Monday, 18 November 2013

Triggerfish is Dyn-O-Mite

Road tripping from Plett to Cape Town in one day may not be the best idea if you plan to get to Triggerfish Brewing its 7 pm closing time. That the brewery is deep in a re-purposed industrial settlement (it was once a dynamite factory) didn't help us get there any quicker. Set at the back end of Somerset West, we were pleased to arrive but disappointed we wouldn't have more time to taste their fifteen or so offerings. Given the time at hand, we picked the three IPAs they had tap. Their better known and locally distributed Hammerhead, the Titan imperial IPA and the MayStay.

An Embarrassment of Riches
All were rich, bronzed gold with the kind of light carbonation one expects in a fine crafty draft. We decided to start in with the Hammerhead which proved considerably less hopped than expected. It presented a caramelly maltiness that hungover the lighter hop bitternesss with only faint floral, pine and citrus on this nose. Perfectly drinkable, well made if not balanced as we might have preferred but that is personal preference and not much else. By the end of glass I was tasting a bit more hop profile but it was only poking its head shyly shyly out from behind the malt.

Next was the MayStay IPA, a beer with a less malty profile. Alas, it didn't make up for it with strong hoppiness. Again, a fine and well appreciated beer but not one that will be remembered long after we leave.

The Titan Imperial IPA was the real winner here. Served in a 350ml glass it shouted piney hoppiness but in a polite and mannerly way. From the start it showed off all the malt vs hops balance one expects and desires from a double IPA with only the faintest hint of extra sweetness. A dangerous weapon for those who had lunched early in the day and were surviving on a Wimpy milkshake bought in Riviersdale many hours back. We learned later that this is one of the few single hopped beers being made in South Africa. Highly recommended.
The Perfectly Balanced Titan
As we packed up and paid, we met the brewer who took us back to taste the Russian imperial stout aged in an old oak wine barrel he's calling the Oaked Black Marlin. A challenging beer with its sour richness but it was undeniably complex and intriguing. He then tapped the Kraken, a beer not yet for sale anywhere. Named after a sea monster, it was made with the land's bounty: bushels of hops and home roasted malt. Incredible balanced but flavoured to the max, front, right and center with almost a Christmas tree and spicey taste. The brewer claimed it had 1054 IBUs, a hundred times more than any other SA beer. I don't know if such a thing is possible--and if it were if it would be drinkable--but it was delicious.  At 11.5 percent alcohol, one has to be careful, especially since that taste is hidden behind the massive flavours.

Lesson learned. Leave plenty of time to savour the beer and wander around the duney fields. Sip, look at the mountains and savor some of the best of what the Cape can offer. I wouldn't yet move here from Joburg, but if I did, I might consider a place with ready access to Triggerfish. If there's a distribution company reading this, we want a CT-Jozi pipeline ASAP.
The Man Behind It All

Devil's Peak Taproom IPA Surprise

After an afternoon dedicated to car repairs and driving circles around a rainy Salt River, we arrived at the Devil's Peak Taproom just after five on a rainy Friday.  Stumbling through puddles on the pavement outside, one of the co-owners helpfully guided us to the doorway and the wonders within. Alas, his aid came with an apologetic warning: they were closing the Taproom for a private function at 6 pm. Determined to make the most of the experience, we set about our work and managed to get in a couple of the special, draft-only offers before heading back into the stormy evening.

I must say that however skunky or sublime the beer might have been, the newly opened Taproom is a gorgeous and welcoming space with floor to ceiling windows wrapped around the corner of a building. The giant copper tanks just behind the bar let you know this place is for real, a complement to the repurposed industrial, urban feel. Out the window is a partial mountain view while inside the decor is cultivated Bohemian with hodge podge furniture and junk store knicknacks carefully organised on shelves and cabinets throughout.  After a few more months, I suspect the newness will wear off leaving behind an even more comfortable and cozy getaway. Although the customers were almost all white -- what one might expect for Cape Town despite the more colourful street life below -- there was a sprinkling of afrochic making its way in. For those disinclined towards beer, there was a full bar with South African wine and spirits (including a new discovery for me, Inverroche Gin) along with pour-over coffee. 

But we didn't come for the look, we came to taste. First up was a a rye IPA, a beer I've seen no where else in South Africa but thoroughly enjoyed in the US.  Out of the tap it poured far darker than I expected with a strong, toasted malt taste with great hop taste. It is not for the first time beer drinker, but it was balanced, delicious and well suited to the cool drizzle outside.  With 6.2 percent alcohol it also quickly helps take the week's edge off. 
Sticking with rye, we tried their Rye Saison, even stronger at 6.5 percent. It came with Belgian tasting yeasts and the a touch of the rye spiciness you might expect. There was inklings of sweetness which were nicely countered with a hint of yeasty funk and a sour touch. 

The only thing we didn't fully dig was the English Ale. We only had a taster since we were on the way out, and were immediately put off by what seemed like a scent of puddle water on the nose. Maybe that's a bit harsh but not too far off. In the mouth it had low levels of carbonation and a flat taste. Since we only had a couple of ounces, there wasn't time for it to grow on us. However, I don't suspect there were even roots to sprout. But not to end on a low note, we left carrying a bottle of their barrel aged Saison so this one ain't yet over.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Mzansi holds its own: UK-USA-RSA Taste-off

Australian Smuggler, Kenyan Coordinator and Canuck onlooker
On an early summer Sunday, Mzansi beer organised an elaborate beer tasting braai involving an Australian, Kenyan, three Americans and one Canadian (the designated driver). Thanks to our various meanderings, we had accrued seventeen beers now including everything from light ambers to double IPAs. The task for the day was to answer a single question: do South Africa's best craft brews hold their own against established American favourites and some British options? Special thanks to our dedicated smugglers, the Australian Joel Quirk who brought down drinks from the drizzly isles and Dan Kronenfeld, our American Han Solo. 

How did it work? A somewhat fluish Kenyan organised and anonymised the beers. She began offering us tastes from numbered bottles wrapped in crumpled newspaper. Dan provided a tasting sheet filled with evocative and somewhat snooty words to help us compare and contrast each glassful. Although we had seen the selection before hand, we decided on favourites without knowing specifically what we were drinking. Given that many of the beers were new to us, identifying them required a grand reveal which only came after exhausting all the beers in a category. As with any good tasting, we started light with the pale/golden ale category before moving to IPAs and finally a trio of double IPAs.

Overall, the South African brewers held up well in almost every segment.  No one could quite believe it when the bottles were unfurled. That said, all the beers deemed practically undrinkable were also South African, some sold at prices more appropriate for the low end wine market. Perhaps it's fitting for such an economically unequal country that the best were very well off while the poorest were very, very poor; a kind of gini ranking for beer. Furthermore, while there were a number of respectable South African entries into the taste-off, it was really Devil's Peak Brewing that truly lifted the effort. The unruly jury would drink any of their beers (with the possible exception of First Light, even though it won its category) almost any day of the week. While some other American or British beers might have done better in the contest – some of those we included were unknown to us–the contenders were all high quality products. For a country with a young craft brew scene, South Africa can most definitely hold its own.
Spoiled for choice

The following are the comments we made during the taste off. Keep in mind that at the time we didn't know what we were drinking, only the numbers.

1.  Fraser’s folly pale ale (ZA.) Golden amber with a bit of cloudiness with small bubbles. Very beery, almost lagery taste. Not much hop on the nose. Someone described it as ‘smelling like college.’ Another added that it would have to be a better college than she went to, but we all got the reference. There seemed a general (and ultimately msitaken) consensus that this must be a British beer. The taste was light with an almost unintentional bitterness on the aftertaste: bittery with a significant hop presence but not anything to love. In the end, we gave it a score of 1.5 out of 5. While better than Charles Glass' offerings, no one was likely to go out of the way to buy (or drink) this beer. 

2. Robson’s East Coast Ale (ZA). This one poured cloudy with a somewhat lighter, more straw colour with quite round, champagne bubbles. It had a slightly fruity nose and offered up a light summery taste with a few unfortunate lager overtones. Some felt the mouthfeel was a bit harsh due to to the carbonation. Taste is about right but not at all memorable: it started nice but didn't really carry itself through. Like it or not, whatever it’s doing, it’s what it’s intending to be. Just not all that much going on although the Kenyan found a bit of manure going on that, but that may just be her or the flu talking (she said the same about beer from Clarens too). All the same, it was a step up from the previous – a 2.5 and a half to 3.

3. Devil’s Peak First light golden ale (ZA) A bit clearer than 2, but still fairly cloudy with a slightly richer brassier colour.  Fruiiiiity, someone claimed as soon as it was poured. To be sure, there was enough hoppiness on the nose to awaken the easter bunny but without pushing beyond the category's boundaries. Once we tasted we agreed it had a resiny freshness and florality, although we disagreed over whether that was a word. On the tongue there was a clearly intentional, almost medicinal bitterness but in a way that covered up the fruitiness we found on the nose. We all felt this flattened out the taste with someone claiming it as bitter as a 'vengeful Italian grandmother.' It ultimately came down to preference: some liked it, others not so much. Reasonably carbonated, but more pleasant on the tongue than the others. The Australian went for 3.5 while Dan stuck with number 2. Others push it to 2.5.  Our guess for alcohol content was 4.5 – 5.5% alcohol. Was actually 4.5%

4. Tribute, Cornish Pale Ale (UK). The last of the amber golden ales.  In the glass it was by far the darkest, rich and golden with fine, fine bubbles. Almost crystal clarity. Unusual dark fruit on the nose, almost prune-y. Rich nose was not supported when it hit the mouth where it was surprisingly empty and watery with almost no bitterness only a small hint of caramel. Generally a little vacant although it would work as a session beer or for a long-afternoon at a cricket match. Some thought it might be good with food, but others said it wouldn't hold up.  Good clarity, but is clarity something to be proud of? Widespread agreement on the mid-2 on the rating.  Kind of like of the corona of craft beer. Alcohol guesses were that it was low, 4 but Dan said 5%  Turns out to be 4.2%
Round One

Finishing up, number three, the Devil’s Peak, goes into the championship round. Not a surprise although this category is probably the least competitive. It’s the entry space to craft beer and most likely to appeal to Mzansi beer drinking public.  Not, however, where the judging panel's preferences lie.With that in mind, we were all keen to move on to the pale ale category.

5. Robson’s Durban Pale Ale (ZA). First entry into the ‘proper pale’ category. Hoping to move beyond the pale, someone quipped, while the rest of us groaned. The beer itself was moderately carbonated and highly cloudy but without much particulate interrupting its rich, golden colour. The bubbles were fine to large.  As it moved towards the nose, it elicited ‘slightly funny’ from a few people. The Kenyan said it was like a new car, but the rest of us could only imagine that if someone had spilled beer on some new leather seats.  That said, the taste was a surprise with a smoky, tobacco richness followed by a bitter aftertaste which might, under the right circumstances, be seen as somewhat leathery. So even if the nose had little going on, the taste was relatively strong. The question is, is that the kind of taste you are really looking for in a beer? We felt it might work in the midst of winter, but we were not overly impressed on a summery day.  The Kenyan--who seems to like new cars--said she’d drink it, but the boys said no saying that while it was worth a commendation for trying, it didn't really work. Overall we settled on a 2 rating.

6. Devil’s Peak, Woodhead (ZA). Gasps of 'oohs' when the thing came from the bottle in all of its reddish caramelly glory. It was the most carbonated of the brews so far with big bubbles serving a full chapeau in the glass which was hard to see through given the cloudiness. On the nose it was hoppy and fresh. without punching you in the face. To really get the scent, someone offered that you have sniff hard, “like you’re looking for a line of coke.” No one else had any experience in that area so we just nodded and continued. As with a few of the other beers, its fairly heavy carbonation led to a debate: some found it a bit harsh on the tongue, others refreshing. We all agreed it had a good malt backbone balanced well with the hops. Still, didn't t quite deliver on the promise of the nose. Beyond that, the only real taste critique was that the bitterness was disconnected from the rest of the flavour. Still, it was the first of the beers we weren’t ready to spill out before the glass was empty as it was clearly the best thus far. Alcohol guess of above 6%-- but it was only 5%.  Generally agreement that this was a highly drinkable, with a score of 3.5-4.

7. Wildbeast Amber Ale (ZA), Darkest and most cloudy to date. Described as ‘cloudy,' ‘bricklike’ or 'muddy river water'.  In the glass it was almost toffee coloured and sediment filled. Over time, we all came around to describing its brown milkiness as river sludge. While it was more lightly carbonated than the other, it had a cloying sweet nose: "like you’re stuck in a molasses factory but with the left overs, not the fresh stuff you’d use in cookies.On the tongue, Lisa's first reaction was, "well, maybe a bit of fish?" Another suggested possum or bush big. The taste didn't deliver on the smell though, which was almost certainly a good thing. More malt than hops, a bit unbalanced.  There is a bitterness that we detected once the smell has faded.  Overall we felt it quite an amateurish effort. One imagines a bunch of young kids trying things out. In five years they’ll probably be doing it right. Pretty alcoholy in the taste, but without much else. Turns out it was 6%.  Seemed there was general agreement that it was at a 2 or below.  

8. Brew Dog, 5 AM Saint (UK) Poured with low carbonation, fairly clear and rich brown colour with a reddish tint. Nice nose with fruit and maltiness in good proportions.  The head dissipated before we even got it past the lips. A bit of floral on the nose that carries through to the taste, but not by much. Indeed, the taste was a mild disappointment after the balanced nose although the Australian went for it, with its hints of caramel and a kind of distant smokiness.  Others thought it fairly thin and a bit lighter than the colour would let on with not as much oomph as it should have. A kind of ‘balanced wateriness’ may capture what the brewers intended, but maybe their hopes weren’t high enough.  Probably somewhere between the 2.5 and 3.  If they could intensify the flavours, it would stand up.  Disagreement on the beer overall. If others hadn’t already been drunk we’d probably be happy.

9. Boston Cannon Ale (ZA). Minimally carbonated, reasonably clear.  Looked flat in the glass where it offered up lager notes, with a fruity sort of nose that impressed no one. Perhaps it could be best described as an atticy, musty smell. Someone said it was like a toilet freshener in a kind of upscale ladies bathroom. No one could determine where this came from, but we were sure we didn't like it.  The tasting brought about widespread smirks and pain across the faces. "Tastes like a kind of aerosol spray," someone offered. Even loses out to the muddy water, another noted. The foretaste? The aftertaste? No one could find something to say that was a positive. Only reason it didn’t get an overall zero was that it had a lot of alcohol.  As it turns out, it had 10%. Sad when that's your only selling point. 
Winner of this category was number six, again a Devil’s Peak with their Woodhead Ale.

On to the long-anticipated IPAs where we felt the American blasters were likely to show the commonwealth who is boss. Turns out we were surprised again

10.  Jack Black, Skeleton Coast IPA (ZA). Completely clear, very low carbonation.  Colour, golden caramel. The faintest, hint of a smell but nothing that could be named.  Dan thought it was caramelly, but no one else could be sure. Overall, the taste was pleasant and crisp, but fairly indistinct.  A straight solid and nicely crafted beer but nothing that’s distinctive. Remarkable in ways for its middle of the roadness when it comes to the IPAs. Certainly a nicer drink than many of the others. We decided to give it a three to distinguish its quality – there was nothing negative about the thing – but didn’t feel it could rank highly since they weren’t taking many chances. A non-ambitious, workmanlike IPA. Far better than most of what you’re going to find in S.A. Guesses of the alcohol content at around 6, but turns out to be 6.6.

11. Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA (USA). A little lighter, more of a golden or amber colour. More carbonated than number 10, but still pretty light.  Fine bubbles forming a nice thin head that dissipates. Fairly clear with a hint of cloudiness. A kind of butterscotch hint when smelled followed by a kind of flowery taste, all surprisingly light for an IPA. Mild bitterness follows a fairly faint, light taste. Dan disliked the sweetness although the others weren't bothers. Still, not all that much going on, certainly nothing that’s going to claim space in the memory banks. Some described it as a ‘ladies IPA’.  Indeed, all the lady folks liked it while the mens were less impressed.  Generally score was a 2.5 although there was some sense that this might be a bit harsh.  6% alcohol.
Indian and Pale
12. Devil's Peak Blockhouse IPA (ZA). A pure golden colour with slightly more carbonation.  Slightly larger bubbles and, once the foam disappeared, it turned out to be fairly clear.  Piney hops, classic sort of profile. Old school, new school west coast resiny.  Like a Christmas tree fresh in the house. Taste is a bit fainter than the smell, but the pine and the maltiness was balanced with the bitterness and floral flavours. Complexity in a way the others didn’t match. Dan marked it as a 4 but Joel disagreed saying he would have liked a bit more flavour but felt he might be doing that just out of principle saying he wanted something slightly more to chew on.  Still, we agreed this was one we could drink every day.  Alcohol taste stuck around and we guessed 6.5% but was 6%.  After much deliberation, we gave it a 4+, highest of the day.

13. St Peter’s IPA (UK) Lucky thirteen – poured as a slightly darker, almost utterly clear golden pour.  Bubbles were light – low to medium carbonation.  Almost a chocolate, surprising nose. Not universally loved by the group who had been spoiled by the previous taste. Its maltiness dominates, but it wasn’t overpowering. A little bit of burnt caramel on the nose that follows through in the taste. Hops really nowhere to be found.  Not bitter, and not floral so that it ends up leaning too heavily to malt. All together, fairly well put together, but largely flat and a bit dull.  Nothing was off or unpleasant, just nothing to pull you in.  We were all surprised that this was entered into the IPA. Scores ranged from 1.5-2.5 with surprising strong disagreement for such an innocuous beer. Generally, came down with a 2.0.  Alcohol was there, but not pronounced.  Cool bottle though.

14. Jaipur IPA (UK) Yellow enough to be a well oaked chenin blanc. Others said it was like highlighter yellow, with low to medium carbonation that formed a bit of a head that stuck around for a little while.  Surprising piney, resinous on the nose. A bit thinner than the others and someone said they smelt chlorine but that scent it came and went.  Generally described as not bad, kind of a weaker version of what we really liked (number 12). Maybe like a session IPA or, since it's what you might want to drink on a hot day – a kind of ‘African IPA’. To be sure, its pleasant mildness would be nice while driving around a game park or in the company of wart hogs. Probably the second best thus far, a 3.5. Well put together and balanced. Well-made and a small bitter aftertaste that fades surprisingly quickly into the sunset.  

X - unnumbered late addition.            Curios IPA (UK). A late addition to the roster, this one poured out considerably darker than the one preceding it. Fine, micro-bubbles forming a tiny head. As clear as any beer you’re going to see.  Decent nose, a bit reminiscent of lesser quality (and cheaper) beers but with a bit of malty freshness that sets it apart.  Someone described it as having a ‘fustiness’ but no one else knew what that meant. Nothing else that can be named. Someone else described as the smell of an old person if they were a beer. Taste is a bit of malty sweetness and not much else.  Evaluations ranged 2 -2.5.  Lisa was like, why bother?  Put this one in the ones. Not a winner.  Probably circling around a 2. Nothing remarkable here but not a bad beer. Wins its points for being clean but the lowest ranking of those in the suite.  5.6% alcohol. 

Blockhouse wins hand down. A shocker to everyone at the table – while we were thrilled to award the championship to this one, none of us could believe the outcome. Dumbstruck. Becoming increasingly clear that this crowd loves hops and we’re impressed by what the people at Devil’s Peak are brewing.

On to the double IPAs, a category where SA and the UK are barely contenders. In our sample, the UK wasn’t even represented.
Doubling Down
15. ZAR Imperial Red IPA. Cloudy, almost muddy and brown again.  Light carbonation, forming a thin skim of a head. On the nose it was heavy with malt but punctuated by hints of floral hops. Alcohol rises up the nostrils like it’s coming home. Thick on the tongue, with a kind of heavy bitterness but not much else. Dan described the aftertaste as ‘bleachy’ or a kind of formaldehyde. Others didn’t find it quite so problematic and no one else tasted anything but bitterness. No one was overjoyed to be drinking this. We decided it was nothing too complex, nothing too special.  Lisa rubbed her eyes, ‘so many beers’ she said.  Given that this was the first of the category, it should have easily impressed us although perhaps we were getting a bit weary.  To be fair, the Kenyan was a bit more plussed arguing the flavour was full and flavourful, with a lingering bitterness.  She gave it a three, the rest of us with 2.5. Alcohol content was 7.5%.

16. Anderson Valley Heelch O’Hops (American) Yellowy gold and super low carbonation in the glass with a slight milkiness, but generally fairly clear and bright.  Malty nose with almost no hints of hops and slightly syrupy around the glass. Someone felt it had a little chlorine in the background, but again no one else smelled it. Kenyan was incredulous, ‘double IPA, who are they kidding?’.  This doesn’t kick one in the ass as one might hope. If you’re going to have this much alcohol and maltiness, you want a bit more flavour; a kind of hoppy bitterness to counter the malt. Some felt it was almost sour but without lending it any distinctive flavour.  Debate over whether this bested fifteen with the group somewhat divided. Generally people felt 15 bested 16.  Overall we would give this a 2.

17. Firestone Walker Double IPA. Syrupy, super sweet nose matched with a golden almost honeyed colour in the class.  Plenty of bubbles, but fine and spread throughout.  Head didn’t stick around.  The nose was sweet with only the most distant whiff of a kind of citrusy hops. Sweetness carries through the taste, with some hoppiness but they couldn’t stand up to the malty sweetness. Still managed a crispness, but doesn’t seem like you could even finish a glass of it given the intensity of the flavour and malt.  Overall the sweetness was its undoing. Kenyan described it as leaving behind an ‘itchiness’ that no one else could quite understand, but Lisa jumped on this. Yes, histamines. The rest just shrugged and went along. Overall, we felt it scored a three. 9.5%  alcohol.  Was probably the best, but not one we'd jump out and buy again.

No clear winner here, although the firestone walker squeezed by.  We decided this was probably better suited to a winter afternoon than the warmth of summer. This remains relatively unexplored territory for South Africa, but the ZAR made a fine showing compared with the two American contenders.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Cutting the cute at Clarens Brewery: Clarens Red and IPA

With a much cherished weekend away from Jozi, I found myself sitting in the twee Free State town of Clarens. There are few spots as beautiful as the Golden Gate National Park, one of South Africa’s lesser known gems. Were it not for the boisterous breezes howling through the park, I’d have been enjoying a bottle or two brought from home while overlooking the valley from our stunning veranda at the Basotho Cultural Village guest house (don’t let the name fool you, the village is culture kitsch, but the accommodation would be good value at twice the price). As for bargains, we jumped at the 25 Rand drafts (500ml) served at the renovated and decidedly swishier Clarens Brewery. Since their beers are only poured at the brewery, festivals and the rare Clarens restaurant, the chance seemed too good to miss.

A dutchman and his beer
After walking through town looking for their new(ish) location, it was evident this was the place to be. While there were a few other spots open and serving drinks, by 5pm when we arrived, none had many people or the Brewery’s buzz. Alas, although the bar’s open until 7 on Fridays and Saturdays, the kitchen closes some time before. Without a scant peanut or nacho to sate stomachs emptied by hours of mountain walking, we were wary of the brewery's liquid offerings lest we fail to navigate the curvy road back to the park without hitting a pothole or gnu.

Sitting on picnic tables outside, the sun soon settled behind the hills beyond the town square. We had plenty of time to enjoy nature’s show while waiting for our two beers to be delivered. Ten minutes after ordering, the waiter returned and mumbled an apology, something about knowing we wanted something but not remembering exactly what. Okay, they have a few beers to choose from–a blonde, an English ale, a stout, a Weiss and the red and IPA we’d selected–but it's not like we were asking the poor chap to spell Phuthaditjhaba. I expect he might have done better with that. Frustration peaked on realising that while waiting in vain, a recently seated pair of young women were offered tastes of the brewery’s housemade cider and received their pints. At least we knew where we sat in the pecking order. Given our peckishness, we were nonplussed.

Bill of Fare
When our drinks finally arrived, we hoped our frustrations would soon be forgotten. The sun was right, the air was warm and breezy, and the beer was in proper beer glasses, fully equipped with the small head, light carbonation and the deep colours normally associated with fine craft. The red offered a nice malty aroma and an almost smoky, toasty taste. It was smooth on the tongue with a touch of sweetness but almost no hop profile until after the swallow. Once the beer was down the throat, a positive, faint bitterness lingered on the palate. The first few tastes were nice, but I tired by mid glass. With its single smoky note, it was something of a one trick pony. (After a few beers mixed metaphors are perfectly okay). The beer too, was okay. It could have been far better if the brewers found a way to intensify the flavours and overcome a general wateriness. 
Late Arrivals
The IPA’s first whiff revealed almost nothing of the zesty, hoppiness distinguishing many American IPAs and the newest breed of Mzansi's fresher, fruitier offerings. If there was a citrus or piney scent in there, the light breeze carried it off to the mountains. On the tongue, there was half enough bitterness to justify the brewers’ claims that this beer broke the hop bank. While I support a big hop splurge, I would have erred for thrifty rather than spendthrift. More carefully chosen and fragrant hops could add dimensions and depth that were noticeably absent. All the same, there’s no doubting the brewers claim that the IPA has a ‘distinctive hop character.’ But not all distinctions are to be applauded. What we got was a flavour that my Kenyan companion described as ‘manure-y’. To be fair, she meant that in the best possible way. Indeed, it evoked a fecund garden with its organic, almost vegetal flavour. Still, is that what you expect (or want) from an IPA? Well, it is the Free State after all and no one else seemed too bothered. Yet even if the makers are mimicking British rather than American style ales, I still found it closer to an ESB. Regardless, it was 7% alcohol and 25 Rand a glass, so even if it came slowly, who am I to complain?

Five years ago, I would have driven out of my way to visit the Clarens brewery. And I almost certainly would have left with a six pack or more of their 440ml dumpies. Indeed, that’s just what I did five years ago when they were still selling their wares in Stoney plastics with screw tops. This time around I didn’t give a thought to takeaways. That said, while Clarens Brewery may not be worth a dedicated drive, if you're there and finished a day buying art and furnishings for your granny’s retirement flat, there’s probably no better way to spend a late afternoon or evening than by downing a beer or cider (our Dutch neighbour claimed his girlfriend dug the cherry one; watch out Dr Pepper) on the town square. If your service is anything like what we got, you may just spend the late afternoon and evening downing one.