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Research adventure: beer in Africa

Right, so Australia’s last beer giant (Fosters) got taken over by a South African company recently. Philistine went to Africa to research the invading army, and their beer habits.  First, I tried the brews that most the world’s 50-million saffas generally chug on the average weekend, while charring meat on open fires and guturally discussing rugby or soccer (indeed, they are more like us than we imagine).

In spite of the burgeoning craft beer market, these three are still the main contenders. The battle between Castle and Black Label plays out with all the passion of hobos fighting in a parking lot – and about as much skill. Both are typical bulk-brewed domestic lagers designed for heavy drinking rather than flavour; it’d be tricky to discern these from XXXX or Toohey’s New in a blindfolded taste test. Amstel is slightly better, mainly because it tastes entirely different to the Corona-esque dross that is served in clear, Amstel-branded bottles on our shores.

Also popular but a bit more remarkable is Castle Milk Stout – the only other stouts using lactose I’ve ever seen are niche products rather than mass-produced, so it’s quite exciting that this stuff is so popular in townships in South Africa. It tastes pretty damn good, with a pleasant balance of sweet, complex malts and ashiness on the finish.

Milk stout is usually the limit of the interesting stuff you’ll get in most bottle stores; the booming craft beer scene is yet to penetrate the mainstream. However, with only a little hunting, it’s possible to snag all kinds of new material. Most still taste a bit like lager in some way or another, but there are some very interesting contenders emerging. Here’s four that I managed to round up in an afternoon:

This was quite the bro-tastic start to the tasting session: a beer made by the Van Hunks. Their initial club for vintage VW combi vans and bodybuilding eventually hit a rut, until one of them took up homebrewing. This is the result:

OK, not really. ‘Van Hunks’ is actually a Cape Town legend about a farmer that out-smoked the devil.  With a name like that you might expect a smoked beer; instead the local Boston Brewery has opted for a truly spicy brew that shows very little pumpkin flavour but plenty of nutmeg and cinnamon. Strange stuff, but it’s very well made and quite drinkable.

‘Bone Crusher’ by Darling Brewery is inspired by the hyena, but unlike a hyena it doesn’t gobble rotting carcasses or leave weird greenish shits all over the bush (seriously, they do this).

Instead, it is one of the most flavourful, balanced white ales (witbiers) that I’ve ever laid lips on. Coriander and orange peel go into this beer, and it’s bottle conditioned. On the nose it’s richly floral, then mildly sour on the palate and finishes with a delicious spiciness.  Darling is a tiny, dry country town that is home to South Africa’s own version of Dame Edna. I’m hoping the local brewer has the means to get a few of these to Brisvegas, as I expect they’d sell well among beer snobs and heavy metal fans alike.

Distinctly less refined but also memorable is Robson’s  wheat beer, made in Durban. This stuff is the cloudiest, sourest beer I’ve tried in ages, and I’m still not sure if that was the intended result.

It also froths with unholy vigour; I stumbled while holding this beer and the slight bump was enough to turn it into a spouting foam-rocket. The last few mouthfuls of this went into the sink, mainly because they were grey and full of sharp-tasting yeasty gunk. Whether this stuff is the result of brewery infection or a very acquired taste, I was surprised to find something like it in a conservative seaside bottle store.

By contrast, Berne is very pretty – and very sessionable. This is an ‘amber’ lager so it has a bit of malt and toffee on the palate, as well as hints of yeastiness and a lot more carbonation than your average lager. Not a huge jump from the mainstream in flavour here, but it’s carried off well and might get people a bit more interested in craft ales. However, at the princely sum of 24 Rand ($3) for 500ml it’s over twice the price of Castle, commonly served in 750ml ‘quarts’ (don’t say ‘tallie’ in South Africa; it’s a euphemism for ‘penis’). Unlike the Australian market, there really is no price comparison between craft ales and factory stuff for Saffas. Still, the diversity of options is growing rapidly, with cool breweries operating all over the country.

One last thing: craft beer in Malawi is hilariously behind the Saffa scene – or way ahead, depending on how you look at it.  Beer fanatics will be fascinated to read about the soupy millet weirdness that is ‘Chibuku Shake Shake’, but I’ll leave that tale to Canadian bloggess, Nina Lex.

Philistine is back in Oz next week, possibly to write some abuse about the increasing prevalence of mounted deer heads in bars.

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3 responses

  1. Ocelots

    To have shake shake mentioned…

    April 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm

  2. The colouredman aka chamelion

    Nice review buddy, I think the Bone crush is a bit weird though. The one that I tasted almost tasted as though it had a slight ginger taste

    April 14, 2012 at 10:37 pm

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