Porcupine Quill Brewery in Botha’s Hill, KwaZulu-Natal is one of South African craft beer’s hidden players. Tucked away in a sleepy corner of the Valley of 1000 Hills, Quill’s is an artisan’s paradise, comprising a deli, bakery and brewery, all fastidiously local-minded.
Quill’s range of eleven beers, under three different labels, aren’t very widely known or widely available. Although I had tried and reviewed one of their beers before (link), the full spectrum of their liquid exploits had eluded me for some time. So, when the opportunity arose to try out ten of their eleven beers at Banana Jam Café not too long ago, I took to it with enthusiasm.
Since there are a lot of beers, I’m not going to try review them all; rather, I’ll provide some rough tasting notes for each beer under each Quill’s brand, as well as notes of approval or disapproval.
Some preliminary notes, however: even though Porcupine Quill attempts to brew a large range of beer types, they are mostly brewed using flower hops, giving many of their beers a samey bitterness profile; floral and prickly acidic. It works well with some styles that they brew, and not so much with others. Attempts to taste the whole range like I did tend to descend into a pit of undistinguishable and strange bitterness; not bad, but it makes it tough to discern different flavour profiles between each beer towards the tail end. (The alcohol content is potent too, so watch out if you’re trying to session!)
But anyway (ratings out of 5 stars):
Quill’s, the flagship range of 5 beers. Most variety of styles and quality.
Karoo Red (5.5% a.b.v.): A light body of sour fruit overrided by sharp, almost prickly hoppiness. Finishes clean and tart. **1/2
Namaqua Blonde (4.5% a.b.v.): Light citrusy body with hints of mango and melon, follows through sharp with citrus zest; ends with slight burnt roast. Different, but entirely pleasant. ***
Blackdog Bitter (6% a.b.v.): Lacy. Molasses on the nose with some milk chocolate and burnt coffee; follows with sharp sweetness and burnt coffee on palate. Light-medium body. Best of the range. ***1/2
Flat Tail Ale (8% a.b.v.): Vanilla on nose; follows through with overbearing, thistle-prickly hops. Light body, light palate; packed with alcohol. **
Didn’t taste because of unavailability: Kalahari Gold (4.5% a.b.v.).
Dam Wolf, an “extreme beer” range of three beers. High alcohol content links all three.
Yellow Eyes (8% a.b.v.): Cloudy yellow-orange with minimal white head. Rose and indistinguishably acids on nose; follows very acidic (whole flower Challenger hops) with little mouthfeel on palate. Lemon zest and acid at the back of the throat. Finishes quite cleanly at first, then big kick of alcohol – almost unpleasant. A lot of bite, not much flavour; a shame, because I’ve had this before and it was much better. **
Howl & Cry (9% a.b.v.): Strong ale that pours ruby-orange. Hops on nose; hops on palate with touches of sour plum and tart fig. Very alcoholic, but has flavour to back it up. ***
Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (9% a.b.v.): Light hoppy nose; alcohol and flower hops (again) on palate, rounded off by sour berries. Finishes with light, but very complex burnt roast. Lots of different kinds of malt here. An interesting one. ***
Impala Light (5% a.b.v.): Light in every way, except for its alcohol content: light hops, light roast, light malt; too few nuances with too much alcohol, verging on insipid. *1/2
Amber Ale (6% a.b.v.): Pours coppery. Caramel on nose; sharp, clean hops rounded off with light toffee and extremely slight smokiness on palate. Unexpectedly rich, but finishes clean. Although I didn’t enjoy it when I last had it, this time it was lovely. ***1/2
Blackbuck Bitter (7.5% a.b.v.): Red berries and light roast on nose; sweet and lightly roasty on palate; finishes clean and sour. One of the few PC beers to manage the prickliness of the hops well. ***
Recommendations of the lot: Quill’s Blackdog Bitter, African Moon Amber Ale and Dam Wolf Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. A good beer out of each range; a nice symmetry there.
The final word on Porcupine Quill, then? For better or worse, a range of beers unlike anywhere else in South Africa. Definitely search them out if you’re in the area of Botha’s Hill, especially you’re a hop head.
If you’d like to get hold of beers from Quills, Dam Wolf or African Moon, head on over to League of Beers and have them delivered straight to your door!
Metalworker Glenn Adams leads a double life. Round the front of his factory in a patched-up Kommetjie industrial park, he operates an expertly-built microbrewery. An elegant setup of stainless steel, his preferred metallic medium, Valley Brewery is one in a series of new Western Cape microbreweries popping up in the nooks of South Africa’s most craft-crazy province.
While his London Ale exudes passable breadiness and admittedly not a whole lot of nuance, the Valley Weiss is sunshine: opaque, light and refreshing. Perhaps it’s not the beers, undeniably decent as they are, that are the standouts right now at Valley, but rather the uncluttered and well thought-out floorspace. From the ingenious keg washer to the most beautiful mash tun I’ve ever seen, Valley is any hobby brewer’s dream playroom.
Adams is serious about his work, however. While he begins to experiment and test the capabilities of his 300 litre system, he can rest assured he has solid foundations.
Valley Brewery London Ale is currently on rotation at Banana Jam Café, and is also available straight from the brewery in Fish Eagle Park itself. But until you get there, enjoy these photographs of an impressive-looking start-up.
If you’d like to get hold of Valley Brewery’s beers, head on over to League of Beers and have them delivered straight to your door!
Three black beers: drinks for watching Natal lose rugby matches
Rugby season has started again. Exciting! That means that it’s time for me to have childish temper tantrums, swear at the TV and weep in submission as my beloved Sharks conspire yet again to concede 20 handling errors every match away from King’s Park.
Our opening two matches of the season provided losses against the Bulls and Stormers so utterly pathetic that I spent the rest of those evenings muttering expletives under my breath about Anton Bresler and his magnificently dodgy mullet. In the build-up to last Saturday’s game against the Lions, however, I wondered if there might be a beer suitable to quenching the unavoidable dispair of watching Dale Chadwick go off of his feet at the ruck three times in ten minutes. The fact that I might also be able to recommend an alternative to Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day made this challenge even sweeter.
So, during my visit to CQ Tops last Friday night, I picked up a couple beers with suitably Natalian/Guinness-esque colour palettes, as well as a quart of Castle Milk Stout, in order to test their soothing potentials.
First up was a beer I’d never tried before: Young’s Double Chocolate Stout. Apart from a tantalizing name, the joyous purple and gold of its label possesses an allure as yet unattained by many South African beers.
The Young’s label is part of Wells and Young’s Brewing Company, a wonderfully intricate independent brewery from Bedfordshire in England. The result of a number of mergers, buy-outs and other wranglings, Wells and Young’s is the UK’s largest independent brewery. It matches modern brewing efficiency with traditionalist excellence, brewing dependable, high-quality beers that are sold widely.
Although the Bombardier and McEwan’s brands (bought from Heineken last year) are perhaps the company’s most widely-known beers, its large portfolio of cask ales is the subject of most beer drinkers’ plaudits. The Double Chocolate Stout is one of Wells and Young’s most celebrated beers, being rated in the 98th percentile of all beers on Ratebeer.com. This sort of reputation is probably why it has been imported into South Africa in the first place, but although Ratebeer is an excellent barometer of beer quality, some bottled beers don’t make the trip down from the UK very well.
Happily, this bottle of Double Chocolate Stout was virginal in its freshness. Milk chocolatey on the nose, it follows with burnt roast, burnt coffee and cacao on the palate. It feels luxurious on the mouth, and gives one a remarkable feeling of satisfaction. Deep and rich, but not overcomplicated.
It looks a treat too, pouring inky black with a tan lingerie-like lacing: a brilliant beer, but perhaps too sexy for rugby. By far the best of all the Young’s beers I’ve tried to date, I yearn to have this on tap.
Following the Double Chocolate Stout would be an unenviable task for any beer, but Darling’s Black Mist stood up to it very well, mostly likely due to a rare ability to deliver richness and bite while retaining lightness on mouth and gut.
I’ve repeated sung Black Mist’s praises before. Pouring a dark ruby-brown, it’s hoppy, bittersweet and lightly unctuous with light notes of aniseed, caramel and roast. The only ale out of the trio, it’s more conducive to daytime drinking due to its soft carbonation, lighter mouthfeel and its slightly lower alcoholic content at 5% a.b.v. (It’s also lighter than one of my favourite sunny day drinks, the Darling Bone Crusher.) It’s not a particularly complicated beer – following Darling’s tendency to create above-average beers that can still appeal to the conservative drinker – but that increases its value as a steady-sipping beer for sports.
As the game reached its latter stages, my housemates and I broke out the quarts of Castle Milk Stout, an inexpensive staple for most South African beer lovers. At 6% a.b.v., it’s the strongest beer of the trio, as well as the beer with the heaviest roast backbone. It’s definitely a beer suited for later in the evening: full on the mouth with silky carbonation, it noticeably sits on the stomach. Its profile of heavy-roasted malt, coffee and lactose-y milk chocolate can round off a sweet victory, or take the edges off another defeat.
Happily, on this occasion, the stout made a decent victory more sweet. All three black beers bring something different to the table: Black Mist, quirky and easy-drinking; Double Chocolate Stout, sweet and indulgent; Milk Stout, dependable and satisfying. Depending on the time of the game and your budget, choose accordingly.
This evening the Sharks take on Queensland in Durban. It also being St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve now got twice as many reasons to stock up again – win or lose.
On Friday night, for reasons numerous and uninteresting, I found myself wandering around Green Point’s Cape Quarter, a wonderfully esoteric and weirdly upmarket shopping plaza. It was Argus weekend and my parents were in town. We, along with a group of 15 of my father’s cycling teammates and their wives, were looking for a restaurant that would accommodate a throng of tired Port Elizabethans and shorts-and-slops-wearing Durbanites.
In the folly that ensued outside an Italian restaurant that involved much gesticulating and menu-waving, I ducked off to the Cape Quarter Tops to stock up on some beer for the weekend.
Franchise bottle stores are usually much the same. They stock a limited choice of beer, usually dictated by the whims of their suppliers and an undemanding market, at OK prices. Beers outside of the SAB and Namibian Breweries stables are treated with suspicion, pushed into one corner of the cold room where harlequin arrangements of imported lagers slowly grow stale.
But bottle store chains are beginning to wise up to craft beer. Pick ‘n Pay Liquor stores around Cape Town more often than not now stock beers from Boston Breweries and Jack Black. Some stock a greater range of imported beers from Brewers & Union (sold at much more reasonable prices than at their beer “salon”), Liefmans, Erdinger, and so on. It’s progress, but finding real specialty beers can still be a problem. Although craft beer is intrinsically about locality and range, sometimes it’s nice to find bigger labels from further afield in a convenient spot.
Places like the Cape Quarter Tops fill that need.
Although the liquor-addled appendage of South Africa’s Spar Store of the Year is home to an impressive array of wines and spirits, especially for a franchise store, its craft and imported beer fridge is a host of rather unexpected delights. In addition to local beers from Darling, Robson’s, Jack Black, Mitchell’s and Boston, you’ll find local craft cider from James Mitchell and Eversons, imports from the UK from Young’s, continental European beers from Faxe, Brewers & Union and abbey brewers Maredsous, and a whole lot more. The stock changes regularly; for a South African shop, the amount of choices verges on abundant. As a one-stop place to find a rich selection of beer and cider locally, this store has few rivals.
It feels odd to give praise to a Tops for being an exceptionally good place to shop for beer. But within every chain of stores there’s a need for a flagship, a fulfillment of vision in one place. Having fridges like this one in more chain bottle stores in South Africa would do wonders for our smaller beers in our still-conservative beer-buying culture. I suppose this one is a good start.
Cape Quarter Tops, Cape Quarter Lifestyle Village, 27 Somerset Road, Cape Town
In an extraordinary piece of legal wrangling, a Lithuanian court has quashed a strike at a Carlsberg brewery in the small city of Klaipeda by ruling beer brewing as “vitally essential” to everyday life.
Carlsberg asked the court to stop workers striking during its “high season”, by classifying the production of beer as of vital importance.
The court obliged, placing brewing “in the same category as medical supplies and drinking water”, declaring the strike illegal and suspending it for “at least 30 days”.
The repercussions of this are obvious: the workers now cannot strike as they would be depriving the Lithuanian people of their beer. Of course, nobody actually thinks that brewing beer is an essential service rendered to the citizenry by Carlsberg, the world’s fourth-largest brewery. It is, after all, another step in an absurd legal case. Since strike action began last year – in a bid for a better company-wide dispensation for workers – nine workers have been fired in compensation for “lost production”, and then hired again on temporary contracts as punishment. Trade unions are livid.
Jennie Formby, the national officer of British union Unite, which represents 1,000 Carlsberg employees in the UK, nicely described the ruling as “probably the most ridiculous decision in the world”.
She added: “Of course many people think beer is great but it does not save lives.”
Unite has insisted the decision “cannot be allowed to stand”, and an appeal to a higher Lithuanian court will decide if Danish lager is indeed essential to human life.
Carlsberg, essential to human life? Based on the hangovers it’s given me in the past, I’d more likely want to see it outlawed. So maybe it’s time Lithuanians started drinking local beers?
Seeing as I haven’t posted anything new for 10 days, I thought I’d pop in and explain the absence. In between starting a promising new internship at Paperight, a Shuttleworth Foundation-funded online book distribution start-up, finishing My First Big Feature for Getaway, and naming strays on my road “Cat Lambie”, “Catrick Swayze” and other variations on that theme, I haven’t had much time to write about what I’ve been drinking and the all-important matter of what I think about it.