Last week the blog went crazy with comments from grumpy craft beer lovers, fed up with the lack of quality control in South Africa. A simple, 300-odd word post attracted more comments than any other I’ve written to date and in general, people seemed pretty pissed off. So as an antidote so the somewhat negative vibes rippling through the SA beer scene over the past seven days, here’s is a nice, positive look at where the South African beer industry is at…and where it’s hopefully heading.
This weekend I was lucky enough to attend the grand opening of Wild Clover Breweries. Well, I suppose grand re-opening would be more correct, since the brewery sold its first pint back in 2012. Either way, there was no denying that it was grand. I simply couldn’t believe the transformation. I was last at Wild Clover in September for a SouthYeasters mini-festival and had to confirm that this was the same building the event was held in. A 2000-plus litre brewhouse imported from Italy stands proudly behind glass, meaning you can sit and watch brewers Ampie and Karel at work while you sit in the super-swanky tasting room and taste the core range of four beers. Ampie has always been a great brewer, right back to his homebrewing days, but with the massive upgrade in equipment the beers are crisper and tastier than ever. As if to prove this point, the first beer Ampie brewed solo on his new system was a light lager – and we all know there’s nowhere to hide when it comes to that style. The beer was served as a welcome drink and I, for one, went back for seconds.
The brewery has been upgraded and the tasting room revamped, but that’s not all. The Wiild Clover team haven’t held back at all – there are smart new labels, awesome four-packs to take your beers home in, and the observant among you will even notice a subtle name change (‘Brewery’ has become ‘Breweries’, reflecting the fact that there are new partners involved, in the form of uniWines).
All in all, it’s pretty fabulous and I’m thrilled for Ampie and Karel. It’s the result of many years of hard work and fairly small profits, of upscaling headaches (check out their story in Beer Safari – it always makes me chuckle) and of experimental batches that sometimes worked…and sometimes did not.
People are often talking about the growth of the South African craft beer market, citing the constant string of new breweries opening across the country. But what we should perhaps be focusing on, what would be a better indicator of how our industry is blossoming, is how some of those existing breweries are expanding. Wild Clover isn’t the only well-established brewery to invest in a new, imported brewery to increase their capacity – and quality. We’ve already seen Darling Brew’s own brewhouse installed in the town that gives the brewery its name. Jack Black are busy commissioning their brewhouse, while Saggy Stone’s shiny tanks arrived from Italy just last week. And I’ve heard that Harfield, Lakeside, Red Bridge, Granite Rock and Smack Republic have either recently upscaled or have plans to do so soon.
I also hear a lot of talk about the bottom of the industry falling out – that supply is outstripping demand; that the industry is not substantial. With this I have to disagree – there is still plenty of room for growth in the South African beer scene, and the fact that breweries are doubling or tripling or decupling (it’s a word – I saw it on Wikipedia) their output suggests that they are struggling to keep up with their patrons’ thirst.
It’s hugely heartening to see brewers upping their game and to see those who have grafted for years succeeding at the hobby that first became a passion, then an obsession and finally a livelihood. Best of luck to all at Wild Clover – you deserve it!