Ilze Hugo finds out why craft beer isn’t just for hipsters
Just a few years ago, the local craft-beer scene was made up of hobbyists experimenting with hops and barley in their garages. It was chiefly a fringe movement; few local beer drinkers could tell an IPA (India pale ale) from a porter. Nowadays, anyone walking into their local liquor store is greeted by a multicoloured smorgasbord of beer labels lining the shelves. Whether you are a mainstream-lager-around-the-braai type or a craft-beer fundi, it’s time to embrace a trend that’s here to stay.
Rob Heyns is founder and resident cicerone (the beer world’s version of a sommelier) at the online craft-beer store, League of Beers. More than just a shop, League of Beers is an education, bringing beer-lovers tasting notes on the brews, as well as the stories behind the breweries. When Heyns started the site in 2012, the local craft-beer industry was in its infancy, he says, ‘with only about 40 small craft breweries across South Africa. Today, there are over 130.’
While many local craft breweries are still quite wet behind the ears, Darling Brew has been tantalising palates with its innovative brews since 2010. Founders Kevin and Philippa Wood, stumbled into the beer trade on a visit to a microbrewery in the Karoo hamlet of Nieu-Bethesda and decided to bring the concept to their home town, Darling. Back then, there were only a handful of craft breweries here in SA and the pair had no idea of the extent of the industry in the US. ‘We did no homework. We just jumped into the deep end,’ Kevin Wood says.
Savour the flavour
So, what makes that brew you’re drinking a craft beer? Is it just the edgy label or the size of the brewery? Or is there more to it? ‘The Brewers Association in the US defines “craft breweries” as small, independent and traditional,’ says Heyns. ‘ “Small” pertains to its size and the amount of beer produced. But, as breweries are getting bigger and craft beer is becoming more popular, that definition keeps expanding. “Independent” means that no more than 25% is owned by a major brewing company and it’s not listed on a stock exchange. “Traditional” is the most important benchmark and refers to traditional brewing methods and quality ingredients.’
Wood agrees, ‘Once you start taking shortcuts the way the bigger breweries do by adding maize, rice or corn to reduce brewing costs, along with additives such as enzymes for longer shelf life, it’s not craft beer. Adding quality ingredients such as fynbos and herbs to enhance the flavour is a different story, because craft beer is all about innovation and creativity.’
So, craft beer is about making flavourful rather than cost-effective beer. It certainly isn’t easy on the pocket. But, rest assured, you’re not just paying for the fancy label. ‘There really is a flavour difference,’ says Heyns, who has – through blind tastings of mainstream lager-drinkers’ favourite brews against similar-style craft beers – created many a convert.
Amber ales, IPAs, porters, stouts… With a sea of different beer varieties flooding the market, it can be hard for newbies to make head or tail of all the options. But it is actually fairly simple. Heyns explains, ‘In reality, there are only two types of beer in the world: lagers and ales. Lagers are made by bottom-fermenting the yeast, making them very clear and crisp.’ Fermented at colder temperatures, they don’t extract as much flavour as ales. Meanwhile, ales are top-fermented at warmer temperatures to extract as much flavour as possible. Most mainstream beers are lagers, while the vast majority of other varieties are ales. These include IPAs, amber ales, Weissbiers, stouts and porters.
But even this definition is fluid: ‘While there are guidelines for identifying beer styles through taste, it’s not always straight-forward,’ says Wood. ‘An IPA brewed in the US can be very different to one brewed locally, because of the difference in water, ingredients and brewing style. American ales tend to burst with hoppiness, while ales from the UK and Europe are subtler.’ Brewers are also starting to experiment with brewing lagers with ale yeast, and so forth.
Wood says that, ultimately, the rules for making craft beer are to brew great beer, and to create new styles. ‘The mistake we often make in South Africa is that we are all trying to brew IPAs or British ales or lagers, instead of coming up with new styles. What about an African ale, using hops from Africa, along with fynbos or rooibos, for example?’
Want to organise your own beer-tasting session at home? ‘There are tasting glasses available for beer, but you can just as easily use a wine-tasting glass,’ says Heyns. A beer is rated according to aroma, appearance, mouthfeel and flavour.
Aroma ‘If you swirl the glass lightly with your hand clasped over the top of it, sealing it gently, you’ll feel a slight pressure build up. Then bring the glass to your nose to get the full aroma. Repeat three times: one sip after sniffing at the base of the wine glass, another with your nose in the middle and another at the top. You will find different aromas coming through each time.’
Appearance ‘Just hold it up to the light and observe the colour (beers can range from black or dark red to light yellow, and the colour is affected by the ingredients), clarity and the head retention.’
Mouthfeel Swirl it around in your mouth. What does it feel like? Take note of body (carbonation), fullness (the thickness of the beer) and mouthfeel (how it feels after you have swallowed). Then throw around some fancy terms to impress, such as: alkaline, metallic, mouth-coating, warming, powdery, astringent or carbonation.
Flavour ‘With wine, there’s a technique where you gargle and breathe air through the wine as you’re tasting. You can do this with beer too,’ explains Heyns, ‘or do the opposite and blow air out of your nose as you sip.’ Flavour profiles include piny, earthy, floral, chocolatey, nutty, toasty, crisp, caramelly, roasted, fruity, spicy, tart, citrusy and bitter.
Still not sure about giving craft beer a go? Let us convince you. Newcomer on the beer block, The 400 Brewing Company was started by five childhood friends.
They currently have two products on the market: Frost Hammer, a light, refreshing German hybrid session ale; and an amber ale called Zen.
‘If we don’t accept one or two wineries running the entire wine market, then why accept two macro-breweries running the whole beer market?’ asks Iain Thomas, one of the co-founders. ‘There is nothing wrong with macro-beer, but there’s an entire world out there that you’re missing out on if you limit your palate to what’s at the front of the fridge.’
Photography: gallo/gettyimages, stocksy