All roads should lead to Clarens

All roads should lead to Clarens. Especially in February, when it’s time for SA’s best Beer Fest. I have been privileged to attend a lot of Beer Festivals in the last two years; this was my second Clarens Beer Fest and it’s now officially an unmissable event in my calendar. Clarens #3
Why is it South Africa’s best? Well, there are a lot of reasons. First, the Eastern Free State has got to be one of the most scenic and beautiful places in the world – the lush green rolling hills and unique rock formations are simply magnificent. Second, Clarens itself is delightfully old-fashioned. A remnant of bygone town planning, the communal grass square serves as an awesome platform for a Beer Festival. Third, all the Brewers have to be present. This is a big drawcard for me, as some brands at other Festivals are happy to have poppies flaunting their wares, or are content to hire staff to pour their beer. Most of these hired beer dispensers have little or no knowledge of their product. Their apathy irritates me, and makes me not want to consume their products. In Clarens the Brewer is right there at the stall, pouring your beer and answering questions like, “Whats your grain bill?” Ask a hired poppie that question and you might get a pearly-white smile and a “Er – I’m not sure what I spend on cereal.” So Clarens is great for both more seasoned travelers and those starting their journey. photo 1 (3)Finally, each brewer has to brew a new beer specifically for the festival. Therefore 20 new and unique beers are present for me to whisper to. Some of them sung sweetly, others barked loudly and some yapped away at my ankles. Twenty new rides for me to go on, along with all the old favourites. Disneyland for Beer lovers!!
My favourites this year included the three “Best of Shows”, so the judges and I agreed. My breakfast, That Brewing Co’s AM Stout really showed off some great American hop aroma while dancing on a sweet, malty stage. The guys from Smack!Republic  never disappoint and their Nut Brown Ale was so moreish I’m sure I put a serious dent in the one 50 litre keg they brewed. Needless to say the keg finished early on the second day. Third spot went to new guys Riot Beer Factory with a fantastically balanced Simcoe IPA. This single hop beaut was what I use to punctuate all the other beers, and I always seemed to go back to guys at Riot with a big smile on my face.
Perhaps the biggest highlight though (as is the case every year) was the people. Some people say you’re only as good as the beer you drink. Well, I reckon you’re only as good as the people you drink beer with. What a privilege to be able to share this great occasion with so many legendary beer lovers. See you next year Clarens – I will (and will not!) miss you.
Clarens #2

An Open Letter to the Judge of the Craft Beer Kangaroo Court

Dear Eleanor Robertson

Coming from a nation that’s big on beer myself, I’m always happy to get the thoughts of people from other cultures on a beverage so close to my heart. You’ll forgive me if I forgo anything you have to say about food though; I’m not at the point where I feel the need to kill, cook and eat giant rats just yet.

So, on to your feelings on beer, and craft beer in particular.

As I understand it, aside from price and aftertaste (and I refer you to the appropriate Latin proverb on that score) your two main gripes concerning craft beer extend to disliking the snobbery of beer nerds, and feeling that beer is simply a backdrop to a good pub session and should be treated as such. Beer should never take centre stage – that would be un-Australian. It simply doesn’t fit with what you’re used to, and you don’t like that. “Give me cheap beer, or give me sobriety,” is your rallying cry to the Carlton draught-drinking, Collingwood-supporting hordes. Finally, if craft beer “were contained to its own small bars where [you] never drink, it’d just be another niche subculture, where it belongs.”

Stirring stuff indeed.

I must say though, I’ve heard that last bit before. The apartheid government said the same things to black people in my country back in the day. And you Australians echo the sentiment: people can be as Aboriginal as they want, as long as they do it far away from most other Australians (that said, you’re quite happy to accept living with a hell of a lot of Asian people; apparently China says “Jump!” and Australia dons its kangaroo ears and screams “How high?”).

Because that’s what your opinion amounts to: I don’t like it because it’s not what I’m used to, therefore it must go away. Of course, you’re welcome to that opinion, and I’ll support your right to hold it. I do ask this, however: If you insist on being the harbinger of the craft beer apocalypse, at least realise that your thinking establishes and relies upon a divisive false dichotomy. It’s traditional Australian beer culture or nothing; it’s ‘normal’ beer or craft; it’s us or them; it’s the Coalition of the Willing or The Axis of Evil.

But…sometimes, I can savour a craft ale. And sometimes, I can drink cold, refreshing, mass-produced lager with a big smile on my face. Wow, did I just say that? Is it possible that beer (and life) isn’t so black and white, so cut and dried?

Yes, Eleanor Robertson, it is. And I’d like you to come to Beerhouse and discover this incredible middle ground. I’ll even serve you myself. You’re welcome, because you like beer.

And before I finish, let me address that pressing threat to decent pub conversations everywhere: the Beer Nerd. Or at least I could, but you’re the one using phrases like ‘demanding in flavour’ and ‘overly hoppy’. Perhaps you should let that struggling inner Beer Nerd free. Let her express herself a bit more. Then you could be a force for universal beer love and unity, rather than a writer of patently ridiculous and sadly segregationist polemics.

Yours in (all) beer,

Carl Thomen

Minister of Hopaganda

Beerhouse


No 3 Fransen Street: SAB entering the craft beer market

No 3 Fransen Street: now available on tap at Beerhouse Fourways!

3-Fransen-Street-batch-brewed-beer-logoIt was bound to happen. The mighty SAB is wading into the broad category of “craft beer” and going to be making ales at their No3 Fransen Street Brewery (which was previously used as a test brewery for their very talented brewers to experiment with other styles), and embracing the opportunity to make a variety of beers. There is a market for it, even if it’s tiny compared to that of good old fashioned lager. In light of their lager sales, SAB didn’t really have to get involved in making ales; but they are, and the SA beer scene will be better for it. The more the merrier after all (especially if everyone’s drinking beer). Three types of Weiss are in the pipeline – Krystal, Dunkel and Honey, along with a Cream Ale, Irish Red Ale and an IPA. Add to that three dark beers including a Porter and you have a large, interesting variety of ales that will help grow the beer category in SA immensely.

By describing their beers as speciality, SAB cleverly circumnavigate the murky waters of “craft”. In their own words, “Each batch is brewed to create tastes that are unique, individual and completely lacking in ordinariness”. Not sure what this says about their core range of lagers, but a lack of ordinariness is always a good thing.

SAB is also eager to create a craft image for their brewery. “In a typical suburb, on a regular street, lies no ordinary brewery. A small batch brewery dating back to 1998, a brewery that was designed with speciality beer in mind, way ahead of its time.” Well not entirely true – Lex Mitchell and crew were brewing up English “speciality brews” since 1982. Yes that’s right – lagers come from supersonic brewery cities that churn out millions of hectolitres while ale is made in small batches in a leafy suburb. Well isn’t that romantic! Such notions have captivated South Africa, and thanks to the Beer Spring we have a lot more beer lovers today than we’ve ever had, with a massive variety of styles to choose from.

It’s worth noting that SAB’s No3 Fransen Street isn’t under-cutting other micro-breweries (as I’m sure they could) with their indomitable economies of scale. They politely suggest the beer be sold at R40. Taking into mind how much it costs to buy in, it is decently positioned. Remember you can get micro-brewed pints of beer at Beerhouse from R25 to R60 so they fit comfortably in the middle. This proves the naysayers wrong – brewers and outlets really don’t rip beer lovers off, ok most don’t there is always bad apples. Good beer isn’t cheap to make and like everything in life quality must come at some cost.

“Craft beer” is a highly subjective phrase, and has caused quite a stir in the last few years in South Africa. For one thing, the word craft is emotive; for another, where exactly does one stop when it comes to classifying it? Must a true craft brewery cultivate its own hops and barley, malt the barley, mill it all, and use cultivated yeast and naturally carbonate? Not many breweries can claim to do this in SA, if any. The words macro and micro are more suited to describing beers’ origins. Using “commercial” to describe macro breweries is nonsense. They’re all commercial. Only those home brewers who share a pint amongst friends with no exchange of money are non-commercial.

Moreover, the word “craft” is often confused with variety. The great variety available to us in SA at the moment is due to the revived interest in ale. Lagers and more specifically SAB lagers have dominated the SA beer landscape for over a century. SAB are a very successful business and for good reason. They make refreshing, cold, “hot country” lagers and they are consistent. Recently people have tried to manufacture a false dichotomy: if you drink “craft” then you don’t drink SAB. In fact, to prove that you are a “craft” beer lover, it’s required that you say nasty things about SAB and pull a face like you’ve just smelt a 30 day-old sandwich in your forgotten lunch box. Just because you drink “craft” beer does not mean you have been ordained with a higher purpose and set on a path of beer evangelism to rescue the non- believer Castle Lite drinkers. Each to their own – let them drink what they enjoy and don’t let it offend you! It’s for the individual to explore the wonderful variety in beer and settle on what suits them.

Welcome No3 Fransen Street to the beer revolution. We look forward to tasting your brews. Proof is in the pudding… and we love pudding!

Stay Thirsty, Stay Curious.

No3 Fransen Street