If ever there was a country that needed a solid supply of beer, Namibia would surely be it. Days are long, dry and largely sunny, plus there’s all that sand to consider. Add to that the fact that the country has historical ties to Germany – and still counts a few people of German descent among its citizens – and you can imagine that beer is a pretty big seller in Namibia. A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spend a weekend in Windhoek for the Reinheitsgebot 500th anniversary celebrations. Naturally the weekend was all about beer, so for anyone who’s Namibia-bound at some point this year, here’s a guide to what and where to drink across the country.
Namibia Breweries Ltd
“You can’t make a good beer without pure water.” This is how brewer Erich Godenschweig kicked of our guided visit to Namibia Breweries’ (NBL) plant in Windhoek. It’s fitting then that the tour began at the state-of-the-art reverse osmosis system that strips the source water and builds it back up to create the perfect H2O. Water of course is not an abundant ingredient in hot and dusty Namibia, but NBL has managed to reduce their water consumption by more than 20% compared to most large breweries.
Actually , when it comes to beer, all of the ingredients are fairly tough to come by here. Hops certainly wouldn’t thrive in the desert climate and the majority of the malt is likewise brought in from Germany. That said, in recent years a project to test the viability of growing barley locally started, with NBL assisting in setting up barley farms in the north of the country. The fruits (or grain) of these farmers’ labour can be sampled in King Lager, the company’s only non-Reinheitsgebot-compliant beer (it also contains maize extract).
As you probably know, Namibia Breweries, or specifically Windhoek Lager/Light/Draught, makes a big deal of its purity principles. One of the things I was keen to investigate while at the brewery was just how far the commitment to the Reinheitsgebot goes and it seems to go pretty far. As well as sticking to the four ingredients, the brewery shuns finings like isinglass and Irish moss which many breweries use to clear up their beer. And NBL also adheres to the RHGB when it comes to carbonating their beer – only CO2 produced naturally in the brewing process is used to give the beer its bubbles.
A tour of the brewery is a great way to spend a morning in Windhoek. All tours must be booked at least two days in advance and tend to operate on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. For more information or to book, get in touch via their website. Note that due to renovations, there won’t be any tours until mid-June.
Whether you’re visiting Africa from overseas or just nipping into Namibia from neighbouring South Africa, it’s worth trying to seek out a bit of traditional beer to see what it’s all about. I dropped in at Xwama Traditional Restaurant on the edge of Katutura, just outside Windhoek. We’d already had a late lunch so didn’t sample anything from the menu (though I was wondering how mopani worms might pair with a pint of Tafel) but we did have time to sample a cup of Oshikundu, a thick, gritty millet-based beer with a distinctly sour taste. It’s definitely an acquired taste but as I sieved chunks of grain through my teeth I realised that traditional beer like this is a must for any true beer nerd, for this is the closest thing we still have to the original beer. Whether made by Mesopotamians, Sumerians or Egyptians, we as beer folk are always talking about how old our beverage is, but the beer we know and love today has pretty much nothing in common with those early brews. Oshikundu however, does. And it will really make you appreciate things like filters and whirlpools and finings and controlled fermentation temperatures. And hops.
In the nearby township of Katutura, we wandered down a street known for its tombo houses. Tombo is another traditional brew, also made with millet, though sugar is added for an extra kick. By all accounts, it’s not the only thing added to give the drink a bit of a punch and our guide strongly advised against sampling any, citing instances of battery acid and gasoline allegedly being used to fortify the tombo. These additions are not really necessary though, since the brew is apparently pretty potent by itself. If you want to taste it, you need a reputable tombo house – though many would consider that an oxymoron – and a lead-lined liver.
It’s highly ranked by guidebooks, near the top on TripAdvisor and I was told to go there by all my friends who are familiar with Windhoek. Joe’s Beerhouse is an institution and a must for any beer geek visiting the city. Let’s get this out in the open – if you’re used to the wide selection of draught beer offered in an increasing number of South African bars, then Joe’s won’t measure up. On tap you’ll find Windhoek, Amstel, Castle Lite and if you’re lucky, Camelthorn Weiss (they were out when we visited). There is more available in the bottle, including weissbier from Erdinger and Paulaner, and a rotating selection of South African craft brews. But a visit to Joe’s is about more than just the beer. Specifically, it’s about meat.
I’m sure vegetarians would find something suitable on the menu if they looked for long enough, but Joe’s specialises in meat. Giant eisbein, plates of German wurst, lamb shank, a variety of steaks and a range of game meat including the Bushman Sosatie (zebra, oryx, crocodile, springbok and kudu, all grilled to perfection). This place is also about the ambiance – think beer hall tables under thatch and ramshackle garden dotted with quirky decor – the toilet seat bar stools were probably my favourite.
The Beer Barrel
About 15 minutes into the drive from Windhoek’s airport towards the city, a road sign caught my eye. I screeched to a halt, spun my Chevy Spark Lite around in the deserted highway and backtracked to see if I has just read what I thought I had. I did indeed – the road sign declared that this was Beer Lover Boulevard.
The tiny lane leads to a guest house and attached pub – The Beer Barrel. Here’ astonishingly, I found not one or two but FOURTEEN beers on tap. Most were imported from South Africa, some seemingly given different names. Alas we didn’t get chance to taste the beers brewed on the on-site nanobrewery (40 litres) but it’s an easy jaunt from the airport, wherever you’re headed in Namibia so I’ll be back soon for a sample.
SKEleton Coast Brewery
Alas, I didn’t get up there on this trip, but the wind-swept – or should that be sand-swept – town of Henties Bay on the Skeleton Coast boasts a small microbrewery – as far as I am aware, Namibia’s oldest, now that Camelthorn is brewed by Namibia Breweries. Established just last year (brewing licence arrived November 2015), it looks from their Facebook page like they’re still getting going. The launch beer is an Amber Weiss and there are beers from various South African microbreweries available as well. Do get in touch if you’ve visited. And if you’re going, please bring me back a bottle!
Swakopmund Brewing Company
I also failed to get to Swakopmund this time around, but I did manage to get the skinny on the town’s new microbrewery.Situated in the Brewer & Butcher, a pub within the Strand Hotel, the 500-litre brewery is part of Namibia Breweries. Launched late last year, Swakopmund Brewing Co. will produce three beers – a helles, a Märzen and a summer ale. I got a sneaky taste of the Märzen while visiting NBL’s staff pub in Windhoek – a complex, malty brew with solid sweetness up front and a pleasing, dry-ish finish.
Also worth a visit while you’re in town is Swakopmund Brauhaus, where traditional German food is washed down with imported and local beers.
Disclosure: I travelled to Windhoek as a guest of Namibia Breweries. This post, however is not a sponsored one – its content is all my own ideas, words and thoughts. NBL has not requested/demanded any coverage in return for the trip.