While mass-produced commercial brew will continue to lubricate the multitudes, a growing following of flavoursome craft beer is developing worldwide. The trend is also gaining momentum on the Garden Route, where several small-scale operations are attracting attention with innovative flavours and a sustainable approach.
WORDS Clare van Rensburg PHOTOGRAPHS David Swart
Rondeboschje Artisan Brewery
Low winter sunlight casts long shadows across the battered wooden stoep of Rondeboschje Farm near George. Timmy McDonald is celebrating the receipt of his licence to brew and sell craft beer with his latest brew in hand. The ‘Strawberry Honey Blonde’ is a mildly bitter ale with hints of local fynbos honey and a slight fruity aroma. “Craft beer is unique, produced on a small scale, with lots of love,” he says.
A finance graduate but at heart still a third-generation hops farmer, Timmy left Cape Town for the Montague Pass outside George to continue the workings of his farm, which supplies South African Breweries with hops. For the past few years he has been trying his hand at beer making, experimenting with different flavours and techniques in a homemade 60-litre brewing set-up in a shed at the bottom of his garden.
He believes this self-reliance is at the heart of craft brewing. His hopper is homemade – the mash tun is cobbled together from an old barrel, a hosepipe, a dishwasher motor and a stainless steel showerhead. “Real beer is about flavour and diversity, which are things that small setups like mine can explore. We can take advantage of a huge variety of beer styles and season our beers with home-grown fruit, oats, nuts, honey or chillies. And, because we can really be in control of the entire process, micro-brewing can be gentle on the environment.”
Using time-honoured techniques and local ingredients – including water from the mountain spring on his property and hops grown on his farm – Timmy’s beers are flavourful, unpasteurised, unfiltered and display genuine skill.
“When I started, I wasn’t necessarily interested in making a commercially viable product; I just wanted to make the most delicious beer I could.” Timmy spent painstaking hours extracting delicious roasted pecan nut flavours from homegrown nuts to produce a small but stunning batch of ‘Pecan Nut Porter’. His friends have been willing recipients of his experiments, including a smooth Chocolate Chilli Stout and a delicate Espresso Stout.
Not all the experiments were so successful: “A crate of less-than-ripe berries went into the manufacture of a Raspberry Ale that turned out to be mouth-puckeringly tart. No amount of honey could suppress the bitterness of that batch and not even my best friends could be encouraged to drink it,” he laments.
Now that Timmy has secured his licence, he plans to scale up his innovative craft operation and turn his hobby into a viable cottage industry. Rondeboschje Artisan Brewery will begin with a finely crafted India Pale Ale and a creamy stout, which will be available soon in local eateries across the Garden Route.
Timmy also wants to experiment with seasonal beers in small quantities, based on local ingredients and rich flavours. “I want people to be able to savour a unique brew, like a vintage from a single growing season.” In the corner of the brewing shed, a pile of homegrown custard apples hints at yet another invention.
Robertson Brewing Company
A blackboard promises free craft beer tasting to tempt passers-by to the highly successful family-owned Robertson Brewing Company in Train Street, George. Tapping into a growing demand for unique, locally crafted beers, the Robertsons started their independent microbrewery in 2012, producing about 400 litres a month.
Today the highly successful team produces over 3500 litres per month and plans to scale up to 12 000 litres in summer. In addition to 32 restaurants, bars and pubs from Knysna to Oudtshoorn, they sell directly to the public from the brewery. The family also plans to expand their operation later this year to a gastro-pub with live music, rustic food, a beer garden and craft beer on tap.
There are eight distinctive blends, each inspired by a specific genre of music with its own individual character, colouring and flavour. “Our beers are handmade, quality products prepared with the best natural ingredients in a broad variety of styles, ranging from pale golden yellow ale to a dark brown stout,” says Kevin.
“We bottle the beer by hand, over 50 000 bottles this year so far. My daughters, Rachael and Kelly, help to label and cap the beer, and my son Courtney is learning to brew.” Kevin’s wife, Cheryl, keeps tabs on the accounts while Kevin remains ruthlessly obsessed with the quality of his product. “The Blonde Ale was the hardest to get right. It was totally unforgiving. It took four long months to get the recipe right – any contamination or imperfection is evident in a beer of this nature.”
The flagship blonde ale is dubbed Rhythm and Blues as a nod to its American inspiration. The India Pale Ale, nicknamed Reggae, is an aromatic, bittersweet and exotic beer with a hint of cut grass. Traditionally, its high hop and alcohol content helped British colonists to preserve the beer en route to India. A dark roasted, creamy Irish Stout and a caramel-scented Scottish Ale called Celtic also grace the brewery’s shelves. Another two blends are planned for summer. Rock is a refreshing English easy-drinking ale and Soul is a zesty aromatic Belgian Witbier characterised by dried orange flavours, coriander and camomile.
However, Robertson’s trump card is undoubtedly its classic cloudy golden Weissbier. This German wheat beer has a distinctive banana scent with notes of apple, clove and citrus. It is unique, interesting and shows creative craftsmanship. Kevin describes the precision of his craft: “The fermentation temperature influences the aroma of the final product. One degree warmer and the banana nose is hidden completely by the clove.”
Red Bridge Brewing Company
Darren Berry of the Red Bridge Brewing Company in Knysna is a discerning character. Reserved and well spoken, Darren says he is dedicated to producing a quality artisanal beer with integrity.
“Craft brewing is riding a wave of people’s growing consciousness of organic foods, regional ingredients and environmental awareness.” Firmly grounded in the local community, Red Bridge believes in sourcing ingredients, materials and service providers locally.
Knysna’s rich history inspires the names of Red Bridge beer. The flagship No 17 Golden Ale was christened in honour of the nugget of precious metal that started the local gold rush in 1876. Ostrich farmer James Hooper found a 17 pennyweight gold piece in the riverbed at Ruigtevlei. It is his image which graces the ale bottle.
Darren says his craft beer also has a vital role to play in uplifting the Knysna community on a social responsibility level. The business engaged a local charitable organisation, Die Werkswinkel (The Workshop in Afrikaans), to produce wooden beer crates for their product launch in 2013. The organisation helps mentally and physically disabled people become involved in crafts and donates a percentage of its profits to the National Sea Rescue Institute’s local station.
Red Bridge will launch two more beers this year and plans to expand distribution to the entire Southern Cape.