Tastings School - South Africa - Out of Africa...

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South Africa - Out of Africa...

South African beer is on the up. Rob Allanson looks at what is on offer

Let’s get it out of the way first.

South Africa in previous decades or so has had a bad reputation when it comes to tourism.

Which when you see this fantastic red earth country really is a shame.

This beautiful land has seen some of the worst man can do to man, from no go areas to harsh government legislation and at best dodgy justice.

But since that incredible day when, as the eyes of the world watched with excitement, Nelson Mandela walked from the confines of his cell on Robben Island into the corridors of power, the Rainbow Nation has worked hard to put its past behind it.

Tourism is firmly back on the cards – from safaris to luxury city breaks – and this magnificent country has plenty to offer travellers.

However, after a day spent tracking lions, gazelles and elephants is there a decent brew to help wash the dust from your mouth and slake your thirst?

Certainly South Africa has a long history of brewing dating back to the early 20th century.

The beer industry has had two main influences on its development.

Firstly, European settlers who colonised the country brought their brewing expertise and know-how as the country was populated.

Dutch immigrants from the 1650s onwards, and German and British immigrants during the 18th and 19th centuries all contributed in different ways to the knowledge of alcohol production in South Africa.

Another important but often overlooked influence was indigenous knowledge.

As with many cultures, creating some form of beer, or alcoholic beverage, has been ingrained in the group conscience for generations.

Local breweries, operated by the indigenous African population, especially groups such as the Sotho and Zulu, have been brewing forms of sorghum and maize beers long before any Europeans arrived.

Today, the mighty South African Breweries (SAB) controls the vast majority of the South African beer market, and with the notable exception of imported brands such as Heineken, Guinness and others.

SAB owns and produces all the major brands in the country, as well as owning Miller’s Genuine Draft (American), Peroni, Pilsner Urquell and a long list of others which makes it one of the world’s largest brewers.

The company’s most popular home brand is Castle Lager, which has a warm and heady taste, and is the brew of choice in many bars and restaurants, especially in the urban areas.

It also produces Castle milk stout and Black Label, which is one of the more popular beers among the black population.

South African Breweries was originally founded in 1895 by Jacob Letterstedt to serve a new market of miners and prospectors in and around Johannesburg.

Two years later, it became the first industrial company to be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE).

In 2002, the company merged with Miller Brewing Company and became known as SABMiller, one of the biggest brewing groups in the world.

The company has weathered many storms during its time, including in 1955 when the government hiked tax on beers, a move that saw many consumers switch to spirits.

By 1998, SAB commanded a 98 per cent share of the South African beer market.

However the company did not just confine its scope to South Africa, with its initial international expansion in 1910 it set up Rhodesian Breweries in Zimbabwe, and later another brew house in Zambia.

Further international expansion came in the 1970s and 1980s with the establishment of breweries in Botswana, Angola, and the company also bought Compañía Cervezera de Canarias of the Canary Islands.

The company has brewing interests or distribution agreements in more than 60 countries across five continents, and it has a total annual capacity of nearly 43 million hectolitres.

There are other fish in the South African brewing market, and following similar global trends a number of smaller breweries have sprung up in the past decades.

One of these is Birkenhead Breweries in Stanford in the Western Cape.

It produces a number of lagers and ales, including a Honey Blonde Ale, a malt stout, and an extremely malty German-style Kolsch.

The brewery is nestled close to Hermanus, on the southern coast of South Africa.

The area is famous as a place to watch whales during the southern winter and spring. The whales can be seen from the cliffs from as early as June. They were once hunted locally, but are now protected.

As the first brewing estate in the Southern Africa, Birkenhead runs a small but growing micro brewery.

The company has much to offer, not only to the beer enthusiast, but also to those interested in visiting the beautiful country estate near Stanford in the Shadow of the Kleinriver Mountains.

Another commonly drunk beer in South Africa is Windhoek beer, a beer from Namibia made according to the Reinheitsgebot, the ancient German law that defines a beer’s basic ingredients and ensures its purity.

Also to be found is Tafel Lager, a local Cape Town beer that has been expanding to other areas of the country.

So whether you travel to South Africa for a safari trip, to watch whales, or just to kick back in the many bars of Cape Town and Johannesburg, you will never be far from a decent pint – and with a spirit of exploration you may even find something new and exciting.