It strikes me as ironic that one of the brewers that is most passionate about developing truly South African beer styles is not from South Africa at all. Soul Barrel’s Nick Smith hails from the USA and while he does brew an IPA with American hops, he also brews a South African version, Cape Cone, using only hops from South Africa. And this weekend he is releasing Ale of Origin – possibly the first completely South African craft beer.
“I want to make uniquely South African beers,” Nick told me as we sipped on a sample of Ale of Origin from the tank a few weeks ago. “For me it wouldn’t be interesting to come here and just make American-style beers. Where’s the sense of place? Where’s the fun?” Soul Barrel launched in November 2017 but Ale of Origin’s story actually predates the official opening of the brewery. The beer was brewed using only ingredients from the Western Cape – malt from Waltz Malts, hops from SAB’s hop farms in George, water from Soul Barrel’s usual source and locally foraged yeast.
This is where it gets really interesting. First of all, Nick picked fruit from a Franschhoek farm and grew up the yeast from cells found on the skins. He successfully isolated certain colonies and did a number of test batches until he found a strain that gave the desired flavours. The beer was fermented using only these wild yeasts and has been ageing in an oak barrel ever since. Now, 18 months later, it is finally ready to be released.
So what can you expect from this strictly South African beer? When I tasted it, the first thing I noticed was its prominent honey-like character and yeasty nose, which reminded me of a good chardonnay. Sniff deeper and you pick up fresh, juicy grapes and a touch of stone fruit. There is a subtle tartness when you sip, but on the palate too, the dominant note is honey. It’s a complex beer and one that is perfect for cheese – my top tip is to bring a chunk of aged Gruyere in your pocket when you head out to taste Ale of Origin. (Don’t think I’m joking either – we did exactly that at our first ever beer geek tasting meetup at Banana Jam back in 2013).
Nick is rightly thrilled with the result, a 7.5% ABV brew that is likely to have beer nerds tweeting and could well lure a few wine drinkers over to ale. With a bit of luck, other brewers will also take notice and start to explore ways to create uniquely South African beers. “We have a lot of cool local ingredients here in South Africa,” says Nick. “That’s how we can make our mark on the beer world.” Nick is a passionate advocate of finding fynbos blends to use in his beers, with Live Culture, Soul Barrel’s farmhouse ale, featuring seasonal fynbos plants in lieu of late addition hops. The USA has its IPAs, Britain has its bitters, Australia has its pale ales and Brazil has its sours featuring indigenous tropical fruits. Perhaps with a combination of locally found fruit, hops and some of the many, many fynbos species, South Africa too can come up with a beer style that is truly and distinctly ours.
Ale of Origin launches on Saturday 18th May at Soul Barrel’s taproom in Simondium. Check out all the info on their Facebook event page.
Want to read more about Soul Barrel and the beers they produce? Check out this post and free up a Saturday afternoon.