Arts and Culture

Beer and loathing in Clarens

Niren Tolsi

The Clarens Beer Festival proves that South Africa's emerging brewmasters are as varied and colourful as their audience.

The pint of no return at the ­Clarens Beer Festival this past weekend arrived at exactly 1.56pm on Saturday.

Darling Brewery’s bottle-conditioned Black Mist, heavenly roasted, with coffee and caramel tones, promised the death knell for the muzzy golden haze built up since 11am by quaffing 14 different Blonde, Pils, Indian Pale Ale and Weiss beers.

In its place: a darker, broodier fog. A mental obscurity encouraged by the drinking of a further 15 ales and punctuated only by the slowly unravelling observations of the Hard Livings Horde congregated around a table never short of beer.

“Dark and dreamy,” noted the Shoota, nodding with the leery approval of someone scouring the Schwarzwurst profiles on Sondeza.com.

The Jedi Master concurred: “Long finish there — is — in the mouth,” he murmured sagely, smacking his lips after a large gulp of this apparently seminal fluid.

Beer boeps and bigotry
Two bikers walked past. They had the look of the midlife-crisis mechanics from the heart of the South African nightmare: swastikas and old South African flags resplendent on their sleeveless denim jackets, an impotent “let’s have at you” taunt in their eyes.

Balding, their beer boeps and bigotry added to the uneasiness one feels about the lack of melanin in this white-bread idyll situated against the backdrop of the Rooiberg mountain range. It is a seemingly perfectly packaged Stepford town in the eastern Free State, set under a jutting rock outcrop locals have nicknamed “the Titanic” after the ship that was launched and sunk in 1912, the year Clarens was established.

Named after the Swiss town where Paul Kruger spent his final days in exile and Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov is buried, Clarens has a sometimes outlandishly nostalgic sensibility, from its manicured old-school quaintness to the backward-looking biffs and their equally manicured molls it appears to attract for weekend getaways.

It is also 4x4 and Harley Davidson country, full of unreconstructed townhouse-complex refugees who descend from Johannesburg’s northern suburbs to gobble up over-priced, paint-by-numbers art from the town’s numerous galleries before going home to vomit them out into their toilets in time for the next dinner party.

The bikers are, in the main, of the weekend-special variety, returning to their jobs at JSE-listed companies on ­Mondays.

Beery haze
It was, as Hunter S Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, time to “tune in, freak out, get beaten”. Time to send out a nuclear mushroom cloud and cut through the beer fog with a few lashes of “Bolivian marching powder” in the street. ­Time to blaze some “Purple Haze” under the conveniently located “Big Oak Tree Smoking Area” in the square. Or, maybe, as the Samoan-looking Lawyer advised: “Drink more beer.”

There was much to drink.

This was the second edition of the Clarens Beer Festival and it attracted 27 microbreweries from around South Africa. In total, there were about 90 different types of beer and a few ciders on offer.

According to Clarens Brewery’s Natalie Meyer, one of the driving forces behind the festival, an estimated 3 200 litres of brew were drunk on Saturday.

Aside from the Tuks Brewery, which is an educational initiative, 16 of the participating microbreweries, such as Robsons from Shongweni in KwaZulu-Natal, are commercial entities with distribution networks to retailers and bars.

Other commercial microbreweries, such as the Brauhaus am Damm in Rustenburg—which won the people’s choice award at the festival for its light, crisp Farmers’ Draught (a blonde-coloured beer similar to the Bavarian Munchner Helles)—sell their ambrosia at their own microbrewery pubs and restaurants and have yet to do distribution to other pubs or retailers.

The rest are still in various stages of setting themselves up.

Golden showers
According to the Brewers’ Association in the United States, a craft brewery produces less than two million barrels a year, whereas a microbrewery produces less than 15 000 barrels, nowhere close to South African Breweries’ mammoth production capacity of 3.1-billion litres a year.

It is a Mammonesque monopoly, translating into consumers being drenched by a golden shower of insipid lagers.

There has been a global upsurge in microbreweries in recent years and there are almost 2 000 in the US alone. According to the Guardian newspaper, consumption of US craft beers in Britain grew 150% over the past year.

South Africans, in spite of the lighter Farmers’ Draught being the most popular among the punters at the Clarens Beer Festival, appear to be switching on slowly to more characterful ales.

Andre de Beer, brewmaster at the Cockpit Brewhouse in Cullinan, who won best in show for his Mustang American Indian Pale Ale (an exceptional brown-gold ale with a fragrant nose and tasting notes ranging from fruit to toffee), said the “changing palate of South African drinkers” had lifted his spirits.

“It is an exciting time. There are more microbreweries emerging and South African drinkers are starting to realise the diversity in beer and appreciate the complex flavours of artisanal beers,” said De Beer.

The “encouraging increase in beer and food pairing evenings in local restaurants is helping spread the gospel, especially in ­making people realise that beer is comparable to wine when it comes to flavours and character”.

Home-grown
De Beer started brewing in his home in 2002, but admits to “only brewing some decent beer in 2005”. Like many of the brewmasters on show in Clarens, he is self-taught, scouring the internet for information.

Along the road to his current production level of 900 litres a week, he has blown up the odd cooler box and said his wife was “very glad when I finally moved the brewery out of the garage and kitchen and into its own premises”.

Many of the brewers on show follow the Reinheitsgebot or Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which allows for only water, barley and hops to be used in beer production.

Variety in flavour and colour come from the type of hops and barley used, their ratios and when each is introduced in the fermentation process.

Others, such as the Dog and Fig Brewery from Parys, which made a lovely Boisterous Buchu that drew out refreshing herbal, rooibos-like flavours by using buchu teabags in the fermentation process, are a bit more experimental.

Whatever the predilection of South Africa’s emerging brewmasters, their beers are becoming increasingly hard to ignore.

And the Clarens Beer Festival is on to a very good thing.


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