Yesterday (March 25), while road-tripping around the Northern Cape, I stopped at a farm stall and checked my phone. I had received the same photograph nine times via different platforms and my phone was going wild. BrewDog co-founder James Watt had taken to social media to announce the company’s plans to build a brewery in Cape Town.
The response was instant, abundant and for the most part, extremely positive. Local beer lovers shared their excitement at the idea of getting fresh BrewDog down here (or indeed, any BrewDog, since the imports stopped a couple of years back). Even local craft brewers were, for the most part, positive about the news.
“A rising tide floats all boats,” said Eben Uys, founder of Mad Giant Brewery in Johannesburg, who believes BrewDog could be a positive force for South Africa’s beer scene. And he makes a very valid point. BrewDog make consistently good beer, they innovate constantly, they have a marketing arm that can push craft much further in South Africa and of course the finances to follow it up. They have the power to expand craft beer’s reach across SA, beyond the estimated 1% that it currently claims in South Africa’s beer industry. “They will bring massive excitement and lure many craft sceptics,” Eben added.
The presence of a well-established and largely well-respected brand could also have positive implications for the quality of local beer. South African craft beer has improved immensely in the past few years and I can proudly say we have breweries that could easily compete on a global stage. But this is sadly not yet the case for every South African brewery. Some are still finding their feet, are using inferior ingredients or equipment, or are simply failing in some of the basics of brewing. And while they’re still managing to sell their beers to loyal locals, the arrival of BrewDog could throw a spanner in the works.
This is a brand that drinkers know and admire and they will likely use that as a benchmark for quality. To compete, local breweries will need to work hard to match that quality. For some, this will mean improving their brewing practices, upgrading their equipment and working on their recipes and of course, this will involve a greater investment. But this can only be a good thing for both brewers and drinkers. If breweries are not willing to invest to make the best beer that they can possibly make then to put it bluntly, they deserve to fail.
Not everyone is so sure this could be a positive step for our already struggling local breweries. Worries about BrewDog’s marketing might and their potential to sell beer at a lower cost than local breweries are legitimate. South Africa’s craft beer industry has had an extremely difficult 12 months and those challenges look set to continue for some time. Brewers are worried about losing some of their already small share of the market to BrewDog. But I tend to think that BrewDog has the power to increase craft beer’s piece of the pie, hopefully not eating into local brewery profits but widening the net for all.
People were also sceptical about the timing of the announcement, coming just as we are teetering on the edge of a fourth alcohol ban. “I fear they haven’t done their market research,” commented one brewer. And while I find this unlikely, I do think the Scottish brewery will find the South African economic climate and the local craft beer scene rather challenging.
Another hurdle is the proposed location, which appears to be the old Monument Station building on Christiaan Barnard Street, near Cape Town’s train station.
Cape Town brewery Ukhamba Beerworx offered their advice on the location: “No no!! You must never!! Look for a better location,” they Tweeted, with other Twitter users also voicing their concerns. “My man, do not move in there. You will see zero foot traffic. It’s dangerous as shit over there bru,” replied @theothergazza. “Good luck with security,” @TheCopyShepherd added.
But while it is not exactly a prime part of town (I can’t think of a single bar or restaurant within a ten minute walk of the taproom’s location), it could still work. Remember when Devil’s Peak opened their taproom down a side street in Salt River back in 2013? I was scared to park around the back of the building and walk to the taproom’s entrance. And now there are coffee shops and ice cream shops and creative agencies clustered in the area. It’s possible that a BrewDog taproom could serve as an anchor for regeneration in that part of town.
Whichever side of the fence you sit on, you have to admit that it’s an announcement worth talking about. It feels like validation of our little industry – almost as exciting as when Ramaphosa said the word “microbreweries” in February’s family meeting. And whether you agree with BrewDog’s business practices or marketing strategies over the years, you have to admit that the prospect of sitting in a BrewDog taproom, sipping a freshly brewed half-pint of Jackhammer with Table Mountain as a backdrop, is a pretty cool one.