Voice of America (Washington, DC)

24 December 2013

South Africans Search for Flavor in Their Beer

Johannesburg — Alongside a sepia-tone poster bearing the 1920s image of a woman - wearing nothing but a string of pearls around her neck and flowers in her hair - Steve Gilroy grips a tulip-shaped glass containing ruby liquid and proclaims, "Hold this up to the light; just look at that! That's a red Irish ale. That's a thing of beauty and a joy forever."

About 200 men and women of all ages are packed into a gloomy, wood-paneled hall inside the depths of Gilroy's brewery near Johannesburg to hear the microbrewer talk about the beer he makes.

Gilroy, a jovial bear of a man with a long white beard, takes a swig of his beer, and most of his audience does likewise. A collective gulp resounds around the room. Tongues swirl; flavors explode in mouths; sighs of enjoyment follow.

The brewer declares that he uses Fuggles and East Kent Golding hops from England to craft his ale. People nod in approval. Gilroy barks gruffly, "When you're tasting this beer there's a very slight licorice flavor. That's from the hops... ."

Hops are the cone-shaped female flowers of the humulus lupulus plant and grow on vines. They give beer bitterness and flavors that can range from passion fruit, to pine, to chili, to caramel and many more, depending on the hop variety.

Andre de Beer's Cockpit Brewery was named for wartime fighter planes. A painting of a World War II Spitfire graves one of the brewery walls. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)

Nuschka Botha uses natural spring water from the Magaliesberg Mountains at the Black Horse Brewery. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)

A light-colored lager from the Black Horse Brewery is a signature product of craft brewer Nuschka Botha. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)

Demand for specialty beers in retail liquor stores has soared with the introduction of craft beer in Johannesburg and other parts of the nation. (Photo Credit: Darren Taylor)

Steve Gilroy strives for a balance between bitterness and sweetness, with minimal carbonation in his "Serious," which was top-rated by Diners Club Internationl."

The occasion in Gilroy's brewery offers further evidence of rapidly changing trends in South Africa's beer sector, one of the strongest beer markets in the world, as the demand for craft beer grows.

Up until recently there were a handful of microbreweries in South Africa; now there are more than 70. The number is expected to rise much further in the near future as a brand-new industry rises to quench South Africa's growing thirst for high quality beer.

Craft beer, also called artisanal or specialty beer, is handcrafted in small, independent breweries, not mass-produced in factories. It contains no chemicals and preservatives, only "pure" inputs - usually hops, barley, malt, yeast and water. Its flavors develop naturally and it's generally much tastier than commercial beer. Craft brews take longer to produce, are made in small quantities and use more expensive ingredients. They're consequently pricier than beers made on a large scale.

Beer has become like wine

According to a leading microbrewer, Moritz Kallmeyer of Drayman's Brewery in Pretoria, yearning for "beer knowledge" is a potent factor behind the relatively sudden demand for craft beer in South Africa.

"Nowadays people don't just drink beer to quench their thirst. They drink beer to search for different kinds of flavors and to satisfy their curiosity regarding the style of beer. Beer essentially has become like wine."

Just as wine connoisseurs will analyze the qualities of grapes, so too are South African beer lovers beginning to discuss the particular hops used in their beer, said Kallmeyer.

He maintained, "Beer is actually much more complex than wine. There are few grape varieties when compared with how many hop varieties there are."

Kallmeyer, a veteran of South Africa's microbrewing scene, said the level of interest in what makes a good beer is unprecedented.

"It's something that is so intellectually stimulating. You know, everybody can quaff a beer - but it takes intelligence to enjoy and talk about a beer. More and more South Africans want to acquire that intelligence about beer. You hang out in a pub these days and you hear guys talking about a beer and saying, 'What are its bittering components?'"

Kallmeyer said beer drinkers are now also "picking apart" the body, texture and color of a specialty beer.

"In the olden days it would have been considered very strange if someone takes a glass of beer, holds it up against the light and looks at the color - worse still, to bring it to your nose and sniff it! But it's not uncommon nowadays to sit in a pub where there's craft beer on tap with people eyeing the beer, sniffing it, swirling it, talking about it, and even influencing other people in the pub who are Castle drinkers, to try the craft beer."

Castle lager is South Africa's leading commercial beer brand. It's brewed by South African Breweries [SAB], the world's second largest commercial beer manufacturer.

To further illustrate the immense change sweeping the country's beer industry, Kallmeyer said up until relatively recently he struggled to sell his German-style Weiss [wheat] beer, which is naturally hazy, not clear - like the beers South Africans are used to.

"Now they drink it with satisfaction and they tell me, 'Ah! Beautiful! It has delicious flavors of baked bread and malt.' Beer drinkers here are becoming much more sophisticated."

'It's created hype and growth'

For Martin Brooks, chief brewer at SAB, a principle force behind the demand for craft beer is South Africans' wish for "beer experimentation."

"Especially the... more affluent consumer base is now wanting different beer styles and more choice. It's created hype and growth in the top end of the beer category," said Brooks, who's responsible for creating the brews that for many years were the only beers available to South Africans.

Gilroy agreed, saying, "Craft beer is taking off now because people want bigger, more flavorful beers. They're tired of drinking the same old generic lager, lager, lager that their fathers and their great-grandfathers used to drink."

He said the recipe behind the burgeoning success of independent breweries is quite simple: "Giving people a choice, giving people a diversity [of beers] that they hadn't had before, which is probably why South Africa's finally taken the reins and we're all starting to brew excellent beers."

The owner of Linden Discount Liquor store in Johannesburg, Gerry de Souza, said customers wanting "something different" from SAB beers are "without a doubt" behind a massive spike in his sales of craft beer.

"With most of them it's just to get away from SAB [commercial beers]! And the belief that [craft beer is] pure beer, not with chemicals; that seems to be a big issue as well."

'It isn't just roll off the factory line'

Speaking above the hum of refrigeration inside his cold conditioning room in his microbrewery in Northwest Province, Dirk van Tonder said his compatriots are attracted to craft beers because they have interesting stories behind them.

"Each craft beer has a story; it didn't just roll off a factory line. Each brewer is a unique character and has a face that people can see; he's not just a company brand. His beers are unique. Each beer has intriguing ingredients, aromas and flavors."

Van Tonder said people are demanding to know the stories behind what they're eating and drinking. "If somebody gives you a product for your own consumption, that product's got to have a story. The person that gives you that product must [be able to] say, 'I've done this' or 'I know the person that's created this, and this is the story behind that product.'"

Brewer Andre de Beer, of the Cockpit Brewery in Cullinan in Gauteng Province, said the "bottom line" is that South Africans want "good, flavorsome, different beers that stand out from the masses available in supermarkets, beer that isn't fed to them by advertising agencies but what they discover themselves."

Breweries join the green revolution

Nick Gordon, co-owner of one of Johannesburg's most celebrated restaurants, The Leopard, stocks a variety of craft beers and encourages his patrons to pair certain meals with certain beers.

He's adamant that South Africa's move towards artisanal beer is "part of a global movement towards good produce, and people wanting to know exactly what is in the produce that they consume. Especially in the more developed or wealthier economies where people have the time to reflect on those sorts of things, there's a lot of attention paid and interest in artisanal and traditionally manufactured or grown things. And craft beer fits neatly into all of that."

Lex Mitchell is known as the father of microbrewing in South Africa, having opened the independent Mitchell's Brewery in 1983. He considers the surge to be "an offshoot of the green revolution, where people want to buy high quality products that have been made with minimal stress to the environment, without chemicals, using organic ingredients."

Gilroy insisted that the demand for craft beer is part of a "global quest for authenticity in terms of what people eat and drink; a rebellion against artificial ingredients... . Craft beer fits right into it because craft beer speaks of traditional values and for real beer."

"It was only quite recently that South Africans started demanding food that's not produced by chemicals and antibiotics and that stuff," said De Beer. "And I believe that [their desire for] craft beer is part of that move back to nature, back to good, proper, decent product."

Buys with khaki pants will drink it

Although demand for more expensive specialty beer is undoubtedly driven by middle and upper class beer drinkers with disposable income, Kallmeyer insisted that "wide spectrums" of South Africans are now consuming it.

"Now you get this strange sight at some of the festivals where from punk rock guys to boere farm laborer type of guys with their khaki pants, will drink craft beer."

Kallmeyer said the entrance of craft beer into the market is changing the way South Africans drink, but is also transforming beer purchasing patterns.

"It's obvious that people with more money tend to buy more craft beers. What you will see is people with less money buying one or two craft beers and then after they drink those they start buying cheaper commercial beers."

Jurie Blomerus, who owns the Stanley Beer Yard in Johannesburg, a bar and restaurant with a wide range of craft beers as its main selling point, has noticed the same trend.

"The guy that comes here is maybe of a medium or a higher income bracket because he can afford to buy this beer, or some guys [who have less money] come and where they used to drink two [commercial] beers, now they can only drink one beer, and they come and enjoy it because of the product," said Blomerus.

Geriatrics make it, youth lap it up

According to many concerned with craft beer in South Africa, an important reason for its rapid growth is support from young people.

"It's mostly the older, geriatric guys like me making the beer, and the younger generation lapping it up," joked van Tonder.

He continued, "The youngsters have seen previous generations pump food and drinks full of chemicals and preservatives and they want no part of that. They're far more environmentally conscious than we ever were, and are also far more willing to experiment with different beer styles."

Mitchell said, "There is this yearning for simpler stuff in life. It exists with the younger people; they're the ones who are driving it. Younger people have become interested in different genres of beer and that sort of thing."

Nuschka Botha, at 21 years of age the youngest commercial microbrewer in South Africa and also one of only two female commercial microbrewers in the country, described the youth's "latching on" to craft beer as "crazy."

"It's growing under the youth like, insanely. If you go to all these festivals, at all of them it's young people. I don't know if it is that [young] people have decided that they want to start living healthier, drinking healthier... . I think that is maybe one of the main reasons why there is this boom in craft beer," said Botha.

Kallmeyer said it doesn't really matter who is drinking craft beer or why they're drinking it.

"The important factor here is that South Africans are becoming so educated about good beer and that means that the beer landscape in this country has changed forever. Compared with where we come from, where beer drinkers had such limited and poor choices, that can only be a fabulous thing."

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