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Finding the Hidden Breweries in South Africa

Per Samuelsson explores the South African beer scene
Beer Travels March 16, 2006      
Written by omhper

Tyresö, SWEDEN -

My girlfriend and I landed in Johannesburg on a Saturday morning. As I knew that Glenfair Wine & Liquor in Pretoria were offering Saturday morning tastings of local microbrewed beers that was given choice as a first stop. At this first stop luck was with me - they were holding an annual beer festival with beers from 4-5 breweries on tap.

The beers I were searching for here were primarily the ones from ^^lt$$a href = "http://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/drayman’s-brewery/5585/"^^gt$$Drayman’s^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, a local Pretoria brewer and one of the pioneering South African microbreweries. All their beers are German style, and to me their ^^lt$$a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/beer/drayman’s-altstadt-weissbier/43041/^^gt$$Altstadt Hefeweizen^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ was their top effort, though the locals highly recommended their Rauchbier, which is a winter seasonal and wasn’t available.

Another good brewer in the region is ^^lt$$a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/gilroy’s-brewery/3528/^^gt$$Gilroy’s^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ in Roodeport, more or less an outer suburb to Johannesburg. They make a range of very British beers of good quality.

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Our tour and all known operating South African small brewers.

A peculiar thing about microbrewing in South Africa is that nearly all of them seem to be located out in the bush. Therefore we left the hustle and bustle of the big city behind us and headed out across the highveld to the Drakensberg Escarpment, where the high plateau that covers most of southern Africa abruptly drops down into the steamy Lowveld. On the highest point in Long Tom Pass you’ll find southern Africa’s highest brewery: ^^lt$$a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=5586^^gt$$Hops Hollow^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ at an elevation of over 2000m. Here, in a surprisingly chilly and desolate place, the friendly De Beer family runs a brewery/guesthouse. Four widely different top fermented beers of good quality are produced, and it is hard to fins a cosier accomodation anywhere. Sarie De Beer told me that one of the special challenges of brewing beer in this region is that it has to be brewed in the very early hours of morning, as this is the time of the day that the severe thunderstorms that the area is known for are the least likely to strike and cut the power.

The next day we were en-route to the famous game reserve Kruger Park, were we eventually managed to spot all of the big 5 within a few hours when a sign caught my attention. It read "^^lt$$a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=6470^^gt$$Perry’s Bridge Brewery^^lt$$/a^^gt$$". And, sure enough there it was: a brewpub in the chaotic touristy village Hazyview, thriving because it’s the last stop coming from Johannesburg to Kruger Park. They had three taps with their own beers, but sadly none of them were running at the moment - something that didn’t seem to bother the staff terribly.

The next province were we tried our luck was KwaZulu-Natal, a part of South Africa known for many bloody battles, the most known probably being Isandlwana where the British took a bad beating by the Zulus. A good thing for the thirsty is the KwaZulu-Natal Brew Route, taking you through all the brewers of the province.

Our first stop was in Hattingspruit, a small village in the northern midlands. This is where ^^lt$$a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=5582^^gt$$Farmers Brauhaus^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ is located. The brewer was a long time dream of German Otto Martin, who emigrated to South Africa after he lost his home in Bohemia after WWII. Today Theo Madela, a Zulu, is the brewmaster. At my visit only two of their taps were running, due to shortage of raw material, but their ^^lt$$a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/beer/farmers-brauhaus-schwarzbier/43019/^^gt$$Schwarzbier^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ was one of the highlights on my trip. Very, very few schwarzbiers in the world can compare with this masterpiece.

In Dundee, a small town not far from Hattingspruit ^^lt$$a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=1207^^lt$$/a^^gt$$National Sorghum Breweries^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ has a plant supplying the area with a South African specialty - sorghum beer. The commercial versions usually come in leaking cardboard boxes (it still ferments, and needs to breathe).

The colour ranges from bone white to pale pink, and both the look and the consistence is similar to drinking yoghurt. Also the flavour is along this line - lightly acidic. However sorghum beer is also grainy and sometimes mealy. Don’t expect to find it in upmarket bottlestores, and if you, like me, happen to have fair skin, expect your questions about sorghum beer to be met by confusion and amusement. In Dundee the cashier asked me if I bought my cardboard box of ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/indlovu/53705/^^gt$$iNdlovu^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ for my cow...

We continued down towards the coast and ended up in Eshowe at the George Hotel. We met up with owner/brewer Graham Chennells. He is a man with a lot of hobbies. One is to run the hotel, another one is to brew at his ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=5583^^gt$$Zululand Brewing Company^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ in the back of his hotel, a third is Zulu culture, and he is also interested in medicinal plants. He was the one behind the Brew Route, but it took him many years to get his brewery running himself. With no proper training as a brewer the road the getting his equipment to produce what he wanted was a long and winding one, but now he is there. His ambition with the brewing was never to produce world classics, rather to produce something which is better than other available beers, but not so adventurous so that they scare his customers, not used to anything but dumbed down lagers, off. His ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/zululand-blonde-ale/53706/^^gt$$Blonde Ale^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ is a good example of this. An uncomplicated but highly refreshing beer with some integrity, which it is a joy to drink in the bar where you’ll find the most wild mix of people you’ll ever meet.

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Zululands brewmaster posing with a beer in front of his equipment.

Another of his hobbies that proved useful for me was his interest in Zulu culture. He quickly organized a guide for us to take us up to a rural brewpub, ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=5588^^gt$$Thothotho^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, where sorghum beer is produced. The name means “the dizzy spell you get when you sniff the snuff”, by the way. Our guide first took us to the downtown outlet for Thothotho. This is a shelter on a backyard where men sit on benches around the wall, passing a cup of beer between them. The brewery itself was situated in the Nkanini village high up among the hills. Every attempt to find it on your own is highly discouraged as there are no signposts anywhere. Outside of a building a few of the local men were gathered to enjoy some afternoon beer. The owner joined us and gave me a lecture in the art of drinking real sorghum beer with a wooden spoon from a calabash. Something about a white man drinking sorghum beer must be enormously funny as most of the people had problems to sit up as they were laughing so hard. As brewing is considered women’s work here the beer was brewed by one of his wives and it was taking place outside in some barrels. The difference in taste between this fresh "real" variety of sorghum beer and the commercial one is primarily the freshness. It had more citricity and nothing of the "stale beer"-flavour that often riddles the commercial products.

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Enjoying real sorghum beer at Thothotho.

After a detour to the game reserve Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, known for its high population of rhinos we carried on southward along the coast to the big city of Durban. Here you’ll find the brewpub ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=5584^^gt$$Firkin Hophouse^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ located on the roof of the plush Pavilion Shopping centre in the suburb Westville. This American-looking place makes two of their own beers, ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/foxx-lager/53708/^^gt$$Foxx Lager^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ and ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/foxx-red-ale/53709/^^gt$$Foxx Red Ale^^lt$$/a^^gt$$. Neither of them are attention grabbers, and most of the people in the bar seemed happy to stick with their Castle Lager.

As we ran short of time we sadly had to skip the planned visit to ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=2155^^gt$$Warturg Brauhaus^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ where I’ve been before. Wartburg in itself is quite interesting in that it is a German speaking town in the middle of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. The Wartburger Hof is a nice hotel and restaurant, and at my visit a few years back they had just started brewing their German style beers.

Instead our last stop in KZN was ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=2154^^gt$$Nottingham Road^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, where a brewer with the same name has become one of the most well established microbrewers in the country. The brewpub is situated at beautiful Rawdon’s Estate where you can see the mighty cliffs of the Drakensberg towering up at a distance on a clear day. The pub has a typical English country atmosphere, and the beers are mild and inviting.

The road took us through the Lesotho, known as the country with the highest lowest point of all countries. I managed to score a ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/maluti-mountain-premium-lager/41318/^^gt$$Maluti^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, the locally produced industrial lager, but unfortunately overlooked the fact that the coloured canisters on the huts meant that sorghum beer was on sale. On winding roads we very slowly closed in on Rhodes, situated high in the mountains, close to South Africa’s ski resort. Rhodes is a small village that is home to cosy Walkerbouts Inn including ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=5595^^gt$$Highlands Brewery^^lt$$/a^^gt$$. Unfortunately there had been recent reconstruction at the brewery, but we caught the friendly brewmaster brewing. He told me that they were producing beers depending on availability of raw material, including a stout, a brown ale and a blonde ale. His beers are bottom fermenting at high temperature, and spiced with Tettnang, Hallertau and Outeniqua hops (from George in the Western Cape).

Cursing that I never got the chance to try any of the beers we left next morning for Nieu Bethesda, a small village way out in The Karoo, the semi desert covering vast areas of South Africa’s interior. Nieu Bethesda is known for The Owl House, a house decorated and filled by concrete and glass by a crazy artist, but it also has a small brewery of its own. This microbrewery/brewpub calls itself just “The Brewery”, although ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=6461^^gt$$Sneeuberg Brewery^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ is probably a more official name, is also an artisanal cheese maker, and it has no posted opening hours. The brewer is André Cilliers, and his goal appears to be to make good beers in a simple way. He brews in plastic, from partial mash and also makes his own serving vessels from refrigerators. His most common beer is ^^lt$$a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/beer/sneeuberg-karoo-ale/54174/^^gt$$Sneeuberg Karoo Ale^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, a thirst quenching golden ale. He also served me a brown ale and a honey ale made from local honey as well as a mead. Honey is something that he will develop in the near future as we will have bees of his own.

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André Cillier and his brewing equipment.

The plan was to visit the Coelacanth brewpub in coastal Port Alfred next and to take a detour over the ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=6251^^gt$$Makana^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ meadery in Grahamstown on the way. Sadly we found out that Coelacanth was out of business, and a puncture prevented us from ever reaching Grahamstown. Instead we ventured to Knysna and the sight of South Africa’s first microbrewery – ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=2125^^gt$$Mitchell’s^^lt$$/a^^gt$$.

Mitchell’s story is somewhat complicated. From the original Knysna location the concept was expanded to Cape Town and Johannesburg, and the founder Lex Mitchell was eventually bought out by ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=762^^gt$$South African Breweries^^lt$$/a^^gt$$. As a part of the deal he is not to take part in professional brewing, so apparently he is now working as a brewing instructor in Port Elizabeth. Then SAB lost interest, the Johannesburg location was shut down but the other two are being run under separate ownership.

Mitchell’s brews around five different types of beers in Knysna. Their lager and easy going ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/mitchells-(knysna)-bosuns-best-bitter/54234/^^gt$$Bosun’s Bitter^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ are the best sellers, while the ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/mitchells-(knysna)-raven-stout/54235/^^gt$$Raven Stout^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ and ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/mitchells-(knysna)-old-90--/11474/^^gt$$Old 90/-^^lt$$/a^^gt$$ has the most to offer beer connoiseurs. The brewery is open for tastings during office hours.

The Cape Town Region has quite a lot to offer a beer tourist. In Stanford you’ll find one of the most stunningly beautiful brewpubs anywhere – ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=2159^^gt$$Birkenhead^^lt$$/a^^gt$$. It looks more like a fine wine estate, both the exterior and the interior. They offer around 5 different beers, and friendly service with a lot of humour. A funny thing is that their ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/birkenhead-kolsch/43559/^^gt$$Kolsch^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, perhaps their best beer, is a bitter. Birkenhead’s beers are also bottled and distributed to some places throughout the region.

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Then there is ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=5593^^gt$$Helderbräu^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, a centre for German speaking culture located in Somerset West just east of Cape Town. The former brewer and owner sadly passed away recently, but the new brewers, with experience from Bavaria and Namibia, have continued his mission with an honour. Their German style lagers are nothing short of world class, and the German style food is also very good. As it is also conveniently located close to the highway it is a must visit for any beer interested visitor to Cape Town.

Another microbrewer is ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=5590^^gt$$Boston Breweries^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, located in central Cape Town. They make an ale and a lager, but I could only locate their lager, which sadly was not of very high quality at that time.

In the touristy Cape Town Waterfront you’ll find two brewpubs close to one another. One of them is ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=6464^^gt$$Mitchell’s Waterfront Brewery^^lt$$/a^^gt$$. They make the same beers as in Knysna, plus one seasonal. At my time of visit the seasonal was ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/mitchells-(cape-town)-old-wobbly/54237/^^gt$$Old Wobbly^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, a potent strong ale at 9%.

The other one is ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Place/south-africa/western-cape:-cape-town/paulaner-brauhaus-(cape-town)/3936.htm^^gt$$Paulaner Brauhaus^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, brewing a range of credible German beers.

One brewpub in the region I missed out on is Tollie’s in the wine capital of Stellenbosch.

Before departing South Africa we also took the opportunity to visit Potchefstroom in the North West Province, an hour or so SW of Johannesburg. Potch is home to ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=5594^^gt$$Bourbon Street Brewing Company^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, a nightclub making their own beer. Sadly we had to leave 45 minutes before opening time, but the locals told me that they make one beer, ^^lt$$a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/bourbon-street-humdinger-lager/54303/^^gt$$Humdinger Lager^^lt$$/a^^gt$$, roughly an all malt lager.

Per Samuelsson, 2006-03-08



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