This past Saturday, Banana Jam Cafe was host to the first iteration of the Craft Beer Project, a new alliance between brewers and beer lovers poised to fill the hole that We Love Real Beer left with its seeming dissolution half a year ago.
Unlike We Love Real Beer’s gatherings, the Craft Beer Project has begun somewhat smaller; trading graphic design and branded glass bombast for something a bit simpler, a bit less crowded and, as a result, a touch more friendly. The idea, put most simply, is to have smaller, more regular mini-festivals (in contrast to WLRB’s bi-annual Biscuit Mill explosions) that are more approachable and more conducive to easy gathering, and letting craft beer become a more regular part of Cape fabric.
Of course, WLRB festivals were always about that too, but the atmosphere at Banana Jam was more genial: spacious, easy-going and accessible. With an excellent selection of beers on tap and in bottle from Darling, Boston, Triggerfish, Devil’s Peak, Porcupine Quill (Botha’s Hill, KZN), Three Skulls Brew Works (JHB), Anvil Ale House (Dullstroom, MP) De Garve Brewery (Vanderbijlpark) and others - combined with a special menu of beer-infused bistro dishes - it was a delicious snapshot of the undercurrents running beneath different sections of SA craft, without the hype and noise.
The highlights of the day for me were new brews from the BruHouse - Maui Point, a mellow but complex IPA brewed with Riwaka hops from New Zealand, was especially fulfilling - and Paulaner’s swansong Salvatore, a refined doppelbock with a sweet, caramelly roast and finish laden with plum; a bittersweet send-off from the Cape Town Brauhaus.
As the day wore on and the crowd at Banana Jam remained healthy and quietly thronging, it became clear that the Craft Beer Project is trying to show that beer celebrations need not be all-encompassing or stupendously large orgiastic days out. The crowd happily buzzing, the beer quickly flowing. No angst and no show - the beer very capably spoke for itself.
But that’s enough of my observations and probably incorrect postulations. I hope you enjoy these few photos of an essentially simple, happy afternoon in Banana Jam’s sun and reggae-laced courtyard.
A Devil’s Peak Brewing Co. beer is finally readily available to the public. The First Light Golden Ale is now on tap at Banana Jam Café in Kenilworth, and it’s lovely.
Clear yellow-gold with a two finger-thick head, First Light is full-bodied and creamy, and predominantly hoppy and light orangey on nose and palate. Although the nose is quite soft, the palate is rounded off with soft hints of mango peel and acidic naartjie. It’s lively and sprightly, and finds the holy balance between fullness and refreshment with ease, making it perfect for sessioning.
I’d been looking forward to this pint since I became acquainted with the guys from Devil’s Peak at the Cape Town Festival of Beer last November. It was worth the wait. First Light is a thoroughly thoughtfully-made ale, satisfying and wholesome. Good job, guys.
At first, Banana Jam Café makes perfect sense.
A mélange of Rastafari tricolor and terracotta, this Caribbean hideout in Kenilworth’s Harfield Village is a local legend. What started out as a tiny café across the road in 1999 is now a 150-seater homage to what most people think Jamaica might actually look like – sans slums and spliff smoke, of course.
Reggaeton lightly pulses through its mango walls. Sunlight drips lazily through palm fronds onto a happily buzzing courtyard. A chalk drawing of a dreadlocked man carrying a tequila sunrise beckons customers to try today’s specials: pork belly with Carolina sauce, blue cheese and bacon burgers and key-lime pie.
Wait a second. Key-lime pie – and hamburgers? A cursory glance at the menu. Jerk chicken? All good. Curried goat? Certainly. Jambalaya? Irie.
But it’s Monday night, and it’s two-for-one on burgers and pizzas. Trays of luxuriously cheesy plates are waltzed between packed tables by slop-wearing waiters to patrons both young and ancient.
While Banana Jam Café may have made its name over 11 long years of dishing up authentic and tasty Caribbean staples, tonight it’s a restaurant split in two: sunny, zesty fare on one side, honest pub grub on the other. Banana Jam is home to what is arguably (and what is most probably) SA’s largest collection of rums, but it’s pint glasses of all hues of amber, gold and auburn sitting wet with condensation on almost every table.
Upon closer inspection, it’s perhaps no surprise that Banana Jam is on the frontline of SA’s craft beer revolution. Take the restaurant’s main wall, for example, where 171 obsessively collected cans and bottles of beers and spirit coolers rest on a trio of shelves. Some are from far away as China; some from as nearby as Newlands.
Banana Jam owner Greg Casey has had an interest in beer for as long as he can remember. At the beginning of 2011, the café began South African craft beer tastings which became a ‘huge hit’ with their customers.
‘I then went to California where I managed to learn a bit more about beer,’ Greg says. ‘On returning, I asked Jack Black and Boston Brewery to design and build a tap that I had seen in the US.’
The result was a sleek steel arch rising out from the main bar, which now features beers from a handful of local breweries and homebrewers. Small-batch beer is the name of the game, and such is the variety on offer that Greg is looking to add another eight taps to his main bar, due to demand not only from his suppliers, but also from his customers.
‘We are slowly showing people that, like wine, you do not only have to drink one brand of beer,’ he explains. ‘The craft beers are holding their own against the big guys.’
And so they should: with beers as varied as short and snappy small-batch mango ales, lip-smackingly hoppy Indian Pale Ales from Triggerfish and even cider from Everson’s on rotation, it’s easy to find something to suit your plate and palate. Your best bet is the tasting platter of 6 craft beers for R45. It’s both great value and a generous introduction to the various styles on offer.
Although the Caribbean may be famous for its herbal intoxicants, Banana Jam throws something new into the mix. Carrying no airs or graces, this gratuitously easy-going establishment is as multifaceted as the archipelagoes it draws its inspiration from.
And the drinks are good, too.
This piece was originally written for GQ.co.za.