You might have noticed a few new names on the beer shelves lately. Well actually, they’re very familiar names, but new to South Africa. Last month, Lagunitas beers arrived in our liquor stores and bars. Around 40 especially chosen establishments around the Western Cape now have Lagunitas IPA on tap, while a very select number of venues are also stocking the IPA and A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale in 355ml bottles.
It’s a move that has at the same time attracted praise and concern. Lagunitas is now wholly owned by Heineken, with the beers being distributed in South Africa by Jack Black. Consumers are largely ecstatic – new beer! Great new beer! Plus at pretty reasonable prices – the recommended selling price for the bottles is under R30, while a pint should be selling around the R50 mark. Brewers are not so excited. Competition! Big competition…and at lower prices that we’re selling at!
And Heineken aren’t the only ones bringing out the big guns. Shortly after Lagunitas tiptoed into the SA beer scene, Anheuser-Busch InBev (who now own SAB) quietly launched two Belgian giants from their ‘High End’ selection – Hoegaarden and Leffe Blond. Makro is selling Leffe by the case for R450 – less than R19 per 330ml bottle – while I picked up a four pack of Hoegaarden in Pick ‘n’ Pay the other day for R64 – just R16 per bottle.
Tough times for brewers
Some brewers are not happy. This year has been a tough one for the South African microbrewer what with the weak rand, the crowded marketplace, the expansion of local breweries like Devil’s Peak and the ensuing price wars. For the first time since craft beer started to boom in SA, we have seen around as many closures as openings and some brewers feel that the big boys – ABI and Heineken – playing in the craft space will only spell further disaster.
I do understand that many smaller brewers simply cannot compete on price with these mighty breweries, but I do see positives in these imports. For one, they are making speciality beers more accessible to the majority. I’m sure many of you will agree that craft beer prices have been getting a little out of hand recently and many South Africans who would love to sample a few new brews simply cannot afford to try them. When big breweries like SAB/ABI release a non-lager, they are actually doing the craft beer industry here a huge favour. A few years back when Carver’s Weiss was launched, it was the single biggest boost to the weissbier category that has ever happened in SA. Sure some people ditched their Amber Weiss for a can of something cheaper, but plenty more people discovered weissbier for the first time then went out looking what else might be available in the same genre.
An upside to imports?
And there is an argument that world class imports help with local quality. The main form of quality control in our industry is you, dear drinker. And the more you taste, the more knowledgeable you become. If there is a brewer somewhere producing a fairly average witbier or a subpar IPA but the drinker keeps buying it, then that brewer’s beer will never improve. If the drinker compares it with a beer so good it is used as a classic style example in the BJCP guidelines, then perhaps they will be in a better position to give feedback to the brewer or at the very least, vote with their wallet and drink elsewhere. The end result of this should not be that we see another brewery closure, but that we see something that I am happily experiencing more and more often – a brewer improving his or her beers and helping raise up the industry.
If you haven’t tasted these beers, I’d highly recommend it. Lagunitas IPA perhaps lacks the high hop punch you might seek but it is, of course, a superbly well made beer with orange on the aroma and a pleasant caramel backbone. A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ is a tough-to identify style – a 7.5% American wheat ale with a heady citrus hop nose and a solid 97 on RateBeer. I was initially planning to review Hoegaarden, a beer I could drink all day, but realised I would literally be copying out the BCJP guidelines – and the same goes for Leffe, prime example of a Belgian blond ale.
Whether you’re ecstatic about the arrival of these “crafty” beers or you’re a big beer hater who thinks the megabreweries should stay out of the craft space, you’ll probably have to at least agree that Christmas is looking bloody tasty this year…
So what do you think? Will you be boycotting the big beers this summer or filling your fridges with the latest imports?