I recently attended the marvellous Beer Boot Camp in Cape Town. As you’re probably aware, the one-day conference had an all-star cast, kicking off with the magnificent Michael Ferguson. He’s a master brewer, TV presenter and the kind of public speaker that can hold an audience’s attention from the moment he walks into the room. All of the Boot Camp talks were highly informative, but for me, Michael’s stood out because it was just so damn relevant to the South African beer scene. It was entitled ’12 Steps to a Perfect Brewery’ and above all it showed that there a lot of imperfect breweries in South Africa.
The talk covered a lot of common sense – keep things clean, know your audience, have the right tools for the job, never sell a bad beer… And so much of it rang so true for so many people – most were nodding along and indeed when Michael uttered the words “You made a beer, it didn’t turn out as planned, you put some apricots in it and call it a Berliner Weisse, right? NO!”, spontaneous applause broke out. But of course you’ll know all this because you were at Boot Camp too, weren’t you? You weren’t? Well if you’re a brewer or you work in the beer industry in pretty much any capacity (marketing folk, tap room managers, writers, and dare I say, influencers [shudder] I’m looking at you too) and you were one of those people that thought R1000 was too steep for a day of learning with international experts, then let me tell you this – you are part of the problem. (Homebrewers and general beer enthusiasts, you are excused. Foolish for missing out, but excused.) As Michael’s talk went on, and indeed as I listened to subsequent talks, the single biggest problem with the South African beer industry became more and more apparent. But this isn’t actually a blog post about Beer Boot Camp – that was just the inspiration for the post (in fact I came away with blog, feature and homebrew club ideas galore. You really should go to these things – they inspire you.)
Get some education
So here it is – the thing that will stop our industry from growing and maturing. And it’s not a small problem. The issue, I believe, is that brewers/brewery owners are simply not willing to spend any money on their business. Now, this isn’t across the board of course – I can think of a few breweries that have dropped a few million rand into their business and more often than not, this shows in their beer. But we have around 200 breweries in SA these days and most just don’t seem to want to invest the necessary cash to make their beer great.
So let’s begin with education. Every year at these conferences I see the same brewers from the same breweries (you know who you are – buy yourselves a pint). I see the same homebrewers, most of whom have no plans to go pro. And every year there are dozens of brewers – well over 100 in fact – that simply don’t think that a conference or a boot camp or a powwow is a worthy use of their time and money. How can this be? How is it possible that someone launches a business and doesn’t want to leap at every opportunity to learn every single thing they can about that business, especially in a country where beer-related learning is still a fairly rare thing? Do they think they know it all already? Because, let’s tell it like it is – I’ve tasted the beer and they don’t.
But it’s not just conferences, it’s everyday training. How many brewers employ an assistant brewer but fail to empower them with the opportunity to learn more than “follow these steps in the brewhouse”? A brewer doesn’t just follow your recipe – he or she needs to know how to change and tweak and troubleshoot and indeed how to design their own beer from scratch. Beer education opportunities are limited in South Africa so I would expect every training session, every course to be booked up months in advance. Instead, I know that the likes of Global Beverage Systems and Brewster’s Craft often struggle to fill the seats in their courses. So here’s a wake up call – if you have never sent any of your staff on a training course of any sort, you probably need to get out of this business and make room for someone who actually gives a crap. Or y’know, start booking some training…
Tools for the job
But it’s not just education that so many brewers in South Africa are unwilling to spend their cash on. Let’s look at equipment. So many people still have cobbled together systems, poor cooling facilities, plastic fermenters (yes, I know that there are a few brewers making excellent beers using plastic fermenters – I will await your emails/comments…). If you don’t want to spend your earnings on a stainless steel fermenter or you don’t think a pH meter is a valuable investment or you’re not interested in upgrading the system you used to homebrew on, perhaps you need to question your commitment to this industry. Sure, we can’t all afford a Kaspar Schulz, but there are now plenty of locally made systems designed by engineers who know what they’re doing.
The same goes for ingredients. When beer labels are emblazoned with “100% local ingredients” or something similar, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a good thing. Sure it sounds great – craft beer should be all about supporting local after all. And I think it’s cool that there are breweries that want to utilise the best local ingredients and come up with local styles (Jack Black’s Cape Pale Ale springs to mind). But here’s a home truth – we do not produce the world’s best malt in South Africa. Not by a long shot. In fact, almost all overseas beer experts who have visited South Africa have commented on the malt profile (or lack of) in our beers. Local malt is, of course, a lot cheaper – but that’s not what craft beer is about at all. You don’t source the cheapest ingredients so you can sell on a distinctly average beer at a hugely elevated fee just because you’ve used the word “craft” on the label. The point of craft beer is that you make the very best beer you can make. And you’re not going to do that by using exclusively SAB malt (or even mostly SAB malt).
“It’s fine, people are still buying my beer,” I hear some of you saying. But do they buy it twice? I have to tell you that when I enter the likes of a Roeland Liquors or a Hillcrest Tops, I shop with extreme caution. Every so often I gamble on a new brand and it’s a gamble I usually lose – the only winner is my thirsty drain. Why is that? How is it possible that, give-or-take, a decade into our craft beer revolution, so much of the beer is still sub-par? Well in part – a fairly large part – I would say, it’s down to a lack of quality control. Some brewers – many brewers – don’t have any sort of lab set up to do basic testing, nor do they send samples, be it of water, wort or beer, to external labs to be tested (too expensive? Believe me, destroying your brand will cost a lot more). Many wouldn’t even consider something as affordable as putting together an impartial, paid-for panel of beer enthusiasts/experts to give honest feedback on the beers. The fact that your friends, your parents or even quite frankly, your locals, are happily downing your beers isn’t quality control. There are some basic – and low cost – things you could be doing. Start with investing in an off-flavours pack and teaching your staff how to recognise a beer gone bad; keep a beer library of your brews stored at different temperatures; get together a panel of people whose tastebuds you trust – and pay them to be there. And yes, if you’re serious about this beer thing, please set up a lab and get someone in the know to head it up for you.
I could rant on like this all day, but we’ve already passed the 1500-word mark and I think you get the point. If you as a brewer are not willing to invest in staff, to further your own knowledge, to upgrade your equipment, to use the best – and not just the cheapest – ingredients in your brews or to put into place basic checks that ensure the beer is decent when it reaches the consumer, then quite frankly, you probably don’t deserve to succeed in this business. We’ve already seen a handful of breweries close this year, although many more have opened. Happily, plenty of brewers are upping their game and if you want to stay in it, you need to do the same.