Heritage Hall

The story of SAB

Within months of gold being discovered in Johannesburg in 1886, the initial dusty landscape had turned into a bustling tented camp. Two years later, it was a sprawling town – and growing fast. Along with the diggers’ hunger for gold came a thirst for refreshment – and an opportunity to brew and sell beer.

In 1887, Charles Chandler opened Johannesburg’s first brewery; a year later Charles Glass produced his first Castle beer. The origins of South African Breweries (SAB) can be traced back to Charles Glass and the Castle Brewery he started in Johannesburg in 1888. Glass was a perfectionist and insisted that his brewery sell only the highest quality beer. In 1892 Frederick Mead, a young entrepreneur brewer from Natal, recognised the value of the Castle enterprise and formed a syndicate that bought the small brewery from Glass and his partners.

This group built a larger Castle Brewery to meet the growing demand for beer in Johannesburg, and the expanded brewery soon attracted the interest and financial backing of early Randlords (entrepreneurs who controlled the diamond- and gold-mining industries in their pioneer phase). On 15 May 1895, SAB Limited was incorporated and, in subsequent years, was listed on the Johannesburg and London Stock Exchanges.

In 1956, SAB, Ohlsson’s Cape Breweries and Union Breweries merged their brewing interests into one company operating as SAB Limited. While the volume of beer produced annually by SAB has increased considerably, the commitment to the legacy of Charles Glass and his reputation for brewing beer of outstanding quality remains.

The distribution process

After beer is brewed, it must be packaged for distribution. Until the late 19th century, this usually meant putting beers in wooden kegs. To maintain a steady supply of kegs, Castle and Ohlsson’s employed their own skilled coopers, who often worked in open sheds or yards adjacent to the main brewery buildings.

The kegs, typically made of American white oak, came in a variety of sizes. Before mechanisation, the coopers constructed these kegs solely by hand, using specialised tools for each step of the process. Today, metal kegs have completely replaced wooden coopered ones.

Efficient transport and delivery of beer has always been crucial to the success of breweries. In the 1890s in South Africa, beer was distributed to hotels, bars, beer halls, stores and private homes by mule, ox or horse-drawn wagon. These wagons were owned and operated by breweries that maintained stables of mules and horses, and by small transport contractors. In the 1920s, as motorised vehicles became prevalent, beer was more likely to be delivered by small lorries, and again fleets of both brewery-owned and independently owned vehicles were used.