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A couple of weeks ago I was at a bar with some mates. After a few beers the topic of South Africa’s beer identity, or rather lack of one came up. As we got into a few more pints and deeper in conversation, there were plenty of conflicting opinions. Some thought that we definitely needed one to make our mark while others weren’t so sure. I was in the ‘not so sure’ camp and I’ll tell you why, but first let’s set the stage.
Beers from around the world
Beer is one of the oldest and most popular beverages worldwide. Currently, there are more than 100 recognised beer styles in the Beer Judge Certification Programme (BJCP). Many European countries are defined by their beer identities and have been for hundreds of years. They carry as much prestige and tradition as French champagne. Germany is famous for lagers, pilsners, dunkels, bocks and weissbiers. Belgium is renowned for blondes, dubbels, tripels and quads. And England is known for bitters, ESBs, porters and stouts. Across the pond, America has led the hoppy craft beer revolution since the 70s. They’re known for punchy pale ales, bitter IPAs and most recently, the juicy New England IPA boom. So with all this in mind, what is South Africa famous for?
SA hops vs. the others
If we’re talking mass market beer then yes, it’s lager. We’ve had 10 versions of the same thing for as long as I’ve been drinking beer, but then America was in the same situation before their craft boom. We’re a solid 10 years into our craft revolution yet we still do not have a defining identity. One solution would be beers made with all local barley and hops. We could call them 100% South Africa but it wouldn’t necessarily mean a new style of beer. The problem with this is that local ingredients come from SAB/AB InBev. They are good for making lagers because that’s what they’ve been brewing forever. Nearly every local craft brewer uses imported malt and hops because the best stuff comes from overseas. This is not to say that it will always be this way. Our local hops are getting better every year but we have a long way to go before we can compete with American hops.
One popular view during the bar debate was that we need to find some kind of African herb or plant that we can brew with to define our identity. I am not a fan of this approach because I feel it pigeonholes us. Also, I don’t know if I want buchu, Rooibos or sorghum in my beer all the time. Don’t get me wrong, Little Wolf has used local plants with awesome results. But they’ve done it in their limited edition Field Notes series, which I think is the right execution. If one of the beers becomes a hit then sure, add it to your core line up, but we shouldn’t feel obligated to brew with something just because it’s local.
I’m no wine expert but I do know that we have an incredible wine industry. We regularly compete and win on the world stage across every varietal. Pinotage is our only true South African varietal but it’s by no means our biggest seller or most awarded wine. So what is our South African wine identity? I don’t know if we have one but what I do know is that our wines are world class enough for it to not really matter. If we want to be taken seriously then we need to get to a point where our beers are competing on the world stage and winning.
Beer quality and innovation
Competition drives everything upwards. We’ve already seen a dramatic increase in beer quality and innovation since the inception of the South African National Beer Trophy Awards. It gives brewers something to aim for and in turn pushes them refine and innovate. Our craft industry is still a baby and we have lots to learn. We should focus on mastering the multitude of styles that already exist. We need to compete and win at the highest level. It sounds like a mammoth task when counties like Belgium have hundreds of years on us but it’s not impossible. The wine industry has proven that. As for a South African craft beer identity, I think it will come with time as we mature and grow. I don’t think that finding one is suddenly going to make our beers better, nor do I think that we need one right now in order to be successful.
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