Chances are, if you’ve been around on the SA beer scene for a while, you’ll remember Camelthorn Brewing Co. The Namibian-based brewery launched in 2009 and was a prominent player in the early years of South Africa’s craft beer scene. Their weissbier and American red ale were pretty revolutionary at the time, introducing a land of lager drinkers (well, two lands really – South Africa and Namibia) to a world of new flavour when it came to beer.
The beers were among my favourites when I first moved to South Africa in 2010. They were the first craft beers I ever tasted at Banana Jam in 2011, when Greg started offering free tastings (with the smallest samples you could ever imagine 😉 ) on the deck. I remember sipping the weiss at the first CTFoB in 2010 and visiting Camelthorn’s stand at We Love Real Beer events (remember those??)
The beers were really good, but perhaps a little ahead of their time and in 2012, Camelthorn hit some financial difficulties. By 2013, the brewery, which apparently won the first Namibian brewing licence since the 1920s, closed its kettles. Well, kind of.
In January 2014 it was announced that Namibia Breweries Limited (NBL) had taken over the microbrewery following approval from the Namibian Competition Commission. Since then, I’ve been trying to find out – on and off – what happened to the brewery, the brewer and his beers. Every so often a bottle would appear from nowhere. Some said it was old stock, others said that NBL were still brewing the Camelthorn brands. A friend visiting Namibia got hold of a bottle of weizen and insisted that it wasn’t a three-year-old beer, that it was still being brewed. Eventually, I think I have tracked down the brewer, the brewery and indeed, one of the beers.
Where is the brewer?
With a degree in chemical engineering and a 20-year background in brewery design, it would be odd for Jörg Finkeldey to step away from brewing altogether. So I was pleasantly surprised but not shocked when I popped into Paarl’s newest brewery, Berg River, last week to discover that Jörg is the team’s head brewer. Berg River have four beers on their menu – Helles Lager, The Mermaid Pale Ale, The Captain Blonde Ale and The Admiral, a light weiss (at 2.5%) that’s ideal for the Paarl climate. On a side note, the tap room is an awesome little place. Most breweries in industrial areas aren’t places you particularly want to hang out, unless you’re a real beer nerd. But Glenn, one of Berg River’s partners, is a carpenter and has fashioned some awesome steam punk-style fittings for the tasting room. Definitely worth checking out. *UPDATE* Jörg is also working with the guys behind the very newly opened Urban Brewery in Hout Bay. As well as helping design the system, Jörg has been retained as the brewmaster, working alongside the main brewer.
So what about Camelthorn’s brewery?
Years ago, I remember SAB’s Denis da Silva raving about the Camelthorn brewhouse, whipping out his laptop to show photos from his recent trip to Namibia. I always thought that NBL had kept hold of the brewery itself, perhaps with a view to installing it in a Windhoek brewpub, or that maybe that was where Stellenbrau’s weissbier was being brewed, but it seems that as of last year, the brewhouse is actually right here in Cape Town. I’m told it’s in the Muizenburg area, but haven’t been able to unearth anything more specific – if you have any insight please let me know. But it seems we’ll soon be getting another fairly sizeable brewery in the Cape Town area…watch this space.
And what happened to the beers?
I think it’s fair to say that some of Jörg’s beers live on at Berg River. Camelthorn also produced a helles, and the Namibian brewery’s ‘Fresh’, a flavoured 2.5% weiss, was surely the inspiration for Berg River’s Admiral. As for the brands themselves, a little digging revealed that NBL owns the brand names, and it appears from their website that they’re still brewing the weiss, or at least are planning to.
So there you have it. It’s been bugging me for months and months what happened to Camelthorn and now I almost know. One thing I love about the craft beer scene is that even when a brewery closes, it’s never gone for good. The brewhouse and indeed the brewer tend to get recycled, meaning that we don’t get fewer beers to choose from on our shelves, we just have different choices to make.