People have been talking about the “craft beer revolution” in South Africa for a few years now. It started slowly – the odd Jack Black tap here, a bottle of Darling Slow Beer there. First it was just bearded homebrewers who were interested in ales, then the bearded hipsters joined in and these days you don’t even need a beard at all to be able to drink craft beer. Just a few years ago my beer geek friends (bearded or otherwise) and I would whoop if we found just one craft lager on tap in a restaurant; these days not having at least four or five ales available is cause for many people to move along to the next eatery. Brewery numbers have more than tripled in the past three years and you stumble across them in the unlikeliest of locations – I’ve heard reports that you can find one or two local brews in Orania, for God’s sake, and even Kimberley is jumping on the beerfest bandwagon. But one question keeps rearing its head – is this rapid growth sustainable? Can the SA craft industry continue to grow or is the beery bubble destined to burst?
Last weekend I was at a beer festival in Wilderness. It was fairly well-attended but one thing that struck me was the difference in clientele between the Garden Route gathering and your average Cape Town or Jozi beerfest. Instead of throngs of beautiful, flat-cap-wearing hipsters, the attendees were an even mix of student age drinkers, families with toddlers in tow and retired or soon-to-be-retired couples keen to taste some unusual ales (the latter category did sport the occasional flat cap). In fact, the vast majority of questions posed during my tutored tasting sessions came from a demographic perhaps not usually targeted by craft brewers – white haired ladies expressing a keen interest in beer. And this all got me thinking – when people talk about the craft beer ceiling being reached very soon, they’re thinking of the industry’s typical audience. There are indeed only a certain number of discerning young foodies with adventurous palates and plenty of disposable income, and if you have a dozen bars in a row each with a dozen beers on tap, you’re likely going to end up with a few stale kegs by the end of the month. But despite the growth of the industry, there are plenty of places – and plenty of people – that are just getting their first taste of craft beer. “It’s like a Cape Town beer festival two or three years ago,” said one brewery exhibitor, speaking of the Wilderness crowd’s desire to stick to R5 tasters over delving straight into a pint. Tasters might not be the most profitable way forward for the brewery, but I thought it was awesome to see people so keen to taste as much as possible while they had the chance.
Not that people in Wilderness – or indeed in many towns along the Garden Route – don’t have other opportunities to taste craft beer. Walking around the tiny town, I was wowed by the presence of craft. In not one restaurant when we asked what beers were available did we receive the reply “we have all of the beers”, while going on to list a dozen big lagers in green glass bottles. Craft beer is rising, and rising quickly, spreading to restaurant menus in the smallest of towns. So does that mean that South Africa will escape a craft beer slump?
Probably not. The industry is expanding so rapidly that it has to slow down at some point and it’s the passionate brewers – and the smart business minds – that will survive. In such a cool, thriving industry, there are bound to be bandwagon-jumpers, people who think that throwing a mini brewery onto the grounds of their guest farm, winery or spare garage will make a few quick bucks. But most will tell you that this isn’t an industry for get-rich-quick entrepreneurs and if you lack the love that’s required to make a great beer – and the cash to back it up as a business – your brewing days might be numbered. As consumers get more clued up, tasting a wider array of beers and learning to tell the great from the good, the good from the average and the average from the downright awful, brewers will have to respond in kind, improving their bottling procedures, controlling their fermentation temperatures, fine-tuning their recipes and just generally upgrading their systems. So far there have been very few casualties of the craft beer revolution, but those that fail to respond to their customers demands will likely fall quicker than a lager head in a soapy glass.
Where will that leave us? With nothing but awesome breweries to choose from, I hope. But will craft beer in South Africa ever reach the heights it has in other countries? In quality, sure – we already have a good smattering of world-class craft beers in my opinion. But it terms of market share, I would have to give a sound ‘no’, sadly. In the USA, craft beer now accounts for around 20% of the beer market. A Standard Bank study predicted that by 2017, craft would account for 2.1% of the SA premium beer market – actually quite an impressive number considering the estimate for 2011 was just 0.3% (I say estimate because keeping track of every brewery in the country and how much they produce is no easy feat). So what’s stopping craft from taking a bigger piece of the beer pie? For one thing, the readiness of raw materials – craft brewers have to import much of their malt and even more of their hops if they hope to brew a range of styles. This drives up the price of the finished pint, putting it way out of reach for a vast portion of South Africa’s drinking public. But with the exception of a few major brands, nationwide domination is not the goal. The idea for most South African craft brewers is to serve their local area, to brew some damn good beers and to get people interested in tasting something other than the standard lagers they’ve been used to. And in that respect I’d say that many have already been damn successful.
What do you think? Will the industry grow into an American-style beer behemoth? Will half of our breweries disappear? Will craft fizzle out altogether some day? Share your thoughts in the comments below…