Friday didn’t start too well for the Hop & Vine Festival. A week that started off with four consecutive days of unseasonable warmth ended in a deluge. As torrential rain flooded the outside areas of Simons @ Groot Constantia a mere five hours before the festival’s start, everything had to be changed. The tented area was abandoned: sound equipment was moved inside, kegs hurried under gazebos and carried through the downpour. The full aggression of the Cape winter had been pent up for too long; today was its release.
But while it was damp outside, the enthusiasm of organisers and brewers under the banner of the Craft Beer Project never abated. Glasses were set up on tables, stalls erected and the first draughts pulled. This was going to be a success one way or another, the organisers said. It turned out that they were right.
Rather unlike any other large-scale beer festival yet held in Cape Town, the Hop & Vine Festival was more focused on boutique sensibilities, bringing the world of local craft beer somewhere a bit closer to the trappings of refinement most associated with fine wine.
Although food pairings, wines from local garagistes and the taking of tasting notes were talking points, the unique identity of South Africa’s craft beer landscape shone through in a number of homebrewing demonstrations and the varied spectrum of the breweries present: from American-influenced ales to north-south collaboration brews, to the most tender and quirky of tiny local operations. It was a microcosm of the finer aspects of the South African beer world, beautifully dressed and subtly indulgent. (Crayfish and weiss, anyone?)
Due to the sheer amount of beer available, coupled with other commitments, I didn’t manage to get around to everything. There were, however, a few things that caught my eye especially.
Citizen’s Alliance Amber Ale turned out to be popular with a surprisingly large number of people I spoke to. Actually, on saying that, it’s not too surprising: although it’s proven to be a bit of challenge for the Royale and Waiting Room boys to upscale their brews from the kitchen to 1000l and 2000l batches, they’re finally getting the combination of soft mouth and wholesome caramel edge they want into their final product. It’s a remarkably tasty and casual easy-drinker.
It’s not going to impress every experienced quaffer, but these are promising first steps. With an IPA in the works, along with some excellent branding and good foundations in city centre culture, I’ve got a feeling that Citizen is making some very good in-roads.
Friday night saw the first public appearance from the League of Beers, a new start-up, six months in the making, that hopes to make the full landscape of SA craft, along with great lines of abbey beers and other craft imports, everywhere in the country. Like Citizen, LoB is heavily brand-focused, and it paid off in a lot of passing interest. Founder Rob Heyns is one hell of a friendly guy, and he went to great lengths to explain his shipping solutions and packaging to anyone who asked.
Aside from the abbeys and a range of beer from KZN’s Quills Brewery, LoB was selling a relatively new pale lager from Stellenbrau, brewed using equipment transplanted from the old Luyt Brewery in Ballito, KZN. I sometimes forget that a significant amount of people, for whatever reason, enjoy pale lager more than other styles. There’s merit to that: Camelthorn’s unfiltered Helles, for example, is oppressively refreshing on a hot summer’s day.
Stellenbrau lager isn’t the old Luyt recipe, but it sticks to a more South African style of pale lager than anything European. Happily, however, it retains a good light malt backbone, decent feel and a woody flavour profile that makes it deeper and more enjoyable than the swathes of lean and weak macro pale lagers that most characterise the style in SA.
It was also wonderful to see the culmination of possibly South Africa’s first North-South collaboration brew, between Jonathan Nel from Johannesburg’s Three Skulls Brewery, and Glenn Adams from Kommetjie’s Valley Brewery. They mixed dark malt and a few heavy handfuls of cascade hops to make Valley of the Skulls, a black IPA that turned out excellently balanced, much like the rest of the delicious Three Skulls suite of IPA, saison and blonde.
It was at about 10 o’clock that I began to lose my bearings a bit. Surrounded by roaring fires and live reggae, I suitably gave into indulgence and that gorgeous blur of memory that seems to occur after your fourth stout. I had originally wanted to talk about Devil’s Peak’s brilliant new Silvertree Saison and Triggerfish’s new Russian Imperial Stout, but I lost my notebook and my pen and resigned to write about them at some other point.
I gave into enjoyment, and I think that’s the key here. Just before I walked out of Simon’s into the slightly-receding rain to the car that was to take me home at the end of the evening, I turned and had a good look at what was left at the festival floor and the bar: smiles. A lot of smiles.
Bringing the worlds of beer closer to the fineries of wine culture requires a good sense of fun, balance and perspective to make sure that craft beer retains its implacably fun identity while appealing to new audiences and continuing its upward climb to the mainstream. Organised by some of the best brains in local craft at the Craft Beer Project, the Hop & Vine Festival succeeded in its mandate. It was a cherry-picking of the best of both slightly-estranged alcoholic worlds; an exhausting tangle of everything good that grows with tendrils.
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South Africa’s oldest wine farm is streaked in gold and sepia,its roses and vine winding up and across hills. Farmhands on tractors chug by and stir around the entrances of centuries-old cellars. Groot Constantia is an estate made for postcard vistas; the culmination of colonial dreams and pastoral adventure.
That, and it’s a bloody good spot for a beer festival.
Last night was the official media launch for the Hop and Vine Festival, a winter beer and wine celebration to be held here on the 20th and 21st of July. More specifically, it will be hosted by Simon’s @ Groot Constantia, a gorgeous bar and restaurant tucked round the back of the estate. Here, media, brewers and other Cape beeries mingled and chatted while the chefs of Simon’s exhibited their food and beer pairing expertise and the various organisers of the festival outlined what attendees can expect.
And what can you expect? Simply put: a beer experience unlike nothing South Africa’s yet seen.
"Beer and wine have long been far apart," said organiser Greg Casey, "but we want to bring them closer. A lot of beer people have never been wine drinkers, and because of that they’ve missed out on a lot. The reverse goes for wine people, although it’s also because we only had lager in this country for a lot of years."
"Really, they’re very similar," he continued, "and this venue presents an opportunity to bring those two worlds together and to celebrate both."
Along with the liquid wares from seven Cape-based breweries (the festival proper will more than double that number), the food was exceptionally good. Highlights included cumin boerekaas and pungent gruyere from Constantia Cheesery, and the lip-smackingly confluent beer-and-food pairings of the chefs at Simon’s, the best of which being the peppery punch of the grilled swordfish, accompanied by Valley Brewery’s London Ale, and the classic pseudo-sophistication of local oysters washed down by Triggerfish Empowered Stout. Salty-sweet goodness.
But do you know what the best bit is? You can experience all of this – the setting, the beer and the food – at the Hop and Vine Festival. With live music and food exhibitors in tow, it’s likely to be the classiest beer experience, in the finest possible surrounds, that you’ll get for a while. (That said, the scheduled reggae band and black IPA from Valley of the Skulls should get things quite appropriately shook up.)
Get your tickets right now from Quicket.