JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - 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.”
“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.”
‘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.”
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!’”
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.