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.
Yesterday I took a drive to Blaauwklippen, a wine farm five kilometres outside Stellenbosch, to take advantage of the beautiful afternoon that the temperamental Cape spring had brought. The winery here stages a small family market during the warmer months, and families and couples gather to laze about on the grass, sip estate wine and soak up some rays. It’s beautiful; you know the type already: old white colonial buildings, converted stables and perfectly manicured lawns.
I don’t have a family though, so I went with my friends James and Nicole.
In the centre of it all is a strip of little stalls selling clothes, antiques, children’s toys, rare books and fresh produce. In a courtyard near the restaurant are some more stalls, all laden with all manner of tasty things for lunch. I especially liked the bunting hung everywhere between the branches of the frankly colossal trees. It was festive. (Apart from the lonely looking clown wandering about, who was decidedly not festive.)
Obviously, I went straight for the beer, served today by Rouvanne and the rest of the guys from The Beer Garden. I hm’ed and ha’ed a bit initially, but in the end went for a Paulaner Weiss. Pouring a resplendent orange, it’s laced with acidic citrus (think more grapefruit than orange) and sweet fruit esters. A weiss with good personality and a decently malty backbone, it makes a great summer drink for those who want substance as well as refreshment.
There were Tunisian, German, Thai, Dutch and Indian food stalls, but when I teamed up my weiss with a fresh vetkoek with sweet chili goats’ cheese, dill and smoked salmon, I felt like I was winning.
My friends settled for a last-of-estate bottle of wine for R30. It looked very nice and it made them very happy judging by the amount of laughing that was going on and I would talk about it but this is not a wine blog IT’S A BEER BLOG DAMMIT.
The few stalls that were there were nice, if expensive and a bit esoteric. There’s no flea market atmosphere here, which is a bit of a shame because I like flea markets. As much as I love rare books (and yes I do love rare books stop looking at me like that), I also like places where you can waste some shrapnel on an old Alan Paton that will sit unread in your bookshelf for years and years until you donate it to a school library or something.
On saying that, we did find people selling some 100% rye flour crumpet mix for R5. They were very sweet and very enthusiastic and the crumpet samples were good. But like all those flea market books, I’ve got a feeling that crumpet mix will sit in my cupboard forever.
Also, children! Kids love climbing all over the antique carriages strewn about on the lawns outside, although I don’t think they’re permitted to do so. (Whatever, I climbed all over them too.) These two kids asked my friend for a high five.
So, yes, a verdict: a nice market in beautiful surroundings; plenty good atmosphere, plenty good beer, plenty good food. Platitudes aside, it was a shame to see it as empty as it was. Yes, we do have our cultural obligations (church for some, World Cup Rugby for others), but little markets like this are really what the winelands are about and, although I’m not a wine guy, I sure do like being around here. I think you would too.
Hi! My name is Nick Mulgrew. I’m twenty-one years old, and I live in Cape Town, South Africa. And I really, really like beer. Like, a lot.
This is me at the Big Pineapple, a ridiculous fibreglass monument to pineapple farming on the old frontier of the Eastern Cape, just outside Bathurst. Looking back, it wasn’t one of my finer moments. That magenta blazer wasn’t really becoming, and I was about twenty seconds away from jumping into a field of pineapple bushes with five of my friends, an experience I would not recommend. (Sharp fronds in uncomfortable areas aplenty.) But I digress: held in my hand is a simple source of small serendipities to my teenage self, namely the humble 330ml can of Hansa Pilsener.
It’s one of 191 beers brewed and marketed worldwide by South African-based brewing conglomerate SAB Miller and, most importantly, it’s my favourite beer of theirs. It’s really a decent beer. It finds a good balance between drinkability (whatever that means - it just says it on the can) and that one factor that rises above all others for every student: cheapness. Although that’s not saying much: I can only admit to drinking about ten percent of SAB’s world-dominating range of mostly samey-tasting, deep-throatable brews. I’m nineteen in this photograph and, like most nineteen-year-olds, I had a lot to learn about a lot of things. Beer, and the implications of SAB’s almost imperial dominance of South African beer, were no exceptions. But more about that later.
South Africa is famous for many things. We have diamonds and elephants and some of the best urban decay you could ever hope to see. Our real strength, however, lies in our non-mineral exports: racism, rugby and red wine. I’m not such a big fan of racism admittedly, but I do love my rugby. I feel ambivalent about wine. I mean, I like wine, and I know certain peculiar things about South African wine, like why Chenin Blanc is a much-derided grape variety in this country despite there being a good amount of decent wines being made from it now1 and why the quality of South African wine, despite it being made in the Cape since the 17th century was initially an incredibly poor product.2 It’s all terribly interesting.
But winemaking and wine culture are still great sources of angst for me: I cannot possibly get my head around the nuances of terroir, for example, nor do I have the patience - or money, for that matter - to even partially appreciate the output of many wine estates. (Unless it’s Autumn Harvest, but I doubt Autumn Harvest counts as an “estate”.)
What is there left then for the young, burgeoningly semi-alcoholic student who wants to thinly cover up his reliance on alcohol with a shallow interest in its origins and trade? I think I have an answer, and I think you should have gathered what that is by now.
But why is beer so obvious a choice? Well, I think there are plenty reasons. It’s the ultimate leveler, for one. It is accessible, affordable and, above all, tasty. It is one of the few constants that runs throughout the lifestyles of the different communities that make up South Africa’s vastly complicated population. It’s postulated as one of the many reasons why nomadic early humans decided to eventually settle in agricultural communities, even. It is liquid good times, and it takes many forms: it is amber delicious, or it can be raven-haired mirth, or maybe just a blonde bubble and spark. Perhaps most crucially, its production requires skill and patience and craftsmanship, and, well, I quite like that.
Unfortunately, it seems South Africa lies under a long, dark, SAB-shaped cloud. Our malty conglomerate markets decent but sometimes very uninteresting beers with ruthless efficiency and profitable results. Sure, foodies will know of Cape Town’s WE♥REALBEER Fest, collectives like Gabriel Collective, and the excellent brewpubs, mostly around the Cape, that are making in-roads into South Africa’s beer consciousness. But many of the beers associated with these excellent initiatives and institutions are marketed by social media-obsessed men who advertise on Cape Town’s awful blogosphere and then charge R40 for their beers. Their hangouts are populated by middle-aged men with designer stubble and hats. I call it hip beer, and it’s not accessible. It’s pretentious, and it’s a really no-good culture if well-crafted beer should become a better understood and better loved thing in South Africa.
So now I have decided to commit myself to a relatively slow-paced quest to find and understand South Africa’s beer-laden heart. I expect to find men with amazing beards, enthusiasm and love for their craft. And to drink lots, obviously. I want to be challenged. I want to argue. I hope to write well about an under-appreciated craft. Above all, though, I want to find the great people behind great beers.
Think of Suip! as a blog version of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, except it’s only about beer and I’m approximately only half as much of a douchebag as Guy Fieri.
And if Guy Fieri was more drunk, obviously.
1. For economic reasons, Chenin Blanc used to be picked very late, when the sugar content in the grape was near its highest, and so was used primarily for making brandy and sweet late harvests. (Well, I think so, anyway. That nice woman from Elgin may have been telling lies.)
2. When the settlement at and around the Cape of Good Hope was founded for the benefit the Dutch East India Company, the Company made sure that it had a monopoly on selling wine in the settlements, leasing the wine trade to contractors back in Europe. Although the burghers who lived near what would become Cape Town made their own wine, they could not retail it, and could therefore not invest much in their vines. As such, Cape wine initially was - and stayed for a considerable amount of time - a low quality product, made with low amounts of expertise. (A wonderful history of the early South African wine trade, somewhat surprisingly, is one of many very interesting insights in Herman Giliomee’s overwhelmingly comprehensive history of the Afrikaner people, The Afrikaners.)