Last weekend I spoke at the first Craft Brewers Powwow, a beer industry conference/get together that is going to become an annual event. My topic was the future of the South African craft beer scene, something I have a great deal of passion for. I talked about future trends in beer styles, the impending AB InBev takeover of SAB, the challenges and where the industry looks to be going. Throughout the course of the weekend, my outlook on the future of the scene just got brighter and brighter. Not that I was feeling glum about the state of SA craft beer to begin with. Despite the odd rant and moan, I see the scene getting stronger, the beer getting better, the brewers getting more passionate. But after a weekend sharing ideas and beers with brewers and fellow beer lovers, I’m positive that we’re soon going to see massive leaps in the quality of our brews.
I was thrilled to see how many brewers travelled to the conference – some at great expense when you consider flights, accommodation, time away from their tap rooms and kettles plus the cost of attending the conference. I feel that mentioning them all by name is the right thing to do here – they deserve the recognition for caring enough about their craft to attend the event, so big props to you Brewhogs, Soweto Gold, Brauhaus am Damm, Dog & Fig, Nottingham Road, Bosheuvel Estate, Black Horse (and yes, I know not everyone who would have loved to have come could afford it, but I think these guys deserve a tip of the hat). I would have liked to have seen more Western Cape brewers in attendance, but was happy to see those from Stellenbosch Brewing, Afro Caribbean, Hoghouse, Stone Circle, Drifter, Aegir, CBC, Jack Black, Riot, Darling, Dissident and Hoogeberg in attendance. And I apologise if I’ve left anybody out.
A couple of topics kept rearing their head over the course of the weekend. Foremost was the AB InBev takeover. Will they come in and start buying up breweries as they have in the States? Will they try to squash the SA craft beer scene to ensure it never poses the threat that the American scene does? There seemed some nervous faces in the room when German beer writer Ina Verstl told us how lucky the South African craft beer scene has had it under SAB. “For whatever reason – historical, political – they have allowed you to thrive,” she said, perhaps giving some of the craft brewers pause for thought. “AB InBev do not like competition,” she continued, going on to explain how ruthless they were when entering the Brazilian beer scene.
When the subject later came up in the panel discussion, SAB’s Denis da Silva did a good job of assuaging a few fears, backed up by colleague Tim Godfrey, who had gone off and done a little research following the morning discussion. He found this press release which discusses an agreement that AB InBev has reached with the South African government. Among other things, the agreement “also includes commitments by AB InBev to support the participation of small craft-beer producers in local markets.” Wow. Does this mean that the government really cares about our little industry? Although there are no specifics of what this would actually entail, it seems like good news for South African microbrewers.
Plenty of focus over the course of the weekend was placed on quality control, or the lack of it in the current SA scene. Jack Black’s new brewer, Jonas Krebs, talked us through the quality control kit they use, while informal conversations between brewers focused on the need for training, improved equipment and a functioning craft beer organisation in the country (“Setting up an association is vital”, Ina Verstl told us). This was in fact the essence of the weekend – working together to find solutions, to help the industry grow, to make the beer better. There was a wonderful feeling of shared learning, whether it was homebrewers talking to craft brewers, nano brewers asking those from CBC and Darling for tips or indeed veteran brewers learning from all of the above. For me, the weekend was summed up by brewing industry veteran brewer Jörg Finkeldey. Despite having more than two decades of beer industry experience under his belt, he was eagerly listening to every speaker and tweeted: “Amazing what I can still learn after all this time making beer.” And I think we can all raise a glass to that.
SAVE THE DATE: Next year’s Craft Brewers Powwow has already been set for the weekend of May 5th-7th 2017. See you there!