So, total disclaimer: although this blog is supposed to be a chronicle of my homebrewing experiences (among other things), I’ve never actually brewed before. While I started Suip! a year ago as an attempt to record my successes and failures in brewing, it has only really recorded one sustained failure; namely, my failure to begin brewing.
To be honest though, brewing has seemed steeped in mystery to me for a while. The homebrew setups I had seen throughout my travels so far made me feel out of my depth. What are those pipes? How do I control the temperature of my mash? How do I get equipment? Despite meeting with the SouthYeasters – Cape Town’s largest, friendliest and most experienced homebrewing community by far – I felt I still had a lot to learn and not many people willing or able to show me what to do.
Last week, however, I took the plunge and signed up to an all-grain homebrewing workshop hosted by Beerguevara (link), a homebrewing supply store in Newlands. It was free, and I had an open morning. I arrived on Saturday, expecting a few hours in some bedraggled man’s basement being overwhelmed by techniques and equipment and complicated processes that I’d never be able to duplicate.
But, as usual, I was wrong. With nine other men, I entered into the Beerguevara realm – a sunny spacious duplex, home to the two guys behind Beerguevara, Andy and Anthony, and their equally sunny wives – and had the mystery and fuzz of homebrewing quickly stripped away.
Some people describe making beer as carefully managing a small eco-system of microorganisms. Technically that’s true, of course, but I’d rather describe it as making a very precise stew. It’s all pots and pans, timings and temperatures, steeping and boiling and tapping. Andy and Anthony have only been brewing for nine months, but what they lack in lifelong experience they make up for in openness, friendliness and an eagerness to share and discuss.
Andy and Anthony have a hands-off approach to teaching – that is, they leave it up to the attendees to do everything themselves, from the grinding of the grain through to the final tapping of the brew into fermentation buckets. The aim of the exercise is collaboration and sharing ideas, asking questions and getting familiar with new processes with the reassurance of someone looking over your shoulder and giving you pointers the entire time.
You come to learn that homebrewing can be done – and done well – with simple, inexpensive things. A cooler box for a mash tun, a plastic bucket for a fermentation tank, airconditioning pipe for an immersion cooler. Mashing, sparging, boiling, hopping, cooling, sterilizing and tapping are done with ease and common sense, all comfortably within the space of a kitchen and backyard. And their results aren’t swill, either: sweet-and-singing dubbels, in-your-face IPAs and coffee stouts all come out of this house. All it requires is patience, a little know-how and a few hundred rand for the most spartan setup.
On the shop front, their ingredients list is solid and ever-growing, allowing you to try as many styles as you have budget and confidence for. Local and German malts are kept in big plastic buckets around their dining room, and hops, steadily imported from wherever they can get them, take up their freezer space. Equipment investment aside, homebrewing is much cheaper than buying beer, even macrobrew, and the feeling of cracking open and enjoying something you’ve made yourself is an inimitable feeling. (Or so I’m told. We’ll see when I start brewing myself.)
All in all, these workshops work brilliantly as both knowledge sharing and marketing sessions. I now have the confidence to buy my equipment and get into all-grain brewing for the first time since I started mulling over the idea about a year ago. It needn’t be complicated; it needn’t be pretentious or expensive. Homebrewing is a brilliant pastime, of mash-filled airspace and the anticipation of each next step towards the goal: something made by your hands and to be enjoyed by your family and friends.
And, frankly, that’s a pretty amazing thing.
(Photo by Joakim Löfkvist)
So, this Friday my Swedish SA beer conspirator, Joakim Löfkvist (writer of Homebru.net and the most active reviewer of SA beers on Ratebeer, where he goes under the handle of Jolo), and I will be announcing what we deem to be the best three beers we’ve tasted over the past year. It’s what we call The Best Beer on the Table Award, and it’s very illustrious, I assure you. We might even make a couple trophies or something.
We nominated three beers each and, from those six, selected what we deem to be the best three. Although we will each be announcing our winners on Friday, I thought I would let you know what my nominations were, as well as explaining my choices. Of course, this is all highly personal and subjective, but, you know, that’s beer for you. So without further ado, my three nominations are:
1) Bierwerk Aardwolf (Cape Town)
There’s a lot to say about Aardwolf, but I’ll try to keep it short. Gaining almost universal acclaim from beer lovers both here and in Europe upon its release (it’s currently the highest-rated South African beer on Ratebeer) it can be difficult to get hold of - I was very grateful to receive a four-pack sent from its brewer, the immensely talented Dane, Christian Skovdal Andersen, via Boston Breweries’ Chris Barnard, at whose premises Andersen brewed it. Made with dark grains and roasted African coffee, Aardwolf is a knockout: pleasingly sweet, a tiny bit bitter; deliciously laced with tones of espresso, a touch of vanilla and a dozen other things - and yet it retains a wonderful sense of balance usually not seen in most coffee stouts. Soft on the mouth, it rewards slow drinking, cellaring and savouring. Although Bierwerk’s other beers, especially the superlative Renosterbos, flirt with brilliance, it is Aardwolf that is most accessible. It is simply ingenious, delicious and the work of some very talented hands. Andersen is going to be involved in more projects in South Africa this year, including, I hear, a new brewery in Woodstock. After collaborations with Boston and Camelthorn, hopefully Anderson will be able to show us what else he has hiding up his sleeve.
2) Devil’s Peak King’s Blockhouse IPA (Somerset West)
Relative newcomers Devil’s Peak King’s Blockhouse IPA is the best pale ale I’ve had all year. Last year’s Cape Town Festival of Beer had 100 beers on show, but the highlights were undoubtedly the Somerset West brewery’s quartet of American-influenced brews, which included a knockout imperial stout. (I use “knockout” both metaphorically and literally, as my memories of the CTFoB became significantly more hazy after a halfpint of it.) The sessionable, refreshing and tantalisingly bitter King’s Blockhouse was the best of the four, however. Devil’s Peak is ultimately looking to get South African palates accustomed to excessive hopping and high bitterness, but this is a delectable compromise: an exceedingly tasty introduction to American-style IPAs, tailored for the adolescent South African palate. It’s also a perfect mealtime sip. From what I’ve been told, Devil’s Peak are looking to move to Cape Town city proper into bigger premises sometime this year. Such a move promises big things and, if this beer is anything to go by, we can just hope those promises are fulfilled.
3) Darling Bone Crusher (Darling/Cape Town)
Finishing off my trio of nominations isn’t South Africa’s best beer – but it’s probably South Africa’s best beer in a lot of people’s minds. Darling’s Bone Crusher, brewed at Boston Breweries in Paarden Eiland, is a modern witbier that I keep coming back to. It has an eye-catching label and an unforgettable name. Most crucially, however, it has good marketers: Darling’s people are tireless in their promotion of their product, catalysing their brewery’s rather startlingly quick rise to relative popularity. (Boston chief brewer Chris Barnard once said to me, in good spirits but with some exasperation, that he continually finds that people on the other side of the country know of Darling, but not his own brands - even though Darling brews at his premises!) But setting it apart from most other breweries that rely on marketing nous, Darling actually have a good product to work with. A light, crisply tart and refreshing wit, Bone Crusher is a not only a good craft beer, but an accessible and unpretentious one, too. If anything, it’s an indication of what a popular craft beer in South Africa could look like in years to come. (That is, if this doesn’t become that beer itself.) While some breweries revel in esoteric projects, Darling seems to be sensible in their innovation: if any one small brewery is to bring local craft to the South African mainstream, there’s only one contender for it as far as I see it at the beginning of 2012. There may be better beers available than Darling’s, but there is sure no better package – comprising great identity, great beer and great marketing – in this country than them right now.
As you may have noticed, my three nominations are all from the Western Cape. This may be unsurprising to some, but it might make others feel indignant. Is this Cape-centric?
Well, no. It simply reflects things the way they stand now. Although breweries like Shongweni Brewery (Shongweni), Gilroy’s (Roodepoort) and The Little Brewery on the River (Port Alfred) continue to delight, the Western Cape is the epicentre of South African beer at the moment, with more breweries more readily creating new, more innovative beers – both Triggerfish’s oeuvre of great beers, of which Joakim is a big fan, and Boston’s Van Hunks Pumpkin Ale spring to mind almost immediately – to try make inroads into what is still quite a small market. It’s the one place where beer consumers are opening up to new options more than anywhere else in South Africa. That said, 2012 is set to be a huge year for local craft, with a handful of new breweries set to open in the coming months. Perhaps as craft’s reach and influence begins to extend throughout the country, brilliance and innovation will begin to come from new, unexpected places.
Anyway, the winners will be announced Friday! In the meantime, check out Homebru.net in the coming days to hear Joakim’s side of things. Also, what do you think? Am I right? Completely wrong? Absolutely stupid? Let me know here or @SUIPEXCLAMATION.
The Cape Town Festival of Beer took place this past weekend. What was supposed to be an orgiastic, transcendentally brilliant smorgasbord of delicious yeasty delights in the shadow of Table Mountain translated into what was, in effect, a nice enough weekend with some great beers and great people.
The vast majority of things about the festival wee good: smaller breweries were granted an opportunity, however limited, to show off their products to a diverse crowd; the venue was laid out well and the grass of Hamilton Rugby Club provided plenty of comfortable makeshift seating; the weather held up (albeit with a lot of wind) and the atmosphere was pleasant.
But a festival initially touted by its website as “the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere” it was not. It was surprisingly compact and unrefined: a few large plastic gazebos and a covered stage, littered with the same benches and picnic tables we last saw at SAB’s Oktoberbierfest. In fact, the whole thing suffered from a distinct lack of personality. Signage was rather spartan and the event’s logo was, well… What does a cartoon fraulein in front of a South African flag say about beer in Cape Town? Or anywhere in South Africa for that matter? Judging by the infrastructure by itself, the Cape Town Festival of Beer could have been anywhere in South Africa. It bought into an Oktoberfest mentality, where the focus is more on “festival” than “beer”.
SAB erected a massive Black Label branded bar in one corner that was disappointingly well-patronised, with women wearing Black Label-branded fraulein uniforms to remind everybody, in case they forgot, that although there are a hundred beers here, BLACK LABEL IS THE SPONSOR AND DID YOU KNOW THAT IT HAS SO MANY AWARDS GUYS.
The sponsorship of the event speaks volumes about their attitude towards local beer culture, laying bare what seem to be some remarkably strong insecurities about their products: instead of letting the beers speak for themselves, they sponsor a beer festival (which no doubt is also supposed to show their support for smaller breweries) then slap their own product’s branding on everything inside it. Of course, I’m not naive: such events need sponsors, infrastructure and dedicated organisers, but looking at the omnipresence of SAB branding, it wasn’t surprising that some breweries chose not to attend. What’s the point of showing off your own wares if the risk of SAB hijacking the event of which you’re trying to be part is ever present?
But I’m happy to say that they didn’t. The beer was spectacular. Although I will write a more in-depth piece on the beer later this week, I feel it’s necessary to point out the excellence of Devils Peak and Triggerfish Breweries in particular. In fact, I don’t think it’d be outlandish to suggest that Devils Peak’s beers are all serious contenders for the best beer in South Africa at the moment. Their IPA in particular is full, fruity and with a restrained bitterness to fit the South African palate, and their stout garnered an endless stream of superlatives from the puckering jowls of those who were able to get a sip of it.
The food was good, but the luchadore hats were better.
Unlike the WLRB Fest, the crowd at which tends to be rather homogenous (read: hip and white), the crowd here was diverse in age, background and attitude towards beer. I saw a man in a Dogfish Head T-shirt very seriously quaffing the most obscure beers on offer not ten metres from a bunch of guys playing beer pong on the picnic tables, and it was all good. Bad attitudes were absent, and I didn’t see any fights – the open layout of the gazebos and the substantial grassy courtyard area did well to relieve any potential congestion – although I did see a number of men that must have had rather substantial hangovers the morning(s) after.
But on seeing those men, it chilled me to think that most of these people drove here. Any festival which brings together thousands of people to drink intoxicating beverages should be amply cognizant of how these people get to and – more crucially – get home from it. The organisers did really well to remind people not to drive home drunk and to take home taxis or use hired drivers, but those options are expensive, often costing hundreds of bucks. So what about all that public transport, funded by taxpayer money? Well, I took the MyCiti bus from Gardens to Stadium station for R5, but then promptly wandered around lost in Green Point for 45 minutes because there was no physical signage for the festival near the venue, and no addresses or information on its website to aid people unfamiliar with the area. It was a – literally – painful oversight.
You might think I’m being overly critical or sour, but let me assure you I actually did have an excellent time at the Cape Town Festival of Beer. I drank a lot of good beer, had a lot of fun, and met a lot of very passionate people, people like Lucy Corne, who endeavoured to, and succeeded in, drinking 100 beers over the Festival’s three-day weekend; the ever-happy Mark from Keg King; Greg and the rest of the guys from Devils Peak Brewing; Kevin Wood from Darling Brewery, who seemed to be making a roaring trade; and, as ever, my friends from the Beer Garden, Rouvanne, Lenny and Jamie. I also struck up a good email correspondence with Martin, one of the main men behind the Cape Town Festival of Beer, but unfortunately didn’t get to meet him in person. (Thank you for the tickets too, Martin.) These people are all excellent.
But I don’t think LCD, Black Label-adorned fests are not what the good beer-drinking and beer-loving population of South Africa need 100% of the time. Of course, most of us don’t really know better, but that’s only because we’ve seldom experienced better. We’ve seldom experienced festivals (perhaps with the exception of WLRB) in which people have been thoughtful about creating an identity for a festival which matches the spirit of the place in which it is held. We’ve seldom experienced a festival at which cheap public transport is adequately utilised so that the threat of drunk and dangerous driving can be maximally eliminated. We’ve seldom experienced a festival at which all brewers feel comfortable, and all breweries have an equal place. That’s what it comes down to: it can’t be a city’s festival of beer if some of its biggest craft breweries pull out because they feel uncomfortable participating in it.
A year ago, I would have thought the Cape Town Festival of Beer was the greatest thing in the world. Now, I still think it was a roaringly good time, efficiently organised with the best intentions and populated by people who never fail to put a smile on my face, but I can’t escape the fact that it revealed to me the dearth of concerted consideration in these large, seemingly corporate-oriented events, even if they are streamlined, well-run and an established status quo.
We have brilliant people, and brilliant beer with personality and passion in excess – so, may I beg the question, why can’t we have festivals that are just as special?
Good ol’ Robsons, eh? Winners of a bajillion awards every year, including SA’s Champion Beer or whatever with their West Coast Ale in 2009, it’s no wonder that Shongweni Brewery’s Robson’s range (website here) contains some of South Africa’s best loved craft beers. It’s also because they are, by all accounts, uniformly delicious.
I’ve always liked them, what, with their 550ml bottles, which have ample compensation for the 50mls you generally have to leave in the bottom of any bottle-conditioned beer. It means that you still end up with a full half-litre without the risk of yeast floating in your glass. Common sense, really. And, so I have been told, unlike most craft brews in this country, Robson’s beers reward careful cellaring and develop different characters with age. (I once left a bottle of Nottingham Road Pilsner in my fridge for a year and I’m pretty sure the yeast had formed its own parliament by the time I opened it.)
I had this one fresh, though. The Durban Pale Ale is Robson’s take on the Indian Pale Ale, but with an East Coast twist. Immediately drawn to anything with my hometown’s name on it - I am a shallow, patriotic man, after all - and having never tried a Pale Ale before, I looked forward to pouring it.
It’s an inviting looking beer for sure. It pours light amber with a thin head that dissipates quickly. The aroma that wafts from the beer is wonderful: it’s lively and floral; grapefruity and cinnamony.
On the palate, one dominant flavour emerges: orange. Immediately sweet from a ton of malt and slightly bitter from a liberal use of Cascade hops (which are traditionally used in a lot of American Pale Ales, by the way) the orange develops from naartjie flavours on the hard palate into tangy zesty notes right at the back of the throat. It tickles a bit. It’s lovely.
Although it has quite a full mouth feel, it has an astonishingly clean aftertaste. A hint of orange and grapefruit zest lingers like the last whiffs of menthol from a breath mint, lightly coaxing you into your next sip.
With it being a Durban Ale, I sort of had to drink it with curry. I made a tikka masala with some cheap dorado I picked up in Claremont, and it was excellent. The sweetness of masala and the fruitiness of the DPA worked really well together, although I’m afraid it caused me to guzzle everything far too quickly.
For R20 a bottle, it isn’t your cheapest tipple, but shit, it’s worth it. Robson’s reputation is well-founded: the DPA, which is not by any standards their best known or most celebrated beer, is clean, delicious and refreshing. Recommended.
Robson’s Durban Pale Ale; 550ml bottle; 5.7% abv.
Pros: Complex full palate; refreshingly fruity; clean, crisp aftertaste; excellent with aromatic meals.
Cons: Not the best looking bottle, but I suppose the substance is what’s inside.
I still think it’s a bit weird how I made that thing into a tikka masala, though.