I arrived in Cape Town with my family Friday night shortly after the close of the first day of the Festival after a 35-hour trek from Albuquerque, New Mexico. After 4 hours of jet-lagged sleep, I was up, ready, and psyched for the Festival. Cruciale capsules and Regmakers in hand, I was adorned at the entry gate with my wristband, given a weissbier glass and a voucher for a free fill of Carling Black Label, which I respectfully declined in lieu of the number of craft brews available. I immediately noticed two differences
from last year’s festival – the weather was a bit more winter-like and there was a huge crowd. Not much can hold back Capetownians from a good party – particularly one with beer as the imbibing agent!
The biggest and most important difference for me between this year’s and last year’s festivals was the significant increase in number of South African “craft beer” brands in attendance – Citizen Beer, Wild Clover Brewery, Royal Mzansi, The Bru House, Stellenbrau, and Three Skulls to name a few. Even Scottish craft beer heavy weight, Brewdog, was represented! This year also brought some established breweries from east of the Vaal River, like Robson’s, Drayman’s. There was even a guy giving a
homebrew demonstration, and a homebrew supply shop called Beerguevara that had a hop stocklist that rivals most homebrew shops in the US!
It was an immense pleasure to see the enthusiasm South Africans are having for craft beer. People clearly want more in beer selection than 20 different brands of the same pale lager. Hallelujah, brothers and sisters! It is with that enthusiasm the craft beer movement in SA is going to take a permanent stand.
The scene was reminiscent of the first few microbrew festivals I attended in the early ‘90s in the western US in many ways. While the microbrew scene had been underway for the better part of 10 years at that point, there were a lot of new players aside from the likes of Sierra Nevada and Anchor brewing companies. And with a lot of new comers, came frankly, a lot of less-than-stellar beers. But that is alright – it’s all part of the learning process. Over time, the US market ironed out its growing pains and the consumers were rewarded with world class beers. Brewers back then – pre-internet days – had little guidance on proper brewing techniques. Most guys went for it with what bit of homebrewing knowledge
they had, and I can tell you first hand that there was a lot of misinformation being passed around back then. Today, though, there are a lot of upstart breweries around the globe producing world class, award-winning beer straight off the starting blocks. And this is all because of well developed beer palates and the availability of brewing information. I believe we will see a similar path followed here in SA.
Due to jet lag and arriving only four hours before closing, I wasn’t able to sample beers from all of the different craft brands, which was really a pity. The highlight of the show for me definitely was Brewdog, which isn’t too surprising because I have a propensity for hoppy beers. While I can buy some of their products in my new home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the beers are often oxidized due to months of shipping and poor handling. So it was real a treat to get fresh bottles of the Punk and Hardcore IPAs. Bright hop aromas were still spewing out of these bottles – loved them! I hope that Brewdog SA is here to stay as Brewdog really epitomizes the spirit of craft beer.
On the local side, I was impressed by a new comer called Wild Clover Brewery that had a couple English-style offerings – a brown ale and a porter. I enjoyed the firm hop bitterness, which I think is a characteristic of beer that many South Africans are still getting their tongues around! Eric at Triggerfish was kind enough to let me sample a couple of his off-the-menu beers – an imperial stout and a sour beer. Both beers represent styles that I hope are commonplace in SA one day. The sour beer was made from a spontaneous lactobacillus inoculation of one of his production beers and further fermented by local strains of brettanomyces in a red wine barrel for 10 months. While the beer, in my opinion, still needs another year or two of brett-aging in the barrel, it’s a shining example that SA brewers are willing to push the local craft beer boundaries further!
Being the creator of Devil’s Peak’s beers, I’m compelled to comment. The King’ s Blockhouse IPA still stands out in the crowd – big hop aroma, solid malt backbone, and lingering hop bitterness.
The Silvertree Saison had an impressive CO2 level for being served on draught, which made it even more refreshing. The bitterness was appropriately firm and I could still pick up a good noble hop nose, but I could have handled a slightly drier finish. The Golden Ale, on the other hand, was a disappointment to me. The beer, now being brewed under contract at another brewery, had lost its characteristic fruity hop character and had hints of off flavors.
The South African craft beer scene is still very much in its infancy and, for me, it’s an exciting time to be a part of it. My goal is to help raise the bar of South African brewing as there is so much potential! It is in the interest of all craft brewers globally to make the best quality beer possible to keep consumers interested and to grow the market.
I had a number of observations at this year’s festival and spent some time thinking about commonality of these observations and possible improvements if warranted. One of the most common traits in South African craft beer is the level of sweetness. Do the beers tend to be sweet by dictation of palate or by incomplete fermentation, whereby residual sugars are left behind because the yeast went to sleep before they finished their dinner? In my book, a drier beer is a more drinkable beer. Check out the residual sugar content of the likes of Castle Lager and the volumes sold. Not to say a syrupy imperial stout doesn’t have its occasion on a cold winter’s night with a slice of chocolate cake! But a well balanced, fully fermented beer will have customers coming back for another again and again.
Another pervasive characteristic, though a bit difficult to describe, is a sort of heavily caramelized, almost burnt sugar flavour. I believe this to be a result of using electric elements to boil wort where a tremendous amount of heat energy is transferred to the wort through a relatively small surface area. The result is a continuous low-grade scorching of the wort. Caramelizing wort can also produce unfermentable sugars, which in turn can result in sweeter, fuller bodied beers.
A more sinister characteristic I observed is the result of what can be called a “silent killer” – poor sanitation. Poor sanitization practices leave the door open to a plethora of flavour defects. It’s apparent by the frequency of these defects that a lot of brewers aren’t even aware of them.
Here are a few tips in reference to above for making better beer:
1. Do not boil wort with electrical elements; rather use direct gas heat, or better yet, use a steam jacket.
2. Learn about and implement sound sanitation practices. Make sure all surfaces are visibly clean prior to sanitizing as grime can’t be sanitized no matter how long it’s soaked! Consider using an acid-based sanitizer and never rinse afterword.
3. Make certain the vessel you are using for fermentation is made of a material suitable for brewing. Until your budget can afford stainless steel, use only food-grade plastics and make certain they are free of voids, which can harbor bacteria.
4. Do not have threads on valves and stem pipes in contact with the wort as threads also can harbor bacteria unless disassembled, cleaned, and sanitized after each use.
5. If you are repitching yeast, make certain you are repitching the yeast you think you are. Once your ferment has picked up unwanted wild yeasts and/or bacteria, they are there to stay. Signs of these unwelcome guests include excessively low terminal gravities and unpleasant flavours that you might not be able to put your finger on, e.g., the “homebrew flavour”. Repitch yeast only if you are 100 percent confident that it is clean and viable. Have your fermented beer or yeast slurry assayed for bacteria and wild yeasts counts regularly.
6. Fermentation, fermentation, fermentation! Yeast need oxygen at the start of fermentation; consider aerating the wort with pure oxygen. Pitch the appropriate amount of viable cells at the appropriate temperature and allow it to complete at the appropriate temperature. Consider using a yeast nutrient like “Servomyces”.
Needless to say, this is only a drop full of tips as one can write a book on the topic. My journey in brewing has gone from producing undrinkable swill to an award winning IPA only through learning from my mistakes, listening to advice from successful brewers and brewing literature, and, of course, drinking a LOT of craft beer. I hope that I can begin repaying my debt by helping others, and in turn, raise the bar not only in South African brewing, but brewing everywhere. Prost!