Monday, 29 September 2014

Beer Blossoms: Joburg Festival of Beer 2014

The highveld may not be much use for cultivating crops, but it's doing well for craft brewing. In the couple months I've been away, an upstart cohort has joined the scene. All were on show at the Joburg
A call to arms
Festival of Beer held on the 27th and 28th of September at the city's Pirate's Sports and Rugby Club.  More brewers and more beer can only be a good thing, but it's an increasingly a crowded field -- in this case a crowded rugby field -- almost everyone is gunning for the same slice of the market. In pursuit of the purse, branding has become so slick that there may soon be dress codes for the more exclusive products. One lives in hope that as palates also become more sophisticated, the demand for more varied and challenging tastes with elicit a market response.  
Zany zebra kitchness
The day started early and hot. Keen to get in before the crowds, I took advantage of the 10.30 to grab a morning coffee before hand with Ralph, Felicity and their little kiddo at the ever-twee Jozi Food Market. One of the first in the city, this quasi-farmers forum has as many fresh flowers, scented candles and baked goods as any mortal can handle. In other words, it's almost the same as the dozen of other markets now peppering the city. But in the warm spring breeze, the cloying cuteness was almost tolerable. After we made it past the jumping castle, the Mauritian made baby clothes and the zebra kitsch bedspreads (check out the bejewelled eyes), we stumbled on a series of large white tents looking more like an field hospital than a beer festival.  While there was a medical team on hand, that wasn't the kind of treatment we were looking for. Fortunately, with a 120 taps awaiting, we were sure to find something to help salve the week's pain.
Once we made it in, our first port of call was a fill up with Cape Town's Garagista Beer.  Only a few months on the scene, this Woodstock based brewer's taps were pouring samples of a apple-pomegranate cider and an English style India Pale Ale.  Despite being fairly cool on cider, I decided to give it a go. The result was confirmation as to why I don't normally drink the stuff.  With a taste suited to 3rd form snack time it didn't speak to us. The IPA, however, was remarkably full flavoured. Made with southern passion and cascade hops, its light fruitiness appealed where the pomegranate fell short. If anything it was a little watery -- alright for first thing in the morning -- but a fine contribution to the scene. 

Next was a visit with an old Mzansi beer friend, Apiwe, and her new Brewhogs' Black India Pale lager. As previous entries attest, I've sampled others in her increasingly diverse rainbow offerings but hadn't yet got this one on my tongue what with it being launched just days before. Before we were allowed a taste, Apiwe inaugurated Ralph with an elaborate brewers briefing that brought him solidly into the beer family. Now well versed on varied beer trivia and types, we were allowed the BIPL. I'm not quite sure what makes this Indian or Pale in any sense, but there was no denying it had a good malty chocolateness with a burnt malty hint in the back. Balanced with Southern Passion and other hops (including dry hops added at the end), it tasted more like a smooth porter than what I had expected. As she's catering for dark beer drinkers who don't want a stout heaviness, this seems like just the right thing. I would probably pour this more regularly come winter, but this is a beer for all seasons.

Boksburg's Beerie Boikie
We left Apiwe busy with a film crew and moved on to 'Just Brewing', a newly opened father and son operation out of Boksburg in the ever stylish East Rand. Offering a black ale, porter, chocolate coffee stout and a pale ale, they are already running on all cylinders (take that Garagista!). The most distinctive of the quartet was the pale ale brewed with an unusual strain of New Zealand hops. My mouth tasted vinegar countering an underlying sweetness. The brewers characterised this as tropical fruit, which is maybe a nicer way of putting it. While it was memorable at worth a taste (especially for free), I'm not sure I could manage a pint. Building on the dark beer trend, however, the porter was more traditional and more solid. Definitely worth a second look.

Blonds have more fun
Another newbie from Joburg's fashionable outer suburbs, Swagga hails from Alrode, a place I had never heard of (apparently it's near Alberton). Launched about six months ago, they now market a blonde, a red. a weiss and an IPA. We tasted the red first which was both dark and cold, welcome features as the temps climbed into the high 20s. Beyond that, it was not particularly notable. The IPA had more flavour from its English hops (Kent Golding) mixed with a bit of Saaz. Alas, the beer was so cold and so carbonated that whatever delicate kisses the hops might have held were lost. The brewer claimed he's brought down the flavour and bitterness for the SA market in hopes of selling more (and more than one at a time).  While the IPA was still his favourite, the people loved the California blond. Seems he knows what the gentlemen prefer.

To break up our marathon, we decided to indulge in the Imperial Tequila Ale (ITA).  This has been around a while and I've always avoided the stuff, convinced it was little more than a gimick trying to find its place in the party market. Turns out,  this Mexican beer is aged in used tequila barrels which impart a light tequila and generally woody, resionous/vanilla taste which was surprisingly inviting. It may be hard to admit to friends or true beer heads, but I like this.Yes, it's cheesy and gimmicky but sometimes swallowing a tasty beer requires one to swallow your pride. Beats Corona hands down. OlĂ©
Back to Mzansi we wondered over the the stylish but yet truly established Brickfields.  Only a few weeks old, they were pouring a contract brewed, 4% lager (made, as it happens, by Ms. Apiwe). As we spoke, work was underway in Johannesburg's Newtown district (once named the bricksfield) on a new brewery. When finished, it will occupy an old bird feed factory across from Carfax. As for the beer, well, it was a lager. Fresh, lean with what we were told was a bit of 'copper essence' (whatever that might mean, I didn't ask), it would be a fine session beer. Is it better than what else is out there? Not by much if at all, but the more the merrier, right?

Almost next door we stumbled on Eleven Shillings Parkhurst Ale, yet another brewery sprouting like a mushroom after a highveld thunder storm. Sold only in Parkhrust but brewed in Jeppestown, these folks started out in January 2013 with big ambitions. They are currently serving up 800 liters a month but hope to make it to 5000 by this time next year. Whether another crisp, lightly hopped ale will support such plans depends on aggresive marketing. They have a cool looking bottle so maybe they might just make a go of it. Certainly it's more likely to be remembered for its bottle than its taste.
After all the beer, we were lured by a striking chiskopped lass to lunch at the Safro Kitchen . Mixed with the other too familiar food trucks, this one offered pretty much the only bit of colour in the food market and a citizens' prices. There was a 'cheese 'n nyama' roll which Ralph scarfed down and an off the menu chakalaka veggie one for me. Best food deal in the place with a bit of ekasi flavour.  At only ten weeks old, they are destined for good things. Check them out soon at the Fox Street Food Market. 

Last up was an old favourite, Smack brewing Smack! Republic Brewing from Maboneng. Now a few years old, they remain one of the few local brewers that cares more about flavour than markets. That they can't keep up with demand suggest the South African market may be more diverse than many think. Today we tried their experimental bourbon milk stout. Made with lactose and bourbon-soaked vanilla pods, this was undeniably flavourful stuff.  Not quite the smooth, warm roundness of the Goose Island but delicious all the same At 5.5% it's easy drinking but believe me, you'll know you drank. Consider this a desert beer really. As for us, that was a good way to finish up before checking into ICU for some rest, reflection and serious rehydration. 


Thursday, 10 July 2014

Transforming Taste: Black Brewers Battle for South Africa’s Palates and Pocketbooks

South Africans drink. Not everyone, but if there is something other than patriarchy and a braai than can unite the country, a dop might just be it. Even if South Africa’s centuries’ old wine tradition and galloping premium whisky market grab global attention, beer is what goes down our gullets on any given day: About 61litres of the stuff per year on average. Yet not all beers are created equal. As South Africa continues to transform, so too does its favourite tipple.
SAB-Miller is a marketing behemoth whose dominance of the domestic market has bred despondency on the fringes.  Their global conquests have supplied a pirate’s booty of domestically brewed ‘imports,’ but these are little more than old beer in new bottles. Yet the serious beer drinkers must not despair. While many promises of 1994 have yet to be honoured, at least we have the freedom to drink good local beer in our lifetime. Starting in the 1980s in sleepy Knysna, Mitchell’s brewing began the assault on SAB. Never intending to see Charles Glass face the guillotine, Mitchell’s and their craft brewer kin were more Luddites than Jacobins. Dedicated to producing less processed, fresher more flavourful brews; they set out to capture a niche market of discerning drinking loyalists.

For almost two decades the craft brewers soldiered on, joined in their march by small-scale breweries in Clarens, the KZN midlands and around Gauteng. And then things changed. From around 2010, the fuse they lit has led to a craft brewing explosion. Following trends from Berkeley to Brussels, beer is flowing as never before: rich with malts and redolent of hops grown at home or brought in from around the globe. Although hardly challenging Charles Glass’ dominance of the South African beer business, the craft brew movement has captivated a growing subset of South African drinkers. In what might first seem a marketing paradox, SAB is supplying and supporting the craft industry’s growth. Keen to push price points up for their own premium products – a quart sells for well under R20 at an eKasi spaza; a craft beer might sell for four times that amount – they are delighted with new markets for wallet draining drinks. But while reaching a broader public, most of the new brewers are following Mitchell’s proven marketing strategy: small scale local production aimed at a relatively well off, largely pale-faced following.

Apiwe, the not so mad scientist
And then things changed again. Inside the (partial) transformation of South Africa’s beer industry is another uniquely South African transformation. Leading the way are two remarkably different brewers with an intertwined past. Both part owners of their respective breweries, Apiwe Nxusani and Ndumiso Madlala are out to change the flavour and colour of the craft brew seen. Recognising the inherent limits of brewing for an affluent minority, these two are busy crafting beers with more mass appeal. And with these strategies they hope that the colour of money will accompany the rich golds and reds being served up frosty in a pint glass.

Having served their time working for SAB-Miller in various roles, these two have the brewing experience, technical skills and training to coax almost any flavour from the yeast, malt, hops and water that goes into their beer. (Graduate science degrees and international brewing and distilling diplomas? Who knew there were such things?)  A self-professed beer nerd, Apiwe is not much of a drinker but has been captivated by the brewing process since she visited an open day at the University of Johannesburg. “I’m like chef; they don’t eat a lot. They just eat to appreciate the tastes they’ve created.” Ndumiso also came of age at SAB-Miller, climbing the ranks alongside Apiwe before branching out in 2011 to start his own operation. When investors failed to pitch, he headed back to overseeing SAB breweries across Africa and learnt even more about brewing and branding. A great beer lover – our outdoor interview was accompanied by a delicious winter sunshine and pulled pint combo – Ndumiso saw the opportunity to reach an untapped, African market ready to step out on SAB.

Labouring on opposite ends of the city geographically and socially – Apiwe deep in middle-class suburbia; Ndumiso in the heart of Soweto – the two nevertheless have a similar reading on how to enchant the beer drinkers whose thirsts will feed their bottom lines. For Apiwe this means creating a ladder to more complicated, tastier beers. With her Brewhogs Pilsner and Red Lager she’s building, “a bridge to people who are used to drinking lagers. What we make is drinkable; it’s more like what they know. We want to play around in the lager field, but it will be lager with a twist.” Being a taste fundi, she experiments at home with more outlandish inventions but realises that South African taste will take time to follow along the yellow brick road.
Ndumiso, the beer loving brewer

Ndumiso’s approach is equally calculated but he hopes to bypass Oz and get straight to El Dorado. Soweto Gold is not a aimed at beer connoisseurs, nor is it intended to take its drinkers on a gustatory journey. Instead he has created a full flavoured beer to capture the lucrative Black market. “If you look at the recipe, it has similar property to Carling Black Label. It’s slightly sweet, lowly hopped.” He adds special malts and a proprietary yeast blend to up the flavour profile, but is not too bothered if drinkers don’t savour the difference. “What we’re selling is also an aspirational product. We are adding something for them at the top end. There are taverns here in Soweto that out sell those in Sandton in single malts and exclusive products. We want to tap that market.” And tap it he has. With his Orlando brewery only set to open in late July – he currently crafts in Nottingham Road Brewery’s KwaZulu Natal facility – he is already outselling SAB products in select pubs around town. With a planned onsite canning facility and new varieties coming up he is riding a brand wave likely to lift him and his investors to prosperity. Look out for a Pirates-inspired Orlando Stout in black and white and a clear sorghum, maize and malt beer sure to be a hit with Ndumiso’s KZN homeboys.

As with any South African industry, race matters. Apiwe is proud of what she has accomplished and the role she can play in transforming the business: not only wresting total domination from SAB, but adding diversity to the craft brew scene. There is evident pleasure in startling people out of their comfort zones. “We serve my beer in restaurants and festivals and people are often shocked when they find out I made it. Obviously first because I’m a woman, then because I’m black.” Ndumiso does nothing to disguise his background instead making it foundational to the brand: “I’m the face of this company. I’m critical to where we are going. When I give the beer to my friends in KZN, they love it. One thing I can tell you about people there, they enjoy anything from Johannesburg. When they see that this is done by one of their own, I know it’s going to sell very well.”

But this is beer after all, so while race will always be an issue, people would prefer to bicker over malt or hop profiles or football prowess. Soweto Gold may be mining the Black market, but almost everyone living in South Africa – and wealthy foreign tourists keen for a taste of the fabled township – can sip proudly from their trademark golden cans. White Braamfontein hipsters are already savouring the stuff. If you can crack that uber-cool crowd, who knows who is next. Apiwe’s hopes are, like her, somewhat more muted: “There are a few home brewers who are black. Sometime they call to ask me for advice. Hopefully with time there will be more as I’m often the only black person in the room. Still, I’ve never felt I don’t belong. When they ask, I tell them – and honestly this is how I feel – that we are like one big family; we’re all there for the love of beer.” Cheers to that.

You can taste Brewhogs at the Kyalami brewery on Friday afternoons or whenever the mood strikes you at the Hogshead restaurants or select pubs around Gauteng.  Soweto Gold is pouring from ever more taps across Gauteng and Cape Town or from their brewery bar in Orlando West’s uBuntuKraal.

Note: This is a longer version of a Mail & Guardian article available just by clicking here.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Gilroy's, Seriously?

Having just landed on a delayed Nairobi flight, I headed straight to a friend's beer party. By the time I arrived, the afternoon's festivities were well and over, but there were still enough food to sate my hungry belly, a few willing drinkers, and a couple of Gilroy's 'Serious Dark Ale' in the cooler box. Years ago, Gilroy's was one of the few craft brews available in Johannesburg and I'd brave the lousy service and rubbery calamari at the otherwise charming Zoo Lake Bowling Club just to get one. Well, the club stopped serving Gilroys and the old timer seemed to have been put to pasture by a breed of aggressive upstarts. The last time I tasted anything they make was a couple of years back at their laddish yet family friendly Muldersdrift brewery. So, I pondered, here was the chance to get re-acquainted and see how this pioneer had stood the test of time. 

The bottle looks nice and 'olde timey' and indeed, the brewers describe the contents as a dark rich ale made in the age old way. This, apparently, includes the addition of a 'majestic' yeast. According the the website, even the sophisticated superspy James Bond drinks the stuff. As we decanted, we came to understand why the quintessential British icon might be so inclined. Despite a vigorous pour, the beer rested in the glass looking like dark tea. The bottle claims this is done in an Irish style, but since I don't know a jig from a blarney stone, I can't really say. Regardless, I suspect James Bond wouldn't be caught dead drinking something from the emerald isle.

Coming to taste, we hoped the majestic yeast might spawn some leprechaun magic to lift the beer above its uninspiring appearance. Alas, from the taste of it, majestic means lazy. Perhaps too many jigs for that leprechaun. Instead, the taste stayed true to the look: barely carbonated and a bit like iced tea on the tongue. Still, the taste would let it pass for a middling real ale at a midlands country pub. A friend, fresh from the US, found it reminiscent of Negra Modelo, a dark German style lager made in Mexico. I can see that, but unless you drink a great number of these, it's unlikely you'll be moved to dance around your hat or take Michael Flatley for a spin.

As for the hornpipe, the bottle defends its almost absent carbonation as allowing the beer to "dance on tongue but cause no distress to the tummy." That's another way of saying it's flat. Which is kind of right; in more ways than one. Perhaps 007 should stick to his Martinis.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Smack for all Saisons

Maboneng Mamas
Took some out of town visitors down to the newly developed Maboneng for the weekly Sunday market. The elder was an urban studies professor always keen to see what's happening with ever dynamic Jozi. His world-weary teenage daughter tagged along, evidently tired of following her dad through all sorts of strange African developments. While there has been some controversy around the redevelopment of the precinct, what with it being a solidly middle class reclamation of the area and the like. But I tell you, if the alternative is another shopping mall chock full of Mugg and Beans, Messieurs Price and Baskets of Ocean, I choose this. By the time it spreads to another 45 buildings courtesy of the uber-rich 29 year old, Jonathan Lieberman, it may have lost its charm. For now, the place was bustling with cool. Even if the district doesn't appeal to those who find Rosebank dangerously close to Soweto, it was packed with people of all sorts (well, of the middle class sort) smoking, being hip and looking generally far cooler than me. Even the teenager was impressed.

The Soldier and the Saison
After wandering around the market and watching the daughter get her shop on, we hungered up and helped ourselves to a whole fish fried fresh and laying on a bed of some of the hottest, oilyest, and most delicious chips I've had in yonks. With a dash of chili and spice, the white flesh peeled cleanly off the bone as we settled into the courtyard's winter sunshine.

Smack's almost Subterranean Shop
Before getting too comfortable, we meandered past the precinct's hole in the wall brewery, Smack Republic for one of their offerings. From the three tapped up and pouring and we went for the Maboneng Maverick, their take on a saison. While I don't often gravitate to this French style farmhouse ale (there's a reason we know them for wine), this seemed better suited to the sun-kissed weather and our handfuls of fried finger food than the otherwise tempting experimental bourbon and vanilla infused Stout.

Once we finally got to drinking, the Michigan friend felt the Smack Saison failed to measure up to his hometown favourite, Bell's Two Hearted Ale. When pressed, he admitted that even if Bells is a fine, solidly crafted beer, the Smack boys had created a solid contender (a 6 or 7 compared with Bells' 10 by his estimation). Sipped from a plastic cup in the Sunday sun I couldn't imagine anything all that much better. Even if saisons don't typically shout flavours, this one shot a cool sharpness. Served deeply chilled, it nevertheless put forward a spiciness thanks to a good mix of hops and the somewhat non-traditional naartjie peel and black pepper. Say what you will about these alien additives, but they worked. Slightly sweet and heavily carbonated – a bit too bubbly for my tastes – it was it was nonetheless just about the right thing for the day. Despite the fancy pictures on the website, they don't bottle or distribute (yet). Given that they're brewing from what amounts to an over-sized closet, it's impressive they're able to even make more than one beer at a time.  Regardless, if you want a taste, you have to come to the market to get one. While it may not be worth a trip from Michigan, if you're in Joburg on a Sunday, make the journey.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Youth and Sir Thomas Brewing Company's Hangklip IPA

Drinking in the Future's Shadow
What better way to honour the youth than by sitting in the sun drinking a beer? Sure, it's not what the holiday is about and we ought not forget past sacrifices. Yet, if freedom from oppression doesn't include casual drinking with a diverse crowd in a northern suburban park, then we still have a long way to go. Besides, really, what do the young like better than beer? That's right, nothing. And while young'uns might not all line up behind Sir Thomas Brewing's Hangklip's IPA, there's going to be some who do. Those are the ones to watch; they're going places. As I drank it surrounded by tykes and food trucks at Parkview's food truck festival in George Hay Park, I toasted their prospects and quietly celebrated the future generations. 

Let's be honest, this is an IPA for the people; a journeyman for the jol. It is unlikely to please snobbish connoisseurs and even modest critics will easily recognise its failure to crest the pinnacle of taste and balance. (We followed the Hangklip with a smuggled Rogue 7 Hop IPA, a masterly brew bursting with botanical bounty.) That said, it was a solid entry offering little to offend and plenty to please. The nose was generally hoppy although missing many of the flowery scents found in its more sophisticated cousins. Bitterness dominated on the tongue with no distinguishable citrus, pine or resin flavours despite the strong hop presence. One reviewer found dates and grapefruit in there, but we couldn't. If there was something resembling dates it came from the malt which offered more general sweetness than specific flavours. What somehow managed to punch through were hints of a Belgian-like yeast, a taste unexpected for a South African IPA but not unpleasant (Belgian inspired IPAs have established a niche elsewhere). The cloudiness could also help it make a play with the Walloons although the slightly harsh over-carbonation possibly a result of drinking this at Jozi altitudes might see it side-lined. At only five percent alcohol, it is a beer for the everyday and the everyman (and woman). Some might dismiss it as milquetoast but such an approach may well help win over generation next. 

Cloudy with a Chance of Tasty
I found this beer at Norman Goodfellows in Illovo for about thirty odd. If you hit the shop you'll see it has one of the best selections of bottled South African beers in the country (and the only place I've seen Hangklip). Many of those on offer will similarly dent your wallet and look just as pretty on your shelf. Ultimately the selling point should be taste. Although Hangklip may not be everyone's favourite, it's a solid offering that adds depth to the mzansi IPA stable. In honour of our youth, past and present, it's certainly worth a turn. Sir, yes sir.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Devil's Peak Revisited: IPAs Standing Tall

Filled to the brim with Cape Townians
It's not my way to revisit old haunting grounds, but as my last visit to Devil's Peak's Salt River taproom was curtailed by a private party, it seemed just the place to start a beery Cape Town weekend. As much as Jozi may rightfully claim its place as the country's economic engine, there's no place as good as the Western Cape to sample South Africa's burgeoning beer scene. 

Once again the place was packed as one might expect on a Friday evening. Turns out it was end of term for the nearby Universities and a running club decided there could be no better place for post-run hydration. I couldn't agree more. That this place officially serves the best beer in South Africa only boosts the busy.

Looking at the menu, I was drawn to two tap-only offerings. The first was a blaster - the black IPA. Given my almost idolotrous love for their 'regular' King's Blockhouse, I knew this one was going to be full of flavour (and to be fair, I had tasted it in December, but in a rush). Described in the menu as dark, hoppy and rich but crisp, it certainly didn't disappoint. My benchmark here is Firestone Walker's Wookey Jack, one of my all time stars. But since I hadn't had that one in months, a direct comparison wasn't possible. Still, there's little doubt the Cape Townian could hold its own. Lighter in alcohol than the Wookey and with the double IPA maltiness, the crisp flavour stood tall alongside the dark roasted malt which lent it the almost charred bitterness of a nice porter. Despite the intensity, it retained a light mouthfeel even if the glass remains dark when held up to the bright kitchen lights. The hops are a bit flatter than the King's Blockhouse without the citrus buzz, but the beer was still swimming with the precious flowers. When we asked which ones, 'European hops' is all the barman could or would reveal.
TheIPAs stand tall

Speaking of Europeans and barmen, apart from those working the taps, this was by far the darkest thing in the place. I'm sure there are those comforted by these last enclaves. It seems if you want entry here you need an electronic cigarette, a beard (if you're a dude), part of your head shaved (men and women) or vanilla dreads. That the bleached blond next to me spoke with the one white bartender of the, "little Indian man" who had served them earlier made me glad to live in Jozi.

A hunk of beer battered deliciousness
The second round was meant to go to the rye saison, described on the menu as medium to strong fruity/spicy. Alas, its tap had run dry so I was 'forced' into tasting their Imperial IPA, something that's not (yet?) bottled and had escaped me until now. Almost the same colour as the Blockhouse, there was a slighter fainter citrus nose with more of the resinous tones wafting into the nose. Thicker on the tongue and rich down the throat the maltiness was well balanced. This is something like a hot rod version of the regular IPA: slightly less delicate but nonetheless controlled and bursting with vooma. Delicious and well suited to warm one's cockles during the forthcoming Cape Town winter.

Although I came for the beer, it's worth noting the food wasn't too shabby. Sure, this is not where you go to sample Cape Town's finest cuisine, but for it's simple menu, they do the dishes right. Saison battered fish with chops and a flavour rich broccoli and goat cheese salad.The neighbour's pizza made me hope he'd look the other way so I could grab a slice.

About half way through the evening, one of Cape Town's hapless youth sidled up to bar asking the bartender for a Castle draught and Coke Zero. Asked to repeat himself, he confirmed what he was after. Taken aback and almost speechless, the bar tender stumbled over his words as he looked in exasperation for an empathetic eye. Rolling his, he informed the young man that the Castle was fresh out, but perhaps he could be happy with the beers made on site. Chastened he left with a First Light and Coke Light. Not sure which was for the lady.  

Only down side of the evening was at some point the place ran out of pint glasses and couldn't serve. Either lots of Cape Townians are filling their cupboards with these vessels or someone forgot to do their washing.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Jozi Craft Beer Fest 2014

Walked through jam packed parking lot to make it to the 2014 Jozi Craft beer Fest. Credit to the good people at League of Beers for organising the mechanical bull and
ride'm cowboy
ping pong tables. True Jozi style? Don't know much about the city's cowboy heritage but all can be forgiven when bathed in that gorgeous autumn sun with just enough high  clouds to keep us from roasting.

Speaking of roasting, there was food too. The vittles will be largely familiar to regular Johannesburg market goers: mustachioed Balkan Burger, overpriced pulled pork tacos absent any Mexican zest, undercooked paella seasoned with what tasted like aromat, and slightly spendy but solid fire roasted pizza. In true Mzansi style, there wasn't much for the vegetarians among us. For the few still eating dairy, the homemade ice cream looked good but we weren't in the mood for a float. Rather, it was the beers calling.
Swimming in Aromat

And there were beers.  Almost all the well knowns and a few local start-ups made the cut filling almost 30 tents with bottles and kegs.  Among them were a couple of distillers and one anachronistic (yet delicious) Scottish brewing company. For the most part, the staff were friendly, knowledgeable and proud of their pours. Yet there were a few baffling exceptions where the local ambassadors knew almost nothing of what they're serving. Telling you that a beer is popular is not quite up to snuff. But let me not judge -- at a place like this there is always another tap waiting for attention.

The first beer catching our eye was a Haarties local that had somehow escaped my lips for too long. From their good variety, we plopped our tokens down for Chameleon Brewhouse's American pale ale. Made with amarillo and cascade hops - words that sound so sweet with a heavy Afrikaans accent -- its captivating fragrance reassured us that it wasn't brewed with water from the nearby dam. The dark brown beer was capped with a good frothy head that stuck around until the very end. On the tongue it was smooth and fruitily hoppy - as one would expect from those hops - with a touch of sourness on the finish but nothing to erase the round balance at the beer's center. I half expected a hint of mampoer but certainly wasn't disappointed with what I got. Turned out to be one of the day's surprises.
Haarties hits Jozi

Next up was Aces Brew Worx (sic) IPA. I've tasted their middle of the road lager before and can't say I've been much impressed. This is the first time seeing any other offerings most which were brewed especially for the festival on contract by an ex-Bavarian beermaker at Swagger brewery in Alberton. These trial balloons included a blond, a red, a pale ale, and an IPA. Not surprisingly we went Indian. At only 4.5% ABV - a good 2-3 points below what it should be - I was skeptical. They said it was made with cascade hops but since it was sub-contracted they couldn't be sure. In the sun the beer looked like a dark rooibos tea with a corporate looking head of big bubbles. The smell was fresh but faint and a bit lagerish. Things didn't improve much past the lips where there was almost no hop profile and the malt presented no sweetness or warmth. That wasn't so bad, but the chlorine finish was made less pleasant with evocations of President Zuma's fire pool. If this was a test, it passed like a Limpopo maths student. (To be fair we shared it with a couple others who proclaimed it creamy and delish, so to each his own. But I won't budge on something: that ain't no IPA). 
Wondering why the chameleon's not turning blue

After that disappointment, we took a break from beer to try out Drayman's single malt whiskey. I'm always pleased to see South Africa trying it's hand beyond brandy and as a whiskey drinker, what choice did I have but to give it a go? Their festival neighbours, Jorgensen's Distillery, have already established a fine reputation even if it's not nearly as tastily innovative as Inverroche (who were nowhere to be seen). Jorgies was showing off a 500 rand bottle of absinthe which I didn't have the courage (or the cash) to try so I stuck with Drayman's. While their Emporer IPA fell short earlier in the year, this was a perfectly drinkable whiskey that could rival an entry level Scotch. That they served the single malt with ice with nary a thought did make me wonder what they were hiding. That it was R400 made me think maybe they were hiding just how overpriced it was. At 200 I'd go local and buy, but not at twice the price.

Three's Company
Back to the beer and Standeaven Brewery's Three Hop IPA. I haven't been particularly chuffed by their wide variety of widely available offerings but the hoppy promise drew me to this one. The eponymous trinity included an experimental offering from Charles Glass mixed with the country's homegrown Southern Promise and Southern Passion. Shaun Standeaven took a break from pouring to explain that they made this festival special specifically to highlight the oft overlooked -- and somewhat maligned -- local hop offerings. Although it's not available anywhere else just yet, I hope it will be. It poured out with creamy head comprised of ultra fine bubbles. While it's cloudiness made it look like a slightly coppery wheat beer, its nose had enough floral hop aroma and light citrus lilt to claim its place as an IPA.  The fruitiness was there too as you drank although it faded as the glass emptied. So while it doesn't bang you with IBUs, it has a flavour that is comfortably distinctive. Sure, it is a bit watery without an alcohol punch, but it's balanced nonetheless. By far the best foot they've put forward. Maybe a new category: African IPA or, better yet, session IPA? I could certainly drink a few. And big props to Shaun and his fam for sticking South and highlighting what Mzansi has to offer. 

Back to Jozi with Smack Republic and their Braamfontein Brawler IPA. Unlike Standeavan, these guys went all-American with imported cascade and amarillo hops. Having been on sale for a year - almost always on draft - it apparently isn't keeping pace with their golden ale and honey rooibos. Still, the brewers claim it sells and they're going to keep it flowing. At 4.1 percent it's also low on the alcohol, a persistent problem with the local IPAs. What it lacked in punch it made up for with its rich red copper color and a finely laced head. While their saison is seasoned with spicy black pepper, this one smelled sour. Alas, it tasted sour too. There's hops and malt but they were lost behind a kind of tamarind forwardness that might help explain why this isn't a best seller. I'd tasted it before at their brewery in in Maboneng and had fonder memories. From here on out, I'll stick with their Maboneng Maverick complete with rooibos and honey. No sourness there. 

Brewhog's Apiwe Nxusani, free (from SAB) at last
Mark's Park Massive
As things for us were winding down, we passed by the Brewhog's barrel and got to wondering what they were about. Turns out it's a new brewery in Kyalami with an SAB refugee making a premium pilsner and an original red lager. Still small and not yet bottling, they sell largely through the Hogshead restaurants and pubs. Although not normally inclined to lagers, I felt compelled to give them a go.  As it turns out, the red was tasty if mainly malty, as reds are wont to be. Served very cold and lightly carbonated it had a blockier, more corporate taste than anything else I had, but with an underlying freshness. Finished solid with a touch of sweetness from the malt. Maybe not my cup of tea but an undeniably nice beer and a giant step for womankind. 

With our final tokens we revisited an old friend: the King's Block House IPA from Devil's Peak. I've reviewed the beer elsewhere and have no reason to redact any of my praise. That this nectar won South African beer of the year is no surprise given that it already clinched top spot in Mzansi Beer's IPA smack-down. That we got a full glass for half the price was a pleasant one. That they may open a brewhouse in Jozi by the end of 2014 is enough to make the heart sing. The rest of you better bring your A game.

Welcome to paradise

A big hand to the folks at League of Beers and Jozi beer fest for pulling this together. Whoever you are, you know how to throw a party.