Soul Barrel launches new vintage of their spontaneously fermented beer, Live Culture

Soul Barrel has one of the most innovative barrel ageing programmes in South Africa. Without any stats to hand, I’ll also say it’s one of the largest, though I welcome you to disagree with me. I’ve known Nick since he set up Soul Barrel back in 2017 and am a fairly regular visitor to the brewery, but for some unknown reason, I had never joined him for a barrel tasting until yesterday.

a brewer pulls a sample of beer from a barrel in the cape winelands in south africa

Nick pulls a sample of the strongest beer in South Africa – coming soon…

I dropped by the Simondium-based brewery (that’s midway between Franschhoek and Paarl in the Cape Winelands) to sample the 2023 vintage of Live Culture, Soul Barrel’s spontaneously fermented annual release. The idea had been to join him for a little blending session, adding small amounts of beer from one of the other 20-or-so barrels in order to come up with a perfectly balanced ale. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

Nick and his team release a new, completely different version of Live Culture each year. Once brewday is complete, the cooled wort is destined for a 500-litre former wine barrel where it undergoes a long, slow, natural fermentation. No yeast is added but there’s plenty of wild yeast doing its thing.

“There’s Lactobacillus and Pediococcus,” says Nick. “And then later Brettanomyces will kick in. But over the years we’ve added sorghum and grapes to the barrel, so there’s a lot going on in there. We had it sequenced and around 30 organisms were found, making for some really interesting beers.” Interesting and very, very special – last year’s version of Live Culture won a gold medal and the title of Best Beer in Africa at the African Beer Cup.

This particular barrel is used only for Live Culture, which is gradually bottled throughout the year. “Every time we empty the barrel, we brew back into it,” says Nick. This batch has been evolving and maturing in the barrel for the past 18 months, and at last it is ready to serve.

“I’m pretty happy with this year’s version,” Nick says, pulling a sample of the 2023 Live Culture from the oak barrel. While it’s normally a case of what goes into the barrel is what goes into the bottle, this year’s version is actually a blend, with a keg of each of the four previous years’ Live Culture vintages added to the barrel for the 5th anniversary edition. Yellow-gold, with very good clarity, the beer is beautifully balanced, with notes of Cape gooseberries, apricots and a hint of honey. It finishes tart, but nor puckeringly so and I think it will appeal both to the adventurous beer drinker and to the wine lover looking to expand their beverage horizons.

best beer in africa

Live Culture won the title of Best Beer in Africa in 2022

The beer was so good as it is (in fact, I don’t even want them to carbonate it), that we didn’t play around much with blending, but I did get chance to taste a few things from other barrels (and tanks). Look out for a new lager over the coming months, and later this year, Soul Barrel will release the strongest beer ever to be made in South Africa…

Last year I spent a few days visiting breweries around Flanders, all of which specialised in spontaneously fermented ales, and one sip of Soul Barrel’s Live Culture took me straight back to those Belgian tasting rooms. It’s an exquisite beer and I’d recommend grabbing at least two bottles – one to drink now and one to age for at least six months.

Live Culture launches at the brewery on Saturday 19 August and will also be available from Soul Barrel’s online shop.

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