In early December, nine Cape Townians had the opportunity to help me conduct a bit of craft beer market research. Their task for the evening was to taste their way “blindly” through 30 different beers. I know, I know, it was a lot to ask of my panel. Ag, shame man– 30 different beers and they had to provide written comment on each? Yes, and they all swallowed!
The purpose of the tasting was to attempt to ascertain how developed a typical Cape Townian craft beer drinker’s palate is, to characterize it, to find out what common beer styles may do well in the South African market, to expose South African beer drinkers to real examples of beer styles they may or may not have experienced previously, and to see how existing South African craft beer compares. The purpose of doing the tasting blind was to get a knee-jerk, unbiased response. If one is presented with a bottle of 15-year old Dom Perignon, he will likely sing praise for the spendy liquid even if it has been poorly cellared and tastes like
stale cardboard. Why? Exclusive cost and perceived prestige. Throw that same poorly cellared champagne in a blind tasting mixed with other faulty products and he will likely call it for what it is, or at least what it is to him based on his palate experience. The exact opposite can also occur – an exquisite, perfectly cellared 15-year old Bordeaux could be written off as swill by an inexperienced palate.
I structured the tasting to mix up some top quality international craft beers (all US less one from Belgium) with South African examples of specific styles. Each person had to rate the beer using the BJCP scoring approach. Tasters were allowed to discuss what they tasted, but no one was allowed to make speculations about what beer they thought it was. In addition, defect characteristic description sheets were available and discussed in order to provide the tasters with a bit more information to assess the beers.
The following were the beers tasted by style and in the order they were tasted:
“Belgian-style” – De Garve's “Jolly Nun”; Saison Du Pont; and Devil’s Peak
Brewing Co.'s “Silvertree Saison”.
Pale Ales – Copper Lake Breweries' “English Ale”; Robson's “West Coast Ale”;
Deschutes Brewing Co.'s “Mirror Pond Pale Ale”; Triggerfish's “Ocean Potion”;
Deschutes Brewing Co.'s “Hop Trip”; and an experimental pilot batch of
pale, hoppy beer brewed by me
Amber Ales – BruHouse's “Red Ale”; Porcupine Quills Brewing Co.'s “Karoo Red”; Brew Dog's “5a.m. Saint”; Triggerfish's “Red Roman”; Oscar Blues Brewery's “G’Knight Imperial Red”.
IPAs – Rogue Ales' “Yellow Snow IPA”; Triggerfish's “Hammerhead”; Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.'s “Celebration Ale”; Devil’s Peak Brewing Co.'s “The King’s Blockhouse IPA”; Brew Dog's “Punk IPA”; La Cumbre Brewing Co.'s “Elevated IPA”; BruHouse's “IPA”; Deschutes Brewing Co.'s “Chasin’ Freshies”; and Ska Brewing Co.'s “Modus Hoperandi”.
Double/Imperial IPAs – Triggerfish “Titan”; Green Flash Brewing Co. “Imperial India Pale Ale”.
Porters/Stouts – Darling Brew's “Black Mist”; BruHouse's “Porter”; Castle Milk Stout; and a coffee imperial stout brewed by me 1.5 years ago (incidentally served at the Cape Town Festival of Beers in 2011 under Devil’s Peak BC).
The results of the tasting were indeed interesting and I think everyone, including myself, learned a lot from the experience. I’ll be throwing the confidential results into my Pandora ’s Box of recipe ideas! I will reveal this, though – the tasting panel had a propensity for US craft beer.
The tasting highlighted the high frequency of “questionable” characters in South African craft beer – so much so that many South African craft beer drinkers aren’t even aware of them until they are benchmarked against international standards. I touched on this topic in my last blog about the Cape Town Festival of Beers. I stick with my belief that this is just part of the growing pains of a blossoming craft beer industry and that it will sort itself out over time.
One very pleasant surprise for me was the high level of IBUs (a measure of bitterness) the tasters found pleasing – hallelujah! For example, one of the highest scoring IPAs was Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s “Celebration Ale”, a beer that I love, but find to have a pronounced bitterness. “Well balanced” was one of the comments. This is music to my hop-filled ears!
The fact that the tasters all enjoyed complex beers like imperial red, IPA, and coffee imperial stout, tells
me that craft beer has a bright future in South Africa. And, I think that the quickest way to raise the bar and to reward the consumer is by bringing international benchmark craft beer brands to South Africa. Stay tuned……….