Cape of Good Hops: The state of craft beer in South Africa

Fermenters at Devil's Peak Brewing Company // Photo courtesy of Devil's Peak Brewing Company

Fermenters at Devil’s Peak Brewing Company // Photo courtesy of Devil’s Peak Brewing Company

Tucked away in the southwest corner of the African continent, Cape Town is known as the Mother City, and it is here that the South African craft beer scene was born just a few short years ago. Rewind a decade and you would have found a sole microbrewery in the beautiful coastal city. Today there are around 19, plus a half-dozen contract brands and several new breweries on the way.

Although microbreweries have existed in South Africa since the ‘80s, the first rumblings of a beer revolution happened here in late 2007, when South African-Canadian couple Ross and Meghan McCulloch set up Jack Black’s Brewing Co., a contract brewery serving that served a malty lager. In 2016, Jack Black’s finally opened its own premises in the southern suburbs of Cape Town—a warehouse-like building home to a 25-barrel brewhouse. In South Africa’s burgeoning beer scene, this is one of the largest craft breweries in the country. As well as the flagship Brewers Lager, Jack Black’s young brewing team produces a range of beers, including an unfiltered Pilsner and an American-style IPA.

Closer to the city center, in a semi-industrial area found in a permanent state of gentrification, a cluster of cutting-edge breweries welcome beer geeks, tourists, bearded hipsters and the thirsty public. Chief among them is Devil’s Peak Brewing Company, a quickly-expanding brewery in Salt River that has completely challenged the perceptions and taste buds of Cape Town’s beer drinkers. Devil’s Peak launched in 2011, but rather than starting, as so many South African microbreweries do, with a pale lager or a subtle blonde ale, the launch beer was a bold and hop-forward IPA. For many South Africans it was like nothing they had tasted before and the hip brewery still leads the way when it comes to introducing new beer styles to local drinkers. In 2016, further beers from their barrel-aging program were released, as well as a Berliner weisse and a New England IPA—both new styles to South Africa.

Brewing kettle at Devil's Peak Brewing Company // Photo courtesy of Devil's Peak Brewing Company

Brewing kettle at Devil’s Peak Brewing Company // Photo courtesy of Devil’s Peak Brewing Company

Nearby and named for the industrial suburb that has become a must for beer hunters, Woodstock Brewery has become the king of seasonal ales. Their quarterly releases include a kettle-soured ale flavored with fresh granadilla, and the much-lauded Mr. Brownstone, a hazelnut brown ale. While the seasonal brews will remain the same in 2017, the brewing team continue to experiment with one-off, limited edition beers and collaborations with nearby breweries, such as Drifter Brewing Co. Headed up by a South African who cut his brewing teeth in Portland, Oregon, Drifter’s core range includes a West Coast IPA and a coconut-infused ale, while experimental brews feature ingredients like hibiscus and the fruit of South Africa’s emblematic baobab tree. They’ve also begun to dabble in sour styles—a trend that just started to emerge at the end of 2016.

South Africa is certain to see more sours in 2017, but it’s a trend that will take time to catch on. Beer drinkers here are still starting their love affair with hops, with easy-drinking, hop-forward beers proving more popular than high-ABV IPAs. Late last year, contract brand Citizen Beer launched a delectably downable pale ale with plenty of U.S. and Australian hops. Citizen is brewed at Cape Town’s oldest microbrewery, Boston Breweries, started in an industrial complex north of the city back in 2000. Boston Breweries also found success with a well-hopped session ale in 2016, their Rock Hoppa IPA which won gold at the annual South African National Beer Trophy. And further south, Afro Caribbean Brewing Company’s Hopsession has become one of the most popular beers at Banana Jam Café, which operates the nanobrewery on the upper level of the cafe.

A Caribbean restaurant-turned beer geek hangout, Banana Jam was the first place to dedicate a dozen-plus taps to craft beer. There are now 30 taps of local and imported brews, plus a half-dozen more in the upstairs brewpub. But the trend of offering customers a range of beers has happily caught on, with burger bars and beer-centric restaurants like downtown Beerhouse offering beer menus that would have been inconceivable four or five years ago.

While Cape Town is indisputably the center of South Africa’s beer revolution, microbrewed lagers and ales are spreading across the country. Breweries are now found in all nine of South Africa’s provinces and include anything from 13-gallon garage-style setups on farms, to cute wood-clad brewhouses on wine estates; from cozy small-town brewpubs to stylish inner city bars.

With a 50 percent increase in brewery numbers year-on-year since 2014, the usual “bubble bursting” questions are frequently thrown around. But while 2016 saw some closures—and 2017 will undoubtedly see more—it’s clear that craft beer is very much here to stay. And South Africans everywhere will raise a glass of Berliner weisse, a pint of pale ale or just a trusty old lager to that.

Curious to learn more about craft beer’s impact around the world? Follow The Growler as we globe-trot in search of craft beer in 7 Continents of Beer


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