What’s in a name? Is craft beer mere marketing or is there something a little more to the current craze sweeping through South Africa, where even the tiniest ‘dorp’ now has a home brewing club?

The age of information has given us access to random facts at the push of a button, but while the average beer drinker might be better informed about the myriad of beer styles which exist, there has been no real change on how beer is made.

Both craft beers and any premium beer you buy from a large brewer have been made from four basic ingredients: Barley, water, hops and yeast. The basic idea is to extract the sugars from grains (usually barley) so that the yeast can turn it into alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2), creating beer.

A Growing Culture of Beer

Trying to define “craft beer” is not as easy as one might think. Generally, a craft beer is “a beer made by a brewer that is small, traditional and independent”.

In the 90s, the term “microbrewery” was bandied about – Knysna’s Mitchell’s Brewery was started in 1983 by Lex Mitchell and has the honour of being one of South Africa’s earliest independent brewers. But today, given the popularity of craft beer, some of these brewers who started out small have grown and now produce large volumes, or have even sold controlling shares, like Stellenbosch brewery Stellenbrau who is now owned by the second largest brewer in the world.

However, the increasing variety of beers currently available in South Africa is due to our growing beer culture. Lagers, more specifically lagers made by The South African Breweries (SAB), have dominated the local beer landscape for over a century.  “As love for beer grows, it gives brewers scope to experiment with other beer styles,” says Kate Jones, SAB Trade Brewer at Chamdor. In recent years, SAB has introduced a Castle Milk Stout Chocolate infused beer, a weissbeer, Carver’s Weiss as well as several flavoured beers under the banner of Flying Fish.

“It has also exposed food lovers to the fact that beer is a versatile beverage which not only enhances food when paired with the correct style, but can also be brought into the kitchen as an ingredient – think roast chicken in beer, or mussels steamed in beer.”

SAB’s Fransen Street Brewery was opened in 1998 as a special development brewery, testing new products and raw materials and producing small scale runs of special interest beers. “Four products were taken to market – a wheat beer, ginger beer and winter and India pale ales – but were ahead of their time. The market simply wasn’t ready,” says Jones.

In 2012, SAB recognised the global and local growth in speciality and craft beers and redeveloped the Fransen Street Brewery, taking it back to its original intentions.

The No 3 Fransen Street range of small batch beers is available on tap at several pubs around Johannesburg and Pretoria. The beers include a Cream Ale, Irish Red Ale and Krystal Weiss, and have been well-received by the beer fraternity.

“We wanted consumers to enjoy new beer experiences by trying a wider variety of beer styles, all the while knowing that the product is backed by the expertise of SAB’s master brewers. These small batch beers are also a creative outlet for our brewing team, who are extremely passionate about what they do. Our experienced master brewers are encouraged to let their imaginations run wild and create a series of individual beer styles which are brewed to be completely different.”

In the Cape region, The Newlands Spring Brewing Co is SAB’s small batch speciality beer made using mountain water delivered from the original source of the Newlands Spring. Three styles are made and bottled, a Mountain Weiss, Jacob’s Pale Ale and the Passionate Blond.

“What makes these beers even more special is that they use speciality hops which are grown in George at the SAB Hop Farms (SABHF).”

Most of the world’s hop production occurs in Europe and America, near the 48th parallel north. However, in George at 34 degrees South, hop breeders have bred specialist varieties that flourish with the warmer winter climate and shorter summer days. The SABHF hops breeding program has successfully introduced six commercial varieties, with yields comparable to the rest of the world.

“Hops add bitterness and aroma to beer and have been used for thousands of years. Ten years ago hops were mainly about bitterness, but the trend over the past few years is using hops for fruity aromas and flavours. The South African varieties have powerful aroma and flavours of citrus, berries and fruitiness but anything is possible. New flavours have started to emerge, spice, chocolate and vanilla. Everything wild and extreme and unusual is looked for,” said Willy Buholzer, Anheuser-Busch InBev Hops Director.

Of the 855 tonnes of hops produced by SABHF each year, around 735 tonnes is used for SAB and the local craft industry and 120 tonnes is exported into Africa, primarily for SAB beers.

In the last five years, SABHF has launched three new aroma and flavour hop varieties, namely Southern Aroma, African Queen and Southern Passion, and has increased to 24 hectares under cultivation for crop 2017.

For those wanting a taste of beers made further afield on the African continent, SAB has launched an eight-pack of iconic beers from different countries across Africa. The first edition of the ‘Beers for Africa’ pack showcases Castle Lager (South Africa), St Louis (Botswana), Maluti Premium Lager (Lesotho), 2M, Laurentina Preta and Manica (Mozambique), Kilimanjaro Premium Lager (Tanzania) and Zambezi Premium Lager (Zimbabwe).

But it will be more than having a cold beer – the Beers for Africa pack is part of a humanitarian mission. As part of the initiative, SAB has partnered with Stop Hunger Now Southern Africa (SHNSA) – an international, non-governmental organisation which packs and distributes meals to people living in poverty. For every pack sold, three students will receive a nutritious, wholesome meal, with the aim of providing one million meals by 2018.

“A well-made beer is one of life’s special pleasures. Each glass displays the passion of the brewer and the complexity of the ingredients. A beer is something to be revered, shared and enjoyed in moderation, and no-one should dictate if that is to be an easy drinking Castle Lager, a full-bodied Castle Milk Stout or a spicy vegetable beer like Van Hunk’s Pumpkin Ale. And that’s the beauty of it,” says Jones.