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The craft of beer in South Africa

The No 3 Fransen Street range of small-batch beers – Irish Red Ale, Krystal Weiss and Cream Ale – are available on tap in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

The No 3 Fransen Street range of small-batch beers – Irish Red Ale, Krystal Weiss and Cream Ale – are available on tap in Johannesburg and Pretoria. (Image: SAB )

What’s in a name? Is craft beer all about marketing or is there something a little more to the current craze sweeping South Africa, where even the tiniest dorpie now has a home-brewing club?

The age of information has given us access to random facts at the push of a button, but while the average beer drinker might be better informed about the many beer styles that exist, there has been no real change in how beer is made.

The Newlands Spring Brewing Co Jacob's Pale Ale, available in Cape Town.

The Newlands Spring Brewing Co Jacob's Pale Ale, available in Cape Town. (Image: SAB )

Craft beers, as well as all premium beers produced by large brewers, are made using four basic ingredients: barley, water, hops and yeast. The basic idea is to extract the sugars from grains (usually barley), so that the yeast can turn it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, creating beer.

Defining a “craft beer” is not as easy as one might think. Generally, a craft beer is considered to be a beer made by a small, traditional and independent brewer.

In the 1990s, the term “microbrewery” was bandied about – master brewer Lex Mitchell, who started Knysna’s Mitchell’s brewery in 1983, has the honour of being one of South Africa’s earliest independent brewers. But, given the popularity of craft beer, some of the brewers who started out small have grown and now produce large volumes.

The increasing variety of beers available in South Africa is, however, the result of our growing beer culture. Lagers, and more specifically lagers made by South African Breweries (SAB), have dominated the local beer landscape for more than a century.

“As love for beer grows, it gives brewers scope to experiment with other beer styles,” says Kate Jones, trade brewer at SAB’s Chamdor Brewery in Krugersdorp. In recent years, SAB has introduced a Castle Milk Stout Chocolate (a chocolate-infused beer), Carver’s Weiss (a “weiss beer”) and several flavoured beers under the Flying Fish banner.

“It has also exposed food lovers to the fact that beer is a versatile beverage that not only enhances food when paired with the correct style, but can also be brought into the kitchen as an ingredient – think roast chicken in beer or mussels steamed in beer,” explains Kate. The SAB World of Beer’s popular monthly food and beer pairing is an example of this trend.

The Newlands Spring Brewing Co Mountain Weiss.

The Newlands Spring Brewing Co Mountain Weiss. (Image: SAB )

SAB’s Fransen Street Brewery was opened in 1998 as a special development brewery, testing new products and raw materials and producing small-scale runs of special-interest beers. “Four products were taken to market – a wheat beer, a ginger beer, and winter and India pale ales – but they were ahead of their time. The market simply wasn’t ready,” says Jones.

In 2012, SAB recognised the global and local growth in speciality and craft beers and redeveloped the Fransen Street Brewery.

The No 3 Fransen Street range of small-batch beers is available on tap at several pubs around Pretoria and Johannesburg, including the Tap Room at the SAB World of Beer. The beers, including a Cream Ale, Irish Red Ale and Krystal Weiss, have been well received by the beer fraternity.

“We wanted consumers to enjoy new beer experiences by trying a wider variety of styles, all the while knowing that the product is backed by the expertise of SAB’s master brewers. These small-batch beers are also a creative outlet for our brewing team, who are extremely passionate about what they do. Our experienced master brewers are encouraged to let their imaginations run wild and create a series of individual beer styles that are brewed to be completely different,” says Jones.

In Cape Town, the Newlands Spring Brewing Co is SAB’s small-batch speciality-beer producer, using mountain water from the Newlands spring. Three styles are made and bottled – Mountain Weiss, Jacob’s Pale Ale and Passionate Blond.

What makes these beers even more special is that they are made using speciality hops grown on the SAB Hop Farms (SABHF) in George in the Southern Cape.

The Newlands Spring Brewing Co Passionate Blond.

The Newlands Spring Brewing Co Passionate Blond. (Image: SAB )

Most of the world’s hops are produced in Europe and North America, near the 48th parallel north. However, at 34 degrees south, hops breeders in George produce specialist varieties that flourish with the warmer winter climate and shorter summer days.

“Hops add bitterness and aroma to beer and have been used for thousands of years. Ten years ago, hops were mainly about bitterness, but the trend over the past few years has been to use hops for fruity aromas and flavours. The South African varieties have a powerful aroma and flavours of citrus, berries and fruitiness, but anything is possible. New flavours have started to emerge – spice, chocolate and vanilla. Everything wild and extreme and unusual is looked for,” says Willy Buholzer, AB InBev global hops procurement director.

Of the 855 tonnes of hops produced by the SABHF each year, around 735 tonnes are used by SAB and the local craft industry, and 120 tonnes are exported into the rest of Africa, primarily for SAB beers.

Over the past five years, the SABHF has launched three new aroma and flavour hop varieties, namely Southern Aroma, African Queen and Southern Passion.

“A well-made beer is one of life’s special pleasures. Each glass displays the passion of the brewer and the complexity of the ingredients. A beer is something to be revered, shared and enjoyed in moderation, and no one should dictate if that is to be an easy-drinking Castle Lager, a full-bodied Castle Milk Stout or a spicy vegetable beer like Van Hunks Pumpkin Ale. And that’s the beauty of it,” says Jones.

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