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.


  1. One beer I'd recommend checking out is Brew Dog's Jack Hammer. It is a "west coast" IPA on their occasional brew list. Found it at Norman Goodfellows.

    1. I'll check it out. I've been surprised by Brew Dog's move into SA. Perhaps it speaks to the growing and yet untapped market for better beers. Let's hope they can inspire even more local competition.

  2. The popularity of King's Blockhouse mystified me until recently. It's a cleverly-crafted beer made to appeal to generations of South African taste-buds that have been dulled by SAB's offerings. It has that same clean taste you get from Castle with just with a couple of handfuls of hops thrown in to make it edgy enough for the lager-heads to notice. No body or balance to speak of. Skeleton Coast beats KBH handily IMHO. And no Triggerfish Hammerhead or Titan! Pshaw!!!

    1. To each his own. A distiller once told me that if people wanted to buy his most expensive single malt and drink it with coke, he wouldn't object; they were still buying. I'm not a big fan of the Skeleton Coast, but I think we can all agree, it is just another nail in Charles Glass' coffin. Amen.