IN THE lee of Ellis Park Stadium, in one of Johannesburg’s decaying suburbs, two men are trying to make a difference - and if they can’t rewrite history, then they definitely want to define their own futures.
Nico Booysen and Tsietsi Madonsela met as first-year students at the University of Johannesburg 14 years ago. They come from very different backgrounds, Booysen from an archetypal Calvinist Afrikaner background, Madonsela from a Polokwane township, but they clicked from the outset. They graduated as property economists and qualified together as professional property evaluators, ultimately going into practice together.
Today they are trying to set the craft beer world alight from the phoenix-like urban renewal project of Victoria Yards. It was, says Booysen, the 48th place that they’d tried.
“We’d gone from pillar to post, criss-crossed Johannesburg from the West Rand to the East, up to Pretoria, gone as far as Mpumalanga and even just across the Vaal to the Free State when Tsietsi finally found the place.
“I was in the US learning about craft beer when he woke me at 3am. ‘My boy,’ he said, ‘I’ve found it’, and he had, we signed the lease shortly after Youth Day in 2017.”
Victoria Yards was once a farrier station for riders and coaches in the early days of the gold rush, and then one of the biggest laundromats in Africa, before falling into disrepair and ruin, taken over by a mix of back-yard mechanics, car-cutting shops and vagrants. Now it’s home to cutting-edge artists, interior designers, an internationally acclaimed photographer and Impi Brewery Co - their microbrewery.
They were looking for the right name, says Booysen, something that was quintessentially not just South African but new South African, rooted in the past but free from those strictures. Impi, he says, means a Zulu military unit at one level, but at another it also means war, symbolic of the new war to break free of the shackles of the past and forge a new future. It’s also the incredibly cool spectacle of the muscular warrior, spears and shield in hand, who energetically leads the Springboks on to the field these days.
The logo followed, the point of the umkhonto or throwing spear grasped in a clenched fist with the shaft of the spear behind, a sheaf of barley. The two men bought spears - both the umkhonto and the legendary, shorter, iklwa introduced by Shaka - privately from a 19th century collection, and they now have pride of place on the wall behind the bar, flanked by two isidlakula, the ceremonial cow horn headdress.
The founders wanted a blend of steampunk, African heritage and a cosmopolitan vibe, so they found a copper-topped bar counter and then hung candelabra made out of 366 recycled beer bottles and repurposed plumbing to hang beneath the 50000-litre water tank that stands on the naked rafters above the bar. For food, they introduced their own style of pizzas to wash down the beer.
“It was a master stroke,” says Booysen. “Every brewery needs a taproom, a destination. Many others don’t, and that’s perhaps why they don’t survive. We invested a lot of money into designing our logo, crafting the backstory of our beers and building this focal point for our entire brand - it’s been well worth it.”
The beers aren’t brewed on site - that’s the next phase of the brand’s expansion - they are brewed by South Africa’s only black female brewmaster, Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela, who is based in Roodepoort.
Together she and Booysen designed the two standard Impi beers: the lager, Homestead, designed as a highly sessionable beer and pitched between Castle Lite and Hansa in taste, and the Warrior Pilsner, both based on research that Booysen had done in the US under Keith Villa, the founding father of Blue Moon, the largest craft beer-maker in the US.
Last year, Impi precociously entered the two in the South African National Beer Trophy. Booysen and Madonsela were invited to fly down to Cape Town for the prize-giving at Long Street’s Beerhouse. Neither of them thought they were in with a chance.
“We’d taken a long shot, a bit of a cheek actually, since we’d only opened our doors in November the year before and it was now only 10 months later and we were entering our two beers. When we were asked to attend, we thought we’d get a plastic consolation prize, like most promising newcomer or something,” Booysen remembers. Instead, they were blown away; the 22 judges awarded Homestead Lager gold in its category out of 213 entrants, while Warrior took silver.
“I’ll never forget that night,” says Booysen, “all the blood, the sweat, the tears to achieve the vision and then this, running with big dogs in the craft world like Cape Brewing Company, Devil’s Peak, Mad Giant and all the rest.”
The evening kept on giving. Booysen and Madonsela met brewer Morne Uys from the Kommetjie, Cape Town, based Lakeside Brewing, which has led to a collaboration called the Dark Warrior, a series of dark beers, while there are plans to roll out another four Impi beer types in the near future: an Irish Red Ale, an IPA, a stout and a Weiss beer.
As a typical craft brewer, Impi also produces so-called season beers that are available from Victoria Yards. Its regular beers are not available in bottle stores but are on sale either on tap or in bottles at Capital Craft in Pretoria, Beerhouse in Fourways, Local Focal in Bedfordview and in the &Beyond luxury game lodges in the east of the country.
Homestead lager recently won the battle of beers by public acclaim at the Beerhouse in Fourways, beating 10 other invited microbrewers, so it will be on tap for the next six months.
It’s a far cry from when Madonsela and Booysen were sitting in Madonsela’s lounge in 2016 - drinking beer - and Booysen told him how they should start a microbrewery.