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.
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.
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.