, adding much more texture and flavor to my beer than the local malt would.”
The title of his brewhouse reflects his love of aviation, as do the names of his beers, most named after wartime fighter planes.
“There, we start off with the Hell’s Bells which is a Muncher Helles, a nice, easy drinking light lager. Then I’ve got the Fokker Weiss, which is a German-style hefeweizen [wheat beer]. I’ve got the Spitfire, an English, ordinary bitter – a nice session beer, low in alcohol but full in flavor; the Tiger Moth, which is a dark Belgian-style strong ale – nice fruity flavors, high in alcohol.…”
De Beer is also respected in brewing circles for his range of limited edition beers.
“They’re usually more extreme beers; very limited release; only available in bottles; aged usually for a year or older. There I’ve got beers like an English barley wine and a Belgian dark, strong ale at about 15, 16 percent alcohol….”
His ideas for making new styles of beers seem inexhaustible.
“The first I plan to release here will be the Black Forest Stout,” said de Beer. “It starts life as an 11 percent alcohol stout, then it’s re-fermented with fresh cherries from the Free State [province] and pure cocoa is soaked in the beer for a few days; beautiful cherry and chocolate flavors in the strong stout.”
Water comes from the Magaliesberg springs
Nuschka Botha, of the Black Horse Brewery in the Magaliesberg Mountains north of Johannesburg, said two ingredients ensure that her beer is “really special” - barley imported from Belgium, a country known for its excellent beer, and the water she uses.
“We get our water from a natural spring in the Magalies Mountains. A lot of other brewers change their water PH and add calcium and other stuff before they brew, but not us,” she stated. “We use our water as is. It doesn’t go through any filtration systems, and it is as pure as pure can get. That I also feel changes quite a bit to the flavor of the beer…. So I think that makes our beer very pure.”
Botha believes in using ingredients indigenous to particular styles of beer.
“Like, for instance, our Irish red ale - we try to use the hops unique to its name, so we try and use European hops for that. When I brew a dunkel, which is a German dark lager, I’ll use German hops.”
Unlike many other craft beer brewers who are currently making extremely bitter, highly experimental brews, Botha plays it safer.
“South Africans have such a specific taste bud range as far as beers are concerned that we want to make something that’s already kind of out there. We don’t want to go way out and try something crazy; we want to make very drinkable beers.”
Unashamedly, Botha pays homage to South African Breweries [SAB], often much maligned by other craft brewers for making what they consider to be largely flavorless beers.
“SAB has done a very good job of getting people used to lager, so we followed them in a sense and made a signature lager, our Golden Lager, which is the typical lager. That sells very well – easy drinking, light….”
Reaching back to mediaeval brews
A network of stony paths leads to Dirk van Tonder’s Irish Ale House on his farm in Northwest Province. He believes that simplicity is the secret to good craft beer.
“I try to make beer as close as possible to the way in which beer was originally made all those centuries ago in Europe, like in mediaeval times,” he told VOA.
To illustrate his point, van Tonder told how he recently acquired some South African-grown barley.
“I steeped it and I malted it on the floor, like in the age-old tradition. I dry-kilned it in the sun, and then I roasted it in my…wood-fired pizza oven. To this day the people are still asking me, ‘When are we getting that beer with that lovely, nutty taste? When are you making that again?’ I said, ‘Well, when I feel like making malt again....’”
Van Tonder’s passion is to use South African inputs in his beer.
“Every single element of what I called my Brown Ale was South African. So, we don’t have to look overseas all the time for wonderful ingredients. It does, however, take more time and effort to make 100 percent homegrown beer, because at the moment imports are more widely available,” he said.
Van Tonder said he’s very proud of his South African Brown Ale.
“It was my first plough-to-pint beer made from 100 percent South African ingredients. To have that barley in your hands, have it harvested, malt it by hand, kiln it, roast it, brew it, keg it; serve it – that’s the complete journey. It is so rewarding. It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding.”
He also makes a spicy Capsicum Ale. “It’s nothing but my normal pale ale. But in the last five minutes of the boil I add a healthy, and I mean healthy, amount of chopped chili to it.”
But van Tonder’s personal favorite remains his Trailer Trash Blonde.
“When people ask me, ‘What style is this beer?’ I say, ‘It’s trailer-chic.’ It isn’t very subtle at all. I throw a lot of Cascade hops into the mix for this beer – and I mean a lot. This blonde is a really bitter woman!” he said, laughing. “But if she’s on your side, you’ll love her.”
Hopheads prefer extremely bitter beers
Like van Tonder, increasing numbers of beer drinkers in South Africa are calling themselves “hopheads” – people who enjoy extremely bitter, aromatic beers.
One of them is Lucy Corne, beer writer and author of African Brew, a book about the country’s burgeoning artisanal beer scene.
“I really like very hoppy beers. The Devil’s Peak IPA is one of my favorite beers in South Africa. It’s a wonderful version of an American IPA. And everybody always says, ‘Oh yes, I could have one or two but it’s not a session beer.’ I disagree. I could drink several of them!” she insisted, laughing.
“Hopheads” like Corne and van Tonder stand in contrast to Steve Gilroy, another of the country’s leading microbrewers.
“For me a beer should be in perfect balance. It should neither be aggressively bitter or cloyingly sweet. Yeah, it would be an interesting beer but you wouldn’t want another one and beer’s all about drinkability; it’s how the lord designed it,” he said, smiling.
But for Gilroy the real “golden rule” in making high quality craft beer is that it should never be over-carbonated.
“Have a gulp of a fizzy commercial beer, and almost immediately you burp. It bloats you so you change your drinking repertoire to whiskey or wine. Bad beer turns people into alcoholics!” he exclaimed, with only the merest hint of sarcasm.
Gilroy continued, “So, you ask me what defines a good beer: It’s the correct amount of bitterness and sweetness -- perfect balance, and enough carbonation to dance on your tongue but cause your tummy no distress.”
But he acknowledged there’s a time and place for aggressively bitter beer styles, such as the IPA.
“I’m not saying they’re crap beers; I’m saying the average person will have one or two, and that’s that. I like to drink a lot and my customers like to drink a lot, so I make drinkable session beers, beers that you can drink one after the other.”
Gilroy must be onto something, because a few years ago Diner’s Club evaluated almost 500 beers around the world and rated Gilroy’s premium dark ale, called the Serious, with its high alcohol content of 5.5%, claret coloring and lingering flavor of caramelized sugar, the third best out of them all.
Searching for new tastes in the veldt
Corne, who visited microbreweries across South Africa for her book, said there are several “hidden gems” in the country’s rapidly expanding specialty beer market.
“Lex Mitchell at the Bridge Street Brewery [in Port Elizabeth] has a wonderful chocolate stout, which really sticks in my head,” she recalled. “Then there’s another guy [Chris Heaton] in the Eastern Cape [Province] at the Emerald Vale Brewery. He had this really rudimentary, basically a home-brewing, system. You look at this and it’s all insulated with silver tape and you’re thinking, ‘God, this is not going to be good…’ And it was such a good, clean beer!”
Corne added, “He shipped some of his beer to Cape Town for my group of beer snob friends to taste and everyone was wowed by this beer.”
Like the writer, van Tonder is convinced that brewers in South Africa “aren’t even close to reaching their potential” in terms of creating new beer styles and flavors.
“I don’t believe craft beer brewers here have even touched on what we are capable of,” he said. “In South Africa we have yet to discover the treasure trove of herbs in the African veld that we haven’t even started [making beer] with. There are plenty of fruits and herbs and flora out there that could really set our beer apart from all others available in the world.”
Then, van Tonder said, people around the globe could “taste and share” in South Africa’s craft beer boom.