A couple of weeks ago, SAB quietly announced that they would be venturing into the South African craft beer scene (the first I heard of it was on Beerhouse’s blog). Well, they didn’t quite put it like that – they’re sensibly staying away from the word “craft”. The press release stated that their “development brewery” would “deliver small batch speciality beers”. These beers, brewed “on a very small scale” at SAB’s Fransen Street brewery, will be available in limited quantities and only in Gauteng, though I don’t know if there are plans to roll them out nationwide at a later date.
The announcement has, unsurprisingly, caused something of a stir in the craft beer industry. So I thought I’d throw in my two rands’ worth (I have more to say than the proverbial two cents…)
There are a few issues that people have brought up regarding SAB dipping its toes into the craft fermenter. Of course they would offer some pretty huge competition and some think that it would be an unfair playing field. Well, it would be – I mean of course SAB have bigger, better equipment, while many craft brewers are cobbling together their breweries with stainless steel tanks and a lot of ingenuity and juggling the brewing with a day job. SAB – or Fransen Street – are also offering free branded merchandise, free taps and free servicing of said taps – something that many of the small brewers simply cannot afford to offer a bar. So yes, it is an unfair playing field, but c’est la vie, and if no one’s doing anything illegal or immoral – like paying off a bar to remove one beer in favour of selling another – then business is business.
The biggest complaint though, of course comes down to money. Now, SAB’s Fransen Street beers won’t be offering a cheap alternative to the consumer wanting something other than lager – they are recommending that the beer retails at R40 a pint, which is on a par with many microbrewed South African beers, particularly in Jo’burg.
There has been a lot of buzz on Twitter regarding the wholesale price. Fransen Street’s beers will be available to bar owners for less than R13 per 500ml – a rate that often undercuts the craft brewers. Naturally, lots of bars will see the dollar signs and snap up the beers that will give them a greater profit, perhaps at the expense of some of the independent microbreweries. Is it fair of SAB to charge so little? Perhaps not, but you don’t become a multi-billion dollar company by always being fair.
In the hands of consumers
The decision then, really rests in the hands of the consumers. If you can buy a beer from a small, independent brewer for the same price as a pint from one of the world’s biggest brewers, the choice will come down to two things that are at the epicentre of the craft beer culture: ethos and flavour.
If you’re someone who wants to support the little guy, who respects the hands-on process, the small batches, the blood, sweat and beers approach of the microbrewer, then you’re probably not going to suddenly switch to “crafty” over craft. And if customers don’t buy it, then bars won’t sell it. I sincerely hope that SAB is up-front on the label and states that the Fransen Street range is part of SAB Miller. I don’t like the idea of someone thinking they’re supporting a local, small enterprise when in fact their money is going to the company whose beers they’re perhaps trying to avoid. Consumers have a right to know who’s brewing their beer and a right to drink whatever beer they want to – whether it’s brewed by billionaires or hobos or anyone in between.
If, for you, the beer you choose all comes down to flavour, then it’s up to SAB. Will they use adjuncts or malt extract to cut costs? Will they import ingredients essential for certain styles? Will their brews – which will include Cream Ale, Irish Red Ale and Krystal Weiss – stand up to the best craft examples currently on the SA market? If not, then, again, craft breweries are not going to lose their craft audiences. And if the beers are top-notch – as they should be with the equipment and resources SAB has at its disposal – then the rest of the industry will also have to step up. More on that later.
Now I’m not saying that SAB venturing into “small batch” brewing isn’t of concern to South Africa’s microbrewers. Of course it is. What I’m saying is that these microbreweries have built up a loyal and almost cult following and I don’t see those customers jumping ship even if the beers are spectacular. One Facebook comment I read said that the Fransen Street move will simply serve to switch drinkers from one SAB beer to another, which I think was a valid point.
And do you know what I think we might see happening? I think it’s totally plausible that SAB finally admitting that there’s more to beer than pale lager could lead to a whole new wave of ale drinkers in this country. The craft beer industry is young and many are still wary of it, equating microbrewed beer to the bad batch of homebrew that exploded in their mate’s garage in 1976. People are afraid to try it, especially considering the elevated price when compared with their usual pint of lager. But if the brewery that they’ve trusted all of their drinking life brings out an IPA or – can you imagine – a cloudy weiss, then maybe conservative drinkers will dare to taste something new. And if they like it, what’s to stop them then ordering a CBC weiss, a Woodstock IPA or a Cockpit stout?
Golliath brewing ales is undoubtedly worrying for the Davids of the SA beer industry, but it’s not ridiculous to see that it could also benefit them and the industry as a whole.
A plus for the drinker
I’m nearly done – then I’ll pass it over to you. If SAB’s beers are good – and I mean appropriate for the style they’re supposed to be – then it could have a knock-on effect and lift the whole beer industry. Now there are many breweries in this country that could teach SAB a thing or two about a perfectly balanced weissbier, about how to dry-hop an IPA or how to introduce herbs into an ale. There are also many that could learn a lot from SAB – how to brew a clean beer that’s free of any off-flavours. If the Fransen Street’s beers are up-to-scratch, these brews could help to teach the consumer that beer can have big flavour and just what those flavours should be. Gone will be the days of a brewer or a barman fobbing off a newbie ale lover with crap like “it’s craft beer, it’s supposed to taste that way” after a sour beer complaint, or suggesting that the aroma of band aids comes from dry hopping. The consumer will be empowered and shoddy brewing/cleaning/bottling will have to become a thing of the past. Sure, Fransen Street has an unfair start, with their fancy equipment and huge corporate backing, but hopefully South Africa’s craft brewers will step up to the challenge and bar owners will stay loyal to the little guy to ensure that their brews remain on tap next to those of their big brother.
The Fransen Street beers will launch on September 25th and be available at the Jo’burg Festival of Beer. From September 29th you’ll find them in select outlets around Johannesburg.
Join the debate – are SAB an evil force trying to squash the country’s microbrewing scene? Could this help the industry? Will you taste the beers? Or will this make you stick even more to your craft ales? Share your comments below and follow the debate here and here.