Voice of America (Washington, DC)

South African Craft Brewers Share Their Secrets

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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

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