Feature story on craft beer for Verve. Arts on Main. Picture: Antoine de Ras, 02/09/2013

Johannesburg - Beer drinkers have had no shortage of reasons to raise a glass in recent times. And it’s all because South Africa’s growing craft beer revolution has exploded from garages and backyards to watering holes everywhere. There are now well over 90 microbreweries in the country putting their small scale brews on to the market.

They’re the force behind craft beer festivals springing up everywhere from Clarens to White River and from downtown Jozi to under the mountain in Green Point, Cape Town.

Microbrewery-hopping beer tours have given double-decker buses a new lease on life in Joburg and Cape Town, and later this year will see the launch of the first South African Craft Brewers’ Championship. It’s a way to up the game for home brewers and unknown microbreweries and to put their offerings on a bigger global map.

It’s all great news for those who love the dark art of when four ingredients – hops, barley, water and a bit of yeast – meet in a fermenter and, over time and at the right temperature, become a brew of liquid magic.

Craft beer fans are also cheering on the end of the beer monopolies that have long meant a limited choice of mass-produced lagers. Many of the artisan beers are brewed in small batches, which mean more attention to quality and to finishing touches. Most are unfiltered and don’t contain preservatives.

The labelling of the beers also doesn’t have to be straitjacketed to fit a corporate or brand profile, so they’re usually edgier, a bit more off the wall and just a whole lot more fun, which isn’t going unappreciated.

Warren H* is the man behind Dragon Brewery and his newest offering, Dragon Fiery Ginger Beer, is a labour of love he’s unleashed on the world.

He doesn’t give his full name because he’s still got a day job and his two worlds are pretty separate. It’s typical of start-up microbrewers who have to pursue their passion outside the nine to five. They also have to fight licensing hurdles to put a price tag on a bottle.

“I started messing around with brewing when I was 16. I’ve always been fascinated about that chemical magic when the starch converts to sugar and at the right temperature and after the right time turns into something that tastes amazing,” said Warren.

And the years of after-hours tweaking of his “garage brew” have paid off with his ginger beer, which has become something he is sending to market and which is proving to be a hit. Even his wife loves it!

“We are getting more woman beer drinkers because the flavours are so much better than they expect, and I think the ginger beer goes down especially well with the ladies,” he said.

He’s seeing more woman beer drinkers and more craft beer drinkers today.

It’s the variety that keeps beer drinkers surprised and coming back for more. Warren’s next experiment will be to create a clear sorghum beer.

Cheryl York is the wife of Grant York, one of the brewers at Smack Republic. She says she realised from beer tours through the US with her husband that the beer drinker in South Africa has a very different profile.

“In the US women seem to drink beer as their alcoholic drink of choice, but until recently beer drinking in South Africa was considered a man’s drink,” she said.

“Now craft beers are offering so many more tastes and flavours that women are bound to find a type of beer that they will enjoy, so they’re trying it too.”

Grant York believes women have a more sensitive palate anyway, which means they enjoy the more varied, rich and aromatic flavours of the wide range of artisan beers.

York, together with brothers David and Andrew Martin, started Smack Republic at Arts on Main, Joburg towards the end of last year.

They brew on the premises in full view of the public because they want the brewing process to be part of their interaction with customers. They make a small quantity of three beers that they bottle under enticing names – Maboneng Maverick, Braamfontein Brawler and Bree St Belle – and they sell on tap when the market is in full swing on Sundays.

“We wanted the names of the beers to be linked to the iconic places in a city that is so much part of our inspiration. The labelling and the names are the fun part of what we do,” said York.

“We all have day jobs that we enjoy, but brewing is our passion.”

Customer Khanyisa Maku is lining up for a top-up as York pulls the tap on the last of what he has on sale for the day.

Maku said: “I drank my first craft beer about a year ago and I was hooked. It’s all about the flavour, I think. I like that hopsy taste and you get that coming through with craft beers. Right now I’m loving my IPAs (India Pale Ales).”

It’s all good business. Even the giant brewers are happy with the craft brewers because it means more people, especially women, drinking beer. It’s good business, too, for a company like League of Beers.

League of Beers is an online craft beer seller at www.leagueofbeers.com that bills itself as a beer curator that sources and selects local and international craft beers which it sells to monthly subscribers and the average internet shopper.

“I could talk about craft beer for ever, it’s really something that’s just booming in South Africa,” said Rob Heyns, who started up the online company with Nzeka Biyela and Manie Potgieter in November 2011.

“I’ve worked on wine farms since I was 16, but I think that beer has got much more flavour potential. By just changing one of the ingredients slightly you get a completely different end product.”

Heyns said beer was losing its tough-guys-only branding and quickly gaining a classiness of its own because of the rise of artisan brews that were lovingly made and bottled. He said the design and the humour in the labels were also a big drawcard.

He acknowledged there were huge obstacles for small breweries because of licensing costs, but he said some small players were banding together to get joint licences.

Business partner Biyela said: “Rob and I always knew that our business venture had to be online and craft beer was a perfect fit back in 2011. The interest has just kept on growing, which is very exciting for us and for beer fans.”

She added: “I’m not really a drinker myself, but of course I have to try the beers that we sell and even I have to say that I enjoy the taste of what’s coming out of the South African craft beer scene. All I can say is if you haven’t had a craft beer, then you have to do yourself a favour and try it.” - The Star