A CONNOISSEUR OF TRAVEL & BEER SHARES HIS IDEAL TRIP
Many would say that craft beer is about quality, or that, if you can stir the mash tun by hand, it is craft. When planning a craft beer route, one that is definitive or meaningful in some way, one needs to look beyond simple certainties. Indeed, quality is paramount, and what sets craft apart in my mind are two tightly interwoven threads – inspired individuals, and unforgettable places. When individuals, formed as much as limited by their surroundings, drive brewing, it guides them away from mechanistic moneymaking toward wider concerns: the environment, history, new science, new ways of gaining reward, women in brewing and collaboration. It opens paths to earlier ways of brewing and forgotten styles of beer, draws on the art, music and lifestyles of those that came before. Of course beer remains beer, confirming, sip by sip, that very little matters when you’re mulling over a mead, ale or cider, each so much more than the liquefaction of all you’ve come to value around the heady phenomenon of craft.
To all the folk endeavouring to explore this beer route: every one of these breweries, brew pubs or restaurants has accommodation on the premises or in very close proximity. So don’t drink and drive – stay the night, take the time to enjoy the activities and scenery in these exceptional locations, and make the most of your trip by taking it safe and slow – ed.
Dullstroom and its cool, eastern escarpment weather, high-altitude forests, rolling grasslands and mirror-smooth streams convey a sense of being in Canada, not Mpumalanga. When Theo de Beer moved to here, fly fishing must have been the last thing on his mind. The plan had been New Zealand, and his vision most likely wine. But life finds its own way. Pried from his Hops Hollow home in Sabie, Theo now brews as he intended.
Larded with heirloom naartjie peel and spices, his White Anvil is a must. The awarded and well-styled, coppery Pale Ale makes for more serious drinking and the Black Anvil Stout is just what you need around the fire, on icy winter nights. While the beer-heads pore over their ales, abstainers can stroll down the main road, to browse and sample the ever-increasing array of knick-knacks, keepsakes and wholefoods. And, yes, pause for a plump and toothsome river-fresh trout.
The surprising thing about Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela is not that she’s one of the most qualified brewers in the land, with a list of firsts that’s hard to beat. Neither that she’s from Butterworth in the Eastern Cape, or a woman, for that matter; nor the way that she brews, or paid her dues with our biggest brewer, SAB. The thing is that she’s hardly 31 years of age. Brewhogs, with its cheeky hedgehog logo and a brewery that has moved around more than once, is where she chose to drop anchor, this time in Kyalami.
Brewhogs is lager-land − even their excellent India Pale, Brewhogs No 4, is a lager. What’s sad perhaps is that Brewhogs has no on-site brewpub as yet, but those who look shall find. Beerhouse Fourways would be first port of call, or The Radium Beer Hall – the oldest bar in Johannesburg with its tin roof and pre-war memorabilia-cluttered walls.
Brewers don’t often come like this anymore. Straight as a mash paddle and unapologetic as a dog marking its run, Roeks Griessel is the sharp-witted SAMBRAG (South African Micro Brewers Association & Guild) president and self-made beer baron of Maanhaarrand, banned from festivals for his full-breasted beer taps and dog-piddle labelling, but revered by those with fewer scruples, who prefer to focus on the beer like his crisp Kölsch, simply named Roeks Beer, his herbal Waldmeister, or his tart and tangy Raspberry Beer.
Roeks will be first to praise his neighbours: Nuschka Botha with her impressive Black Horse Brewery, perhaps still the youngest brewer in the land, and Imke Pape, self-taught Reinheitsgebot prophetess at Brauhauss am Damm. Everything from Nusckha’s cheerful Pink Drink or malt-and-toast Golden Lager, to Imke’s lemon meringue-like Brauhaus Beerlemon or chocolate-and-nut Brauhaus Dunkel, speak for themselves.
Willowton Tea Factory, KwaZulu-Natal
The multi-talented trio of beer whisperers which make up the Willowton Tea Factory – Clockwork Brewhouse’s Megan Gemmel, Doctrine’s Deon van Huyssteen and Mo’ Gravity’s Travis Boast – will prove a hard team to beat in KZN. Hands-on and perfectionist, and not scared to try something new (Travis is known to brew with paprika, and noodles), they’re dead set on zero bells and whistles brewing. “If you spend any time with us it’s obvious that we are a team,” they explain.
Having no brewpub as of yet, the beers are everything. Megan’s Pitter, a brilliantly balanced blend of a Bitter and Brown Porter, is a beer worthy of her microbiologist credentials; Dion’s Darker Vision is an exceptional Imperial Stout, aged for at least six months, sometimes in oak, sometimes on cherries; the well-named Serendipity is Travis’ maverick English Mild Ale, brewed with arborio rice and Thomas The Tank Engine Pasta added to the mash, or whatever catches his fancy. Find Megan’s beers at Abingdon Wine Estate, or head down the road to John Little at Quills in Botha’s Hill. Owner of a chef school, John requires his students to brew. A yard-long list of compelling beers and an excellent, student-run deli completes this verdant hills-and-valleys getaway.
Things have come a long way since the “Beware the Pig” days when a tipsy black hog still roamed the Notties restaurant, all too ready, and able, to snatch one’s lunch. These days the beers come in cans, and what was once a 30-litre brew vat, originally earmarked as a beer fount for Peter Dean’s Rawdons Hotel, has become a beacon for craft, lately under the able hands of Born in Africa Winery’s Thokozani Sithole.
If the animal-named ales (Pickled Pig Porter, anyone?) or misty Midlands air isn’t enough, one can head down the quick road to Hilton and pop in to Robert Mitchell’s Old Main Brewery. Styled as an old English country pub (think home-made pies, mashed potato and country vegetables), you’ll find yourself sitting among the brew vats, poring fondly over an 1806 Real Ale or, more darkly, their Honey Badger − two unforgettable ales.
Splashed along the tiny, wet jewel of the Kromme River estuary, St Francis Bay marks the northernmost extremity of the Garden Route. But it’s not only holiday and surf themes which prompted Lance Kabot and his wife Linky to pitch their brewery on this arrestingly beautiful stretch of forested coastline. With brewing stints on the USA West Coast, and an extended tussle with the beers of Europe, their pedigree is supreme.
Linky presides over the pub-style menu, ensuring ingredients are locally sourced and fresh. As for beer, from the light-hearted Beach Blonde to Lance’s hop-crazy Wildside IPA, served from a beautifully wood-panelled bar and an impressively long row of chalk-boarded beer taps, their standard range is framed to reflect the careless surfside existence that St. Fancis Bay seems to command; alongside them, an inevitable Storm Rider Stout, to ride out the winter nights.
The one thing which must irk André Cilliers is never being mentioned without some or other reference to the Owl House or Helen Martins. But it would be the same for anyone brewing in the beautiful old Karoodorp of Nieu-Bethesda. Sneeuberg has been dubbed the most rustic brewery in the country, and it’s easy to see why. Not far off is André’s own backpackers and a host of other rooms and lodgings, should one plan to stay over and explore the rest of this iconic town.
The beers fit the surroundings perfectly − unpretentious but generous, and easy on the tongue, from their Karoo Ale to their Honey and Roasted Ales; and every now and then a Karoo Honey Mead for the dead-set and curious.
A lot of time has passed since Greg Crum, the man who imagined Devil’s Peak, sat brewing in his Somerset West garage, conjuring beers that I thought, at the time, were the best I’d had. When Greg chose to return to the US in 2012, Devil’s Peak had already ensconced itself in Salt River. When JC Steyn, fresh from his job as Dornier winemaker, stepped in behind the beer vats, the quality of beers hardly wavered, as it often does when the tuns and kettles grow from homebrew size to small pools. More beers were added to their original line-up and the plaudits came pouring in, most notably a national award for King’s Blockhouse IPA.
The iconic taproom was erected around the coppery innards of the old Paulaner Brewery, offering classical brewhouse foods like pulled pork sandwiches and burgers. A delicious Black IPA became one of the standards and a constant stream of innovative and unusual beers joined the excellent line-up, many of them fusions of beer and wine, some sours, others brewed with wild yeasts, all aged in barrels and conditioned champagne-style. Even die-hard winedrinkers were tucking into Grapes of Wrath, Vannie Hout and My Bloody Valentine, with aficionados keeping a hawk’s eye on the online beer list, lest they miss the next instalment of a limited release.
Don’t assume that Solms Delta is just another Franschhoek wine farm. Although they make increasingly impressive wines under Hagen Viljoen these days, Solms is also a museum, musical archive, fynbos restaurant & garden, and a cider house & meadery. Its resident historian, Tracey Randle, studies not only early wine, but also the history of the landowners, the Brinks and Solms’ and Astors, and the Khoi and San who lived here before, their language and musics, the families that survived them; what they spoke, ate and brewed, and how they sang.
A pear orchard, one of the oldest in the area, supplies fruit for the delicately fragrant Astor Pear Cider. A touch of hops gives it tooth. But it was the !karri which grabbed me, moulded on an ancient San mead, crisp and flowery as a Fino sherry, the new batch unfortunately still under wraps, but well worth the wait.
Visiting the quaint red-brick AECI dynamite store at Paardevlei, you’ll find Triggerfish, the second oldest craft brewery in the greater Cape Town. With 18 beers on tap, each better than the other, it has a record hard to beat. Eric van Heerden, whose brainchild has become the brewery we see today, is as crack a brewer as one gets. He’s president of the Global Association of Craft Brewers, and even though ocean diving might be his first love, it’s beer which drives him on. Not so much selling beer − many sellers beg, few receive − but designing beer: from Kraken, at 1254 IBU the 5th bitterest beer in the world, to incredible IPAs, Red Ales, Stouts, Weissbier, Pales and Blondes – an endless list.
Each batch has something different, yet the beers stay much the same, month after month. Sometimes he uses fresh hops, couriered at great cost directly from the growers; sometimes it’s buchu or Belgian yeast or grapes. Some batches become sours, and are wooded for years, improving all the time. The flops become beer schnapps, to take off the edge.
It’s easy to get lost in the Cederberg. Even in daytime, navigation to the farm where Ceder Brew is situated can be tricky. So fill your tank before you leave Ceres and have your map handy. There’s no fuel after Op Die Berg yet still cars arrive on empty tanks. Seventh generation dwellers on their farm Kromrivier, Melanie and Tania Nieuwoudt do not fit in any mould. A PhD in biochemistry, and an MComm in Logistics are but the beginning of their distinctions. If subtle, faultless elegance is what you’re after in beer, you won’t find anything better. I’m tempted to call this way of brewing feminine, in much the same way that burgundies are described in the wine world.
Their labels, immaculately designed by Melanie, allude to another dimension of the time-bubble that is Kromrivier − conservation. Part of the Cederberg Conservancy, the Nieuwoudts are piloting an effort to extract alien fish and return endemic species to the river, some the subject of their beer names. A tasty Pumpkin Ale, redolent of fritters, and a beautifully fragrant Cherry Blonde named Sarie Marais, round off their staples: Catfish Pale Ale, Sand Fish Weiss, and Chubbyhead Stout.
It’s fitting perhaps that the most exclusive, most vibrant of beer festivals, has a crack brewery associated with it. It’s a neat, not too large little affair, just off the town square and smack dab in the middle of one of the quaintest, most enjoyable small shopping districts one can find, with anything from coffee roasteries to jewellers, art shops and health stores, each a little world unto itself. Of course, the Golden Gate National Park lies just outside of the town, offering, to my mind, one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. But a day of standing and browsing and driving around is dry work, and coffee, as good as it may be, doesn’t always cut it. Stefan and Natalie Meyer could hardly have been better positioned, and few breweries would improve on their ciders and beers. If sweetness appeals to you, Natalie’s ciders will spin your head. If not, Stefan’s poised ales, from his excellent Red Ale to his tasty IPA, will draw you back, beer after beer, until the evening becomes dreamy and you forget that tomorrow is not just another day.
About the author
JACQUES VAN ZYL travels—not to places so much as into things. Once he’s enchanted, he cannot stop. He makes his inquiries with a childlike insistence on detail and a relentless demand to experience everything. What he encounters, he collects. He twice had to move house to accommodate a collection—once of rare orchids, once of towering speakers he had designed. He’s a gourmet, a connoisseur of wine and beer, a maker of words and an audiophile. He doesn’t understand money. Instead, he drinks for a living. He’s the winner of the 2014 FWV SA Wine Writers’ Long Form Award.
Get Jacques’ extensive guide to South African Craft Breweries and Brewers here.