The Beginner Brewer: Is South African Craft Beer Too Tame?

Monday, 22 October 2012

Is South African Craft Beer Too Tame?

I've recently been to quite a few craft beer fests in and around Jo'burg and Cape Town.

Two things are clear:

  1. The South African craft beer scene is definitely taking off, and that is a fabulous thing indeed.
  2. SA Craft beers are, sometimes, surprisingly tame.
So before I get a lot of people upset at me (although, by all means..), let me qualify my second statement. There are more than a few really well made, well balanced beers out there made by South African artisan brewers. I've reviewed some of them in this blog. By tame, I don't necessarily mean a lack of hoppiness (but it is that, too). Tame also refers to a restricted variety of beer styles and ingredients.

Where have all the styles gone?
In South Africa, there seems to be a curious lack of the kind of craft beers that are very common in other countries. 

I mean, where are the hop monster IPAs and Imperial Stouts? Where are the high ABV Belgian hybrids? Where are beers that have interesting, non-traditional ingredients in them? The left-of-centre styles? There are exceptions, of course. Three Skulls has a Saisson, Devil's Peak BC has some interesting stuff going on. But I don't think this is the rule.

It's surprising how many of our local craft breweries have come out of the gates with lagers, when most craft brewers elsewhere (in equally lager-dominated markets, like the US) shun the style or leave it for much, much later in their evolution.

One of the advantages of being a small volume brewer has to be that you don't need to follow the macrobrewer's schedule of consistent, middle-of-the-road beer making.

And yet, that's what you find with all -too-often regularity when visiting local craft beer festivals.

I'm not entirely sure why this is, but I've got at least two theories:
  1. South African microbrewers are overly concerned about the dominance of lagers in the larger population. Unless South Africans are uniquely equipped with taste buds that only respond to yellow fizzy stuff, there really is no reason to believe that the average beer lover won't take to more extreme flavors and styles. In fact, South Africans do love extreme flavours in their food and wine (think of super-hot curries and single varietal wines, like Malbec that have done well here). While it makes sense to have a "gateway" beer in your line-up; say a blonde ale, surely that should lead to more interesting beers down the line?
  2. The Reinheitsgebot. The German purity laws of 1487 are often touted by some micro and macro brewers as a seal of quality. These laws dictate that beer may only be made with water, barley, and hops. But why are brewers so enamoured with this medieval practice? Just across the border from Germany, the Belgians have been making beer for as long, but have made beer with a much wider variety of ingredients. Nobody has yet complained about how bad Belgian beer is.
Belgian beers: not known for being tame

I hope that SA craft brewers will take a slightly wider view of beer and what the drinking public will approve of. I hope that the Reinheitsgebot will remain where it belongs: in the history books.

Here's to more interesting beers. Cheers!


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{Photo credits: Belgian beers: visitflanders; Empties: NgyenDai; all CC BY-NC-SA 2.0}

2 comments:

  1. "I mean, where are the hop monster IPAs and Imperial Stouts?"

    Maybe everyone's sick of those styles?

    Seriously, if craft beer just means a proliferation of IPAs and imperial stouts wherever it takes root, then it won't be interesting or worthwhile. Make South African beer, not American (I know those styles aren't really American, but it's the American versions that are everywhere today).

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    Replies
    1. You make a good point Chris. I think my article is more about craft beer needing a greater range of styles in SA than necessarily focusing on any particular one. American styles are popular because the American craft brewers have really launched the revolution of tastier, non-macro brewed beer I think. As for South African beer. Mmm. Not too sure what that would be: have you got any suggestions of a uniquely SA-based style?

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