“This winter I thought to myself, if something doesn’t happen soon, Little Wolf won’t be around this time next year. There was just no more money to put into the company.” Little Wolf’s beers have certainly gained a cult beer-nerd following since they launched in 2016 but back in July, founder/owner/delivery guy/chief bottle washer Stefan Wiswedel was wondering if his fledgling beer business would see out the year. Then an offer came from one of the country’s most respected breweries, changing the fortunes of Stefan and his nanobrewery.
“I got a call from Devil’s Peak a few weeks ago,” Stefan told me, as his latest batch was boiling at Devil’s Peak’s new Epping premises. “They wanted to add a couple of local brands to the portfolio and liked my approach to brewing. I have to say it didn’t take me too long to think about it.” By mid-November, Stefan was advertising his brewing equipment and had brewed the first batch of Hoppy Wheat on the 1500-litre system at Devil’s Peak.
At a time when buyouts in the craft beer scene are something of a touchy subject, Stefan is quick to point out that this was not a takeover. He is still the brand’s majority shareholder and now receives royalties on the sales of Little Wolf products. But joining one of the leading breweries in the country was really a bit of a no-brainer. “It’s about access to sales and distribution of course, says Stefan, “but above all it’s about quality. I can now trust the shelf life of my beers. No matter what I did at my brewery I couldn’t get the dissolved oxygen below 500ppm, so the beers had a short shelf life and were never going to travel well. Now I could happily ship to Jo’burg – partly because I have access to the distribution to do it but also because I totally trust the shelf life of the product.”
The partnership also brings a benefit that means more to most brewers than logistics or even production. “It opens doors to collabs and allows me to be part of a team doing amazing things in beer,” says Stefan, “not stuck out in Kommetjie by myself tasting my own beer and telling myself ‘sure – that tastes great’!”
The whole thing seems like any brewer’s dream come true, but Stefan has earned his stripes to get here. Back in 2014 he worked at Garagista Beer Co when it launched, then in 2015 moved to the Brewers Co-op. After selling his share in the Co-op, he took his brand to a 350-litre setup in Kommetjie, working a range of random jobs (drone builder among them) three days a week in order to be able to run the brewery. In December 2016 he began brewing full-time – something that seemed like it couldn’t last until the DP deal came along.
The core Little Wolf range will include the much-lauded (by me, for one) Hoppy Wheat, Hibiscus Cider, Virgin Cider and Tonic Water, but beer lovers can expect collabs and seasonals throughout the year, beginning with a top secret collab with Fierce Beer, due to launch in January 2018.
While some will doubtless see this as Devil’s Peak expanding their empire and swallowing up the smaller brewers, I don’t see that at all. I see a brewery with incredible infrastructure recognising the hard work and innovation of a smaller brewer and offering him the chance to further his brand with the use of their excellent facilities, most notably the barrel-ageing room, Afrofunk. Of course, it furthers Devil’s Peak’s reach too, bringing in a line of high-end, innovative products and of course, the non-alc brands. Stefan brings with him a love of sour beers and of foraging for unique local botanicals – something that has been captured in Little Wolf’s recent rebrand, unveiled at the Cape Town Festival of Beer.
Devil’s Peak co-founder and director Russell Boltman describes the partnership as one of “mutual respect and admiration”, citing Stefan’s innovative approach as one of the reasons they wanted to work together. “From the outset it was pretty obvious that what Little Wolf was putting out into the market was a cut above most breweries from a quality and creativity point of view,” Russell says. “The only thing holding Little Wolf back was a better production facility as well as having a broader sales and distribution reach. To us it is critical that beers of this quality get into more consumers hands. It helps the whole category.”
In my eyes, everyone’s a winner here – not least the envious beer lovers outside of Cape Town who until now have experienced Little Wolf’s brews only through tweets and Instagram posts and fomo-inducing Facebook photos.