(I originally posted this story on my website fermentingrevolution.com a few years ago. It was the most often visited story on the site, so I thought I’d repost it here on the blog for people still looking for it. I’ll also begin posting the other stories from that site onto the blog.)
I was over 2,000 miles from Belgium and nearly as far from South Africa, but oddly, I started my trip on the Zulu Brew Route in Ethiopia with a Rodenbach. I acquired a lone bottle at the only Belgian beer bar I know of in Bamako, Mali.
Preparing for a month-long southern Africa trek, I thought it wise to clear out the fridge of perishables. I had saved the Rodenbach for a special occasion and this was it. There is no access at all to foreign beers in Ethiopia, so I have developed a sophisticated strategy for beer acquisition, storage and liquidation. First, I make as much homebrew as possible. I drink the best that’s available locally, explore for local homebrew, and constantly plot ways to obtain foreign beers. Once acquired, the trick is to stow them away and space out the consumption so as to make it through each long in-country stretch with at least a few full flavored ales on hand. It didn’t seem right to store this hard-won Rodenbach in an empty house for a month. The point of beers is to drink them, isn’t it?
It seemed fitting to savor this exotic wild-fermented Belgian ale as I prepared for an equally exotic trek to a total of nine South African breweries on the Zulu Brew Route. Sour red lambics can be an acquired taste, but I have struggled and made it over the hump. This would prove useful when sampling the sour pink sorghum beers of Zululand. I followed the Rodenbach with one of my own yarrow-infused brown ales, conditioned in the bottle for a couple months. A half round of locally-produced smoked gouda accompanied it and I felt well fed and a bit fuzzy when I boarded the plane for Johannesburg.
I Am Ready for Action
The plane ride was uneventful and completely lacking in beer. I boarded at 2:15 in the morning, so the cans of Heineken in the beverage cart were of no temptation, and I was too tired to bother asking if they had anything decent. I ate the tin-foiled ‘meal’ and tried to rest. I would need to be fresh in the morning in order to drive on the left side of the road, find the hotel without a real map, and then get straight to Drayman’s Brewery in Pretoria.
At the rental agency my car arrived with an inauspicious sign in the window: “I AM READY FOR ACTION.” I think all adventures ought to begin with a sign like that, don’t you?
In a sleep-deprived haze my right-side-of-the-road training caused me to consistently drift out of my lane. But I managed to maneuver safely to the Glenburn Lodge where my girlfriend, Seung, was leading a conference on HIV/AIDS.
At the lodge, I passed out immediately. It was already 1pm when I awoke. The proprietress at Drayman’s was only available until 2pm, and despite the sign on the rental car, I was “Not Ready for Action.” I had a feeling of dense fog in the brain and the brewery was 45 minutes away – 45 minutes of left-hand driving. The first stop on my South Africa beer trek was a bust.
One Giant Leap for Beer
Some Irish luck came along when Steve Gilroy promised to squeeze some time in for me the next day, just after his round of deliveries and just before the bachelor party at his Gilroy Beers brewery. Unfortunately, we arrived late, after driving circuitously for half an hour, within minutes of the brewery all the while. On the steps of the brewery we were greeted with the second sign of our trip, in the shape of a spray painted cement stairway.
But with more luck, the bachelors were yet to arrive, so Steve welcomed us into the tap room and assertively poured pints. He quickly poured a second round before starting the tour. Only half way finished with the first pint, we mildly protested a second glass so soon, but Steve laughed loudly and proclaimed confidently: “We do know how to organize a piss-up in a brewery.” It was beginning to appear as if this might be a longer afternoon than we expected. Then the tour only lasted 15 minutes.
And back into the tasting room we went. We talked and drank. Steve is an Irish-born Liverpuddlian who emigrated to South Africa at the age of 21. Today his Serious Dark Ale is the highest rated beer in South Africa. Or is it all of Africa? Or the entire Southern Hemisphere? The parameters of the award seemed to increase with the number of pints we consumed. But he produced a booklet from Diners Club and South African Airways that backed up the claim.
You Can’t Make a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear
What’s more, he claims to brew the only CAMRA-recognized real ales in South Africa. He does everything by hand to produce 360-liter batches of unfiltered, unpasteurized ales and lagers. He started microbrewing in 2000 because of what he calls “the bloody awful beer” in South Africa. Hops are grown in the country by SABMiller, but he prefers to use German and English varieties, as well as imported Muntons malt, since in his opinion, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
“We do know how to organize a piss-up in a brewery.”
Steve Gilroy, Gilroy Beers, Technikon, South Africa
His company tagline is “120 Years Behind the Times,” but Steve explained that he only just discovered, upon speaking with his Auntie Amy, that the family was in brewing as much as 140 years ago. Sadly, the original Gilroy Brewery closed sometime after World War II.
(photo caption: Braided pigtails, breasts, blow-up sheep, and viking helmets – our cue to leave.)
It was an hour into our discussion, and four pints to the wind, when the bachelors arrived. Taking our cue to exit, we bid adieu, but not without an Irish Six Pack to go (there are only four bottles) of Gilroy’s Serious Dark Ale, and a poster of the controversial ad he just ran in a leading South Africa newspaper.
Eisbein Is Fine, but a Pint of Marzen Is Better
Leaving the Jo’burg/Pretoria metropolitan sprawl, we headed directly for the true beginning of the Zulu Brew Route. First stop, Farmers Brauhaus, on the edge of the Drakensberg range, and just inside the Zulu province. KwaZulu Natal was witness to many of South Africa’s wars among the Boer, British, and Zulu populations, but we decided to skip the battle sites and stick with the beer.
The Farmers Brauhaus lodged us in their quaint Old School Guest House, just three km. from the brewpub. The following morning Theophilus Madela gave us a grand tour of the place. A Zulu, he started as a security guard at the brewery, but quickly learned to brew by helping out during busy seasons. Today he is the master brewer and holds a certificate from a Bavarian brewing institute. He was born a few kilometers from the brewery.
Though the Farmers Brauhaus has the largest brewing capacity of any of the microbreweries we visited, the entire volume is consumed on premise, save for a few odd bottles of takeaway. He has two assistants but they only help with bottling and cleaning, as he claims: “It is better to have only one person responsible for the brewing because then you know who makes the mistakes.”
He brews as many as six beer styles and had four of them on draft when we visited, including a citrusy, well-rounded lager, a Schwartz, a Marzen and a Bock. Theo is modest but is clearly fond of his beers, explaining that because they are natural and brewed according to the reinheitsgebot “You can drink and mix up all our beers and you won’t wake up with a headache.” He warned not to mix your beer drinking with a Castle (SABMillers leading African-market light pilsner) though because its preservatives will cause a hangover. He said he likes his own house lager best because “It doesn’t knock you on the head.”
It was in the Brauhaus dining room that Seung discovered eisbein. This German specialty is a shank of pork, boiled in beer and then fried. The resulting tender morsels fall right off the bone (and right into her smiling mouth).
It’s Pink, But It’s a Manly Beer
In nearby Dundee, we spent the afternoon at a United National Breweries plant with Andre Vanromburgh, a veteran of South Africa’s sorghum beer industry. A traditional Zulu brew, sorghum beer is brewed and marketed on an industrial scale in modern South Africa, and made mostly from corn adjunct. The result is a pinkish, sour and slightly sweet beverage consumed primarily by the older generation of black South African men.
(photo caption: So-called ‘Zulu beer’ is served in milk cartons, plastic jugs, and barrels, but is always drunk fresh while it is still fermenting.)
Somewhat surprisingly, Andre didn’t mind sharing with us the fact that all the beer they make follows one recipe, yet they market it under a variety of different labels. He said customers often insist there are differences among them. We inquired if different packaging targeted male and female drinkers separately, but he explained that their beer was sold almost exclusively to men.
It is brought to market absolutely fresh and still-fermenting and must be consumed within a few days. It comes in cartons and various different-sized plastic containers. Holes are punched in the lids to prevent the package from bursting, and customers look for foam on the lid as a sign of the products’ freshness.
Though this is a traditional beer of the region, the maize and sorghum used may originate from as far away as the U.S. Surprisingly, the biggest competition for the sorghum beer market is actually global beer giant SABMiller’s line of light lagers which, ironically, are made almost exclusively from ingredients grown in South Africa. In a further paradox, the sorghum beer market does best when the economy is doing worst because, during good times, many drinkers spring for the more expensive clear beer (i.e. Castle Lager). Sorghum beer is struggling to maintain its own in prosperous modern South Africa, but the Dundee brewery pays close attention to quality control and consistency, and is computerizing and investing in renovations.
(photo caption: After a hard day of stick fighting, Zulu warriors must enjoy sitting down to a soothing pot of beer.)
Selling sorghum beer against the changing tastes and increased buying power of South Africans is not Andre’s only worry. He also complains of young people’s unwillingness to work hard. He says everyone wants a Mercedes and a ‘suit-job’ straight out of school these days. His own farm-boy background taught him the value of getting one’s hands dirty. He started in the sorghum beer industry as a bartender. Today he knows enough about production, maintenance and distribution that he is an independent consultant to the industry. With a daily volume of 60,000 liters at this one plant, sorghum beer doesn’t look set to disappear overnight. But a marketing makeover may be required if this traditional-modern hybrid brew is to experience growth.
Sorghum beer, and its history, make two more appearances on the Great Zulu Beer Trek, but next we are off to more German fermentations.
Siggie Poured the Beer
The Wartburg Brauhaus is a small backroom in the basement of the Wartburg Hof, a sprawling resort estate in a town of the same name. Siggie Schadle, a Bavarian immigrant, claims to have “The best beer. The best hotel. The best food.” His helles is excellent, bubble-gummy with a nose of banana, reminiscent more of a weizen than helles, but so delicious I didn’t argue. The room where we stayed was, in fact, the nicest one of our whole trip. And yes, the food was also superb, again perhaps the finest we had. I was converted by their snails, something I never thought I’d eat.
Just weeks ago Siggie upgraded his manual grain mill by installing the motor from an old washing machine. Everything else is still done by hand. Siggie’s bar patrons ask for a light or a dark beer, meaning either his helles or marzen. Most customers seemed stuck on light industrial lagers though. The bar also houses what Siggie believes to be South Africa’s largest beer can collection.
The grounds also include a golf course, and an exotic bird cage. A male peacock strutted around the pool fanning his feathers in desperate attempts to attract his female counterpart.
The Brewery with No Beer
Onward to what was to be the most unusual and most enjoyable of our destinations. The Zululand Brewery is a disused poolside shack at the George Hotel and Backpackers Hostel in Eshowe, the heart of thriving Zululand. The brewery, unfortunately, is not thriving. Currently they produce no beer.
(photo caption: ‘I buried the beer there.’ Graham treats his compost worms to only the best spent brewing grains (and the occassional bad batch of beer).)
Upon discovering this, I was deeply disappointed. Eshowe was far out of the way, and I arrived very thirsty. What’s more, they had given our hotel room to a movie crew making a film called ‘Ghandi, My Father.’ Sounds like an interesting flick (Ghandi first honed his civil disobedience skills here in South Africa by protesting apartheid). However, as interesting as that may be, for us it meant: No beer. No room.
They put us up in a nearby cottage, which we later learned was part of the Chennells estate. The Chennells own the hotel/brewery and run Zululand Eco-Adventures. We were informed by the barefooted Dutch staffer who assisted us to our room that we were better off in the cottage anyway. “It is far more luxurious than the hotel,” Erika said. That may well be, since we never saw the inside of the hotel rooms. Our cottage, however, did have a fancy alarm system sounding off and it took several hours to get someone to turn it off.
But hard work makes the beer taste better as they say, and my first impression of Eshowe was not my last. Graham Chennells proved to be quite an intriguing guy. He showed us the brewery the next morning, and confided that the “beer [when it is available] is just something to get people to come and see Zulu culture.” He started on the brewery nearly four years ago, and has poured time and money into it ever since. Occassionally, beer comes out the other side. But recently his wort chiller was causing infections, so he finally scrapped it and had just gotten a new one the day we arrived.
Despite his troublesome brew house, and claims about beer being a mere tool for tourism, Graham is actually quite dedicated to the cause of South African microbrewing. So much so that he formed an association of microbrewers that meets to discuss ways to promote the craft. Graham seems to find all sorts of ways to keep busy. His active Rotary Club has helped fund more than 2,500 classrooms that serve some 130,000 children, and he was once mayor of Eshowe.
He got into the tourism business in earnest when a debilitating blow forced him to sell off his once-successful oil-related enterprises. He managed to hold onto the hotel though and has since taken to his serious minded mission of promoting Zulu culture and tourism. Profit from the hotel complex and eco-cultural tours are reinvested in Zulu community projects, including an AIDS orphanage, skills development centers, and internet access for schools.
Drinking the Backbone of a Puppy
(photo caption: Zulu sorghum homebrew is drunk from clay pots like the one this man enjoys during a charismatic healing ceremony.)
His ‘beer-as-lure-for-Zulu-tourism’ plan worked on us. We arranged a visit to Thothotho, a Zulu home brewery. There we spoke with Mrs. Kumalo about how she makes sorghum beer, called m!ombote in Zulu (the exclamation point represents a clucking sound). Victor Mdluli, our Zulu guide, told us of other drinks, like isi!atha, which means ‘the backbone of a puppy.’ This slang term refers to a home-distilled spirit that was illegal during apartheid. Using the slang phrase helped hide the illicit activities from prying government officials. He also told us of a beer made from brown bread, pineapples and brown sugar. And it was from him that I learned that the word Zulu means ‘from heaven.’
It turns out Victor is an anomaly. Though he is a tour guide and a thoroughly modern guy, he also knows how to brew Zulu beer. Traditionally only women brewed this but since he has no sisters he learned by helping his mother to brew. He told us that it is customary for women to alternate turns brewing on weekends for friends and family. Many men work faraway in mines & other industry, so it is also common for their occasional home visits to be celebrated with a batch of Zulu beer. Some Zulu brewsters also practice the trade to earn income.
(photo caption: Zulu girls carry pots of beer to a wedding ceremony.)
Beer pervades Zulu culture. Weddings, coming of age ceremonies, and even some religious services include beer drinking. Our next stop after the brewery was to visit a faith healing ceremony. Several dozen people gathered in a large clay and thatch hut to seek solutions to their problems from Eunice Khonzaphi Ndwondwe, a faith healer of some renown. The ceremony included a couple hours of singing and some dancing, but the reason people come is to speak with the healer personally and be cured or helped. This is where the beer and vodka come in. Zulu beer and Castle lager were both passed around the crowd, as well as a couple bottles of Smirnoff. A few attendees played noisemakers that were circles of wire strung with beer caps.
Back at the ranch we headed for the bar, where they had just received kegs from Nottingham Road, another micro brewery that was on our itinerary in a couple days. When I return to Eshowe sometime in the future, and I sincerely hope to, I look forward to tasting some of Graham’s own beers.
Post script: I did return to Eshowe and spent three months at the Zululand Brewery in the spring of 2005 helping Graham get his brewhouse in order. I am happy to say I left them with beer coming out of the taps. They have since hosted South Africa’s first ever national beer festival. One of Graham son’s has since gotten a brewing degree and is now in charge of the brewhouse. And they have renovated the entire hotel and backpackers lodge. You really should visit.
A Good Firkin Lager
We made an early start the next morning in order to visit two breweries in the coastal city of Durban.
The Firkin Hophouse is a brewpub smack in the middle of the rooftop parking lot of Durban’s largest shopping mall. It doesn’t sound very scenic but the whole complex sits on the crest of a hill overlooking the city, so the view is actually quite nice if you like cityscapes and don’t mind cars.
(photo caption: South Africa’s best firkin brewers.)
Here we met South Africa’s youngest and most enthusiastic microbrewer, Colin Ntshangase Phonono. He finished a degree in food technology at the Durban Inst. of Technology and just three months ago, at the ripe age of 22, became brewmaster here. He seemed thrilled by this and explained that he was setting his sights on becoming South Africa’s most famous brewer. And why not? He is positioned to be upwardly mobile. Though he works physically at the Hophouse, Colin is actually employed by Mitchells, a successful Capetown based brewery that is expanding around the country.
Both the Hophouse menu and Mitchells beers seemed to be aimed at a conventional beer crowd. The atmosphere is pubby and comfortable if somewhat lacking in originality. The six-beer lineup included ales and lagers, but only the lager and an English bitter were available, due to Colin’s recent arrival on the scene. Each was pleasant and quaffable, as well as unfiltered and unpasteurized. I liked the sample of lager Colin poured straight from the storage vessel, with no forced carbonation and served at a cool, but not cold, temperature. The Bosuns Bitter approaches a pale mild, with a 3.6% ABV, low hop profile and slight malty sweetness. Although served far too cold on draft, it did wash down our typical pub grub fish and chips nicely.
The World’s Third Largest Brewing Company
SABMiller is a global beer behemoth, and controls 98% of the South African beer market. Not much can be said to defend their flavorless beers or monopolist practices, but the tour of their Durban factory was stunning in its magnitude. Also in their favor is the fact that Finance Week named them South Africa’s Best Company to Work for. Oh, and they serve bottomless samples after the tour.
(photo caption: At least SABMiller beer bottles are good for something. These ones get metled down and blown into fine glass products (including beer glasses) at the Ngwenya Glass Village outside Johannesburg.)
SAB offers a wide variety of flavorized, colorized, alcoholic sugar water products. They also make some beer. In fact, Miller Lite is the ninth largest selling beer in world. SAB has seven plants in South Africa. The Durban facility has one hundred and sixty-eight 300,000 liter fermentation vessels. At a rate of five cans of beer a day, it would take one person 658 years to drink the amount of beer in just on of these containers. Each vessel produces 12 tons of spent yeast per batch. Of the 98% of the S.A. market controlled by SABMiller, 84% of that is sold in 500 ml. bottles appropriately called ‘dumpies.’ On the bright side, at least they are returnable.
Photography was not allowed inside the factory. No doubt they fear the public may learn what’s really in their beers.
A Pint of Toad at the Road
SAB’s industrial uniformity couldn’t have been counteracted by anything better than a stop at the Rawdon estate, home of the Nottingham Road Brewery. The place is, in a word, idyllic. The resort is snuggled in the gently rolling hills not too far from Pietermaritzburg. It’s thatch-roofed chalets are an architectural merger of Swiss and Zulu styles, producing an effect one might call ‘country aristocratic.’
Prices for food and lodging were higher than elsewhere, but not outrageous. The hotel houses a very cozy wood-paneled bar with interesting relics and artwork adorning the walls, including strings of fancy brass horse bridle fasteners just like so many English country pubs. The grounds sprawled across untold acreage and included trails to numerous fishing ponds. We had a beer under an oak tree and watched the birds, ducks, fish and frogs.
Speaking of frogs, their Tiddly Toad light lager was marvelous, and perfect for a session beer at 3% ABV. The Pye-eyed Possum Pilsner solidified my opinion that South African microbreweries have a strength in the lager-pilsner department. Contrary to the U.S., where ales normally stand out, South Africa would seem to be influenced by its still vibrant German immigrant population and leads with its lagers, even within the craft brewing scene.
As a further note on toads, I read in the newspaper just a few days later that one third of the world’s frogs, toads, salamanders and other amphibians are threatened with extinction. According to Conservation International president Russell Mittermeier, “Amphibians are one of natures best indicators of overall environmental health. Their catastrophic decline serves as a warning that we are in a period of significant environmental degradation.” All the more reason to support small, local and sustainable cottage industries like microbreweries.
In an ironic twist, Nottingham’s previous brewer was a former master brewer for SABMiller. But his skills have been passed along to a one-time cleaner at the brewery named Armstrong Ngwane. Like all of our brewer-hosts so far, Armstrong was generous with his time and glad to show us around. He brews with a blend of South African and English crystal malts. His hops are South Africa’s Southern Brewer for the Whistling Weasel Pale Ale and Pickled Pig Porter, and Saaz for the lagers. The Porter recipe also calls for some wheat as a head stabalizer. I was happily surprised to find that he was adamant about his beers being served at cellar temperature. The beer sampler tray at lunch proved him as good as his word. The brewery gift shop sells beer bread, porter ice cream, beer cheese, a variety of beer accessories, as well as beer to go.
Just down the road we stopped at The Bier Fassle for dinner and a couple pints of Nottinghams. It seems we just missed their Octoberfest celebration, but happy hour was on so we indulged in a sampler of home-made traditional style German sausages and more of Armstrong’s ales.
On this, our last night of the tour, we opted for a B & B just a bit further down the road. At breakfast we chatted with the proprietor. With uncanny coincidence, Pierre (not Bierre as I had misheard on the phone) had a previous career in the commercial sorghum brewing industry. It was a most wonderful accommodation, full English breakfast, and truly fascinatingly decorated house. If you ever find yourself seeking shelter in Ladysmith, I do recommend you look up the Egerton Manor.