Saturday, 31 August 2013

Devil's Peak Woodhead & First Light at House of Baobab

Wandered down to the Maboneng Precinct in hope of a late night meal (9pm, late for Joburg forty somethings). As we meandered between Arts On Main and The Bioscope, we stumbled in to the the Afro-chic House of Baobab keen to taste something beyond the braai and pizza scene. Run by Tala, a Senegalese who's made his name peddling African crafts at the Rosebank Craft Market, his new gig sees him selling West African culinary classics - fish, veggies, lamb or beef in peanut sauce or yassa, plantains, and curries of various varieties. While the food and music have obvious appeal, the restaurant's Muslim roots mean the menu leans more to bisap than beer. But in good West African fashion, everything is possible; there's always space to make a plan. While we waited for our food to come, I ducked around the corner to The Chalkboard and came back with a couple of Devil's Peak bottles in my coat pocket.

House of Baobab food photographed by an uncredited professional
After Tala produced miniature beer steins from a hidden corner of the kitchen, we filled them with the Woodhead Amber Ale. A self proclaimed American style brew, they delivered on their promise. Without the head banging bitterness of their class leading Blockhouse IPA, there was undeniable hop aroma from the second we cracked open the bottle. The nose was full of complex richness that was buoyed by a rich warm colour and flavourful malty sweetness that counter balanced the hoppy flora. Together with the IPA, these are the standards by which South African craft beer should be judged.

Second for the night was the considerably less startling First Light Golden Ale. Far less a statement than their other beers, this is nonetheless a worthy alternative to the lagers that still fill 95 percent or more of the Mzansi drinking space. It was light and crisp without losing the embrace of malt and muted hops. If you've been drinking Amstel or Pilsner Urquell, take the next step and grab one of these. If you're already down the rabbit hole, then stick with the Woodhead and Blockhouse bounty.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Boston's IPA and Pumpkin Ale at the Foundry

How better to spend a weeknight evening than bunking work and heading off to find something frothy at The Foundry. On arrival I discovered plenty of others had the same idea. By six, the casual tables near the pavement were all but full with dinner tables long sold off to bidders. The real lucky ones were already at the bar, part of a private function for some office or the other. Working and drinking together with management's blessings seems how things should be done.

The Foundry After Dark
I eventually found a stool-less high table on the enclosed alfresco stoop. Before long the attentive waiter, Thoko, quietly slipped a couple stools from under the drunk office workers without them noticing. In the meantime, I ordered two from Cape Town's 'Boston' brewing: Van Hunk's Pumpkin Ale and the Boston IPA. There were another eight South African beers on tap: nothing too unusual but a broad mix of lagers and light ales. With the addition of a stout, all but the least adventurous tipplers will find something to their liking. I just snacked this time, but the cafe menu is filled with enough fancy casual fare for a long evening of tasting. The stylish interior and dim lights also mean your neighbour's unlikely to keep track of how many you've had.

To the beers: although the full moon lent the street a spooky halo, Halloween was still too far off to start with pumpkin. Instead I whet my palate with the IPA. Having tasted Boston's entry into the field from a bottle some time before, I feared it would be another lager in ale's clothing. Moving in on the newly poured draft version, my nose positively prickled as it picked up a good dose of fresh citrus hoppiness, the right kind of start for this, the king of beer varietals. There were definitely strong hops in the taste but the crisp, citrus was nowhere to be seen, tasted or even smelled again. In its wake was a malty back of the mouth bitterness which, while not unpleasant, didn't call me back for more. Overall, the beer would be better slotted as an ESB or pale ale. So while not a lager by a long shot, it's unlikely to reach the podium in an IPA drink off.

Boston Brew with Snacks
With half the IPA left in the glass, I turned to orange with the only pumpkin ale I know that's brewed in South Africa. Given that pumpkin (or at least butternut) accompanies almost every meal in these parts, I'd have thought people would be brewing pumpkin beer, vodka or mampoer in every alley, shebeen and empty oil drum. This, however, is no bathtub brew. As it should be, Boston has taken inspiration from pumpkin pie. Both the nose and mouth got filled with cinnamon, a bit of nutmeg and enough  pumpkiny flavour to satisfy the Green Goblin. While pie may be what comes to mind on first sip, the dryness and balance make this a fine beer to quench your thirst. It's lively, refreshing and bursting with flavour. By the bottom of the glass I found hints of Hoegaarden and its characteristic coriander. This may not be right for a long night out or every night, but it comes highly recommended diversion from the norm and the evening's champion.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Jack Black's Lumberjack, Butcherblock & Braai

First summery Saturday in Joburg practically cried out for an early season braai and some outdoor beer tasting. Tonight's offering, were 440ml bottles from Jack Black chilled in the ice box. I've had their lager in Cape Town and always celebrated its crisp, rounded taste but never gone out of my way to find it on the highveld. Now that Mr. Black's gone ale, I figured it was high time to taste their newest offerings.

First up was the lumberjack amber ale. As a red headed, bearded Oregonian I was understandably drawn to the bottle featuring a ginger, moustachioed woodsman. The reverse side describes its contents as having huge hop additions with piney-citrus aromas and lots of malt. 'Timber!,' I say, 'Grab the chainsaw and let's pour.' Definitely amber in the glass. First whiff and I was wondering if the braai smoke had somehow blown away the burst of promised hops. Sticking my nose deep in the glass and found a piney note, but not of the fresh cut variety. More like a tree that's aged a bit in the sun. I can see where they're going, or where I'd like them to go,with this, but it seems they've got the balance of Oregonian ingredients slightly off: more rain that hops. The result is a bit watered down although it remains fresh and refreshing.

Jack Black Goes Ale
As we reached into the ice bucket a second time, we came to suspect Jack Black has a thing for men with knives. From the forests to the abattoir with their butcher block pale ale. They don't say so, but this is a 100 percent vegetarian friendly ale (despite the cow on the front it's cascade hops that give it its flavour).  The back of the bottle promised an ale that would be less hoppy and malt forward than its sylvan cousin. When poured it had the promised colour and a firm frothy head. It had a nice full flavour without any distinct, identifiable hop notes. The malt was distant on the tongue, leaving the bitterness to rule the roost. On the nose, however, we found hints of cascade pineyness. My host described it as dry, but not in a Savannah sort of way. Result was an undeniable pale ale - nice with food but not overpowering. Did well with the roasted red roman that followed it down. Head to head, it was cleaver over chainsaw.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Darling Brew Native Ale at the Chalkboard

Seems I was moved by the loggerhead turtle, the reptile to whom the folks at Darling Brew dedicate their Native Ale. I bought a 550ml bottle at the Chalkboard Cafe, the funky restaurant / bar attached to the Bioscope at the heart of the ever expanding Maboneng Precinct. Reminiscent of the Portland (that's the Oregon one) film scene with theaters offering second run and art house flicks,  pizza and top notch beer and wine. The Wine at the chalkboard leaves something to be desired--seems they rely largely on 'Bob's Your Uncle'--but it's nonetheless worth a try almost any night of the week.

The Chalkboard Bar
For the beer drinker, the chalkboard has five taps although only four were wet when I dropped by.  These included the Jack Black family and an old pioneer standby, Mitchell's Forester Lager. The fridge is stocked with plenty of bottles and the pizza ain't bad with a few inspired, movie themed offerings. Even if the bartenders might prefer a Black Label to anything they've got on draft, it's still a place to take out-of-towners who think Jozi is a giant shopping mall stretching from Rosebank north. As customers are self-conciously hip, come prepared to don (or tolerate) skinny jeans, oversized glasses and an unusual chapeau. If you do, you'll be welcome regardless of colour or creed.

Chalkboard Pizza Delivery with Hats

When the time came, I braced myself. I've had a few Darling Brew products before and always found their marketing more impressive than their beer. If nothing else they deserve credit for attracting a new generation of beer drinkers with their stylish labels and near ubiquity. If there's a South African joint serving micro-brews, it's better than even odds they're pouring Darling. 

The Native Ale filled the glass with a nice and somewhat surprising colour: brownish, almost mocha-y.  Although the bubbles formed a fine foam that stuck around for a while, carbonation was moderate and the bubbles smooth. Moving closer, the aroma hinted lager but a more extended snort revealed a bit of ultra-restrained hoppiness. When it finally reached my mouth, I was reminded of middling British bitters, the 'real ales' that were almost extinct before rebounding into gastropubs across the Isles. At four percent alcohol undergirding a mellow, easy drinking flavour, it seems the Darling brewers had both turtles and such ales in mind. This beer is unlikely to titillate experienced tipplers, but it offers training wheels for lager drinkers dabbling with something different. For those planning a long night out and have a few bucks to spend, this could also work as a session beer for the slightly hearty.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Brewers & Union Handwerk All-Day IPA at the Beer Yard

How better to celebrate women's day than to drink good beer in the mid-winter sun? Sure, there's probably more you could do to promote equality, prevent sexual violence and otherwise advance a good cause, but it's got to do about as much as buying your colleagues spa vouchers (besides, I already did that earlier in the week).

Anyway, today's offering was Brewer & Union's All Day IPA.  Alas, this is not a South African beer but one that is widely available these days across the Republic thanks to the good work of the Gabriel Collective. It normally comes in bottles but the one I had was a draft served cold at the The Beer Yard, 44 Stanley Ave. Before I get to the beer, it's worth noting that The Yard, is a great (and relatively new) place for exploring local and imported beers. Truly a boon to the jozi beer scene. Come spring the yard will be packed daily, but even on sunny winter days the wood tables are inviting as is the warm, eclectic interior. Although there's a limited food menu, the food was served quickly and was well suited for a beer or two. I had the surprisingly tasty haloumi and mushroom prego. Although the bartenders are perhaps not always as knowledgeable as one might expect about what they're serving, there's at least six drafts going all the time.  Let's hope they rotate regularly and that there's enough variety to fill the taps.  On the day I visited they had three from Cape Brewing Company (a pils, and amber weiss and the butcher block pale) and another three from Brewer's and Union. They also have almost all the bottles you're likely to find anywhere in S.A.

The Yard's Cozy Interior
As for the beer, it was an appetizing looking brew with a warm, slightly cloudy orangish hue.The folks at Brewers & Union claim its only lightly carbonated but the draft we had bubbled hard until it was gone lending the beer something of a rough mouth feel. Still, there was no denying the stuff was tasty although it lacked many of the floral scents and bitterness I often associates with American style IPA. As the importers say, it's a good introduction to the style and will make a fine bridge for those scared off by heavy cascade or amarillo hops. Even so, it had good hop flavor with distant hints of citrus. For those new to IPAs, it is a taste of the wonders yet to come.

In conclusion, a generally nice beer but not a stand out in a rapidly growing niche of the South African beer market.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

First Annual Jozi IPA Festival

The ZAR Imperial Red IPA wins hands (and maybe pants) down. Special brew just for the day, could compete with strong American offerings. Second place is one of our mzansi favourites, the Blockhouse IPA. Past that, there were a few good efforts but no one grabbing the brass ring.

Props to Three Skulls Brew Works for trying a black ipa even if it ended up tasting like a watered down porter. Smack! Republic Brewing Co., Jozi's own, hoisted the mainsail with their Braamfontein Brawler complete with Cascade and Amarillo hops but only managed to best the best of the rich lagers.Citizen did well with their stiff upper lip British-style IPA: well rounded with delicate flowers fit for Prince George's bottle and Mzansi's more delicate palates.  Thumbs down to Union Brewing for staffing their table with a dude who didn't know his hops from his malt. Wait, he didn't even know what malt was. And the beer was practically undrinkable.

Regardless of the beer, the beer scene is clearly on the up and up. Jozi is getting off its knees while the Capetonians are making their way north. The festival, even if overpriced, attracted an appreciative and thirsty crowd all pleased to toast the marginalization of Charles Glass and his ilk.

Captain of the League of Beers
So, back to the Imperial Red IPA. Starting from the outside in. Was surprised to see Oregon style lettering on their packs lined up at the stand but then learned that The League of Beers imports the real deal from the motherland. So far, so legit. Better yet, it turns out that they weren't serving Rogue Yellow Snow IPA after all, but something they dreamed and brewed up just for the night. Then the taste - one of the most flavourful. Wait, the most flavourful and balanced South African beer tasted to date. Amarillo, cascade, pretty much all in there without making a dog's brekkie. Nice malt too. So much, in fact, that the brewers are losing money on the 800 litres they've made for the occasion. Unclear if we'll taste the likes of this again, but we're keeping fingers, toes and legs crossed that we do.