Although some promises of 1994 have yet to be honoured, at least we have the freedom to drink good local beer in our lifetime.
Starting in the 1980s in sleepy Knysna, Mitchell’s brewing began the assault on South African Breweries, the country’s beer behemoth. It was not their intention to see Charles Glass face the guillotine, and Mitchell’s and their craft brewer kin were more Luddites than Jacobins. Dedicated to producing less processed, fresher, more flavourful brews, they set out to capture a niche market of discerning drinking loyalists.
For almost two decades the craft brewers soldiered on. It was only in 2010 that the fuse they lit led to a craft-brewing explosion. It hasn’t challenged the massive dominance of SAB, but has managed to captivate an ever-growing subset of drinkers.
Most of those new brewers are following Mitchell’s proven marketing strategy: small-scale local production aimed at a relatively well-off, largely pale-faced following.
But inside the (partial) transformation of South Africa’s beer industry, another uniquely South African transformation is unfolding. Leading the way are two remarkably different brewers with an intertwined past.
Both part owners of their respective breweries, Apiwe Nxusani and Ndumiso Madlala are out to change the flavour and colour of the craft brew scene. Recognising the inherent limits of brewing for an affluent minority, these two are busy crafting beers with more mass appeal.
And with these strategies they hope that the colour of money will accompany the rich golds and reds being served up frosty in a pint glass.
Having served their time working for SAB Miller in various roles, these two have the brewing experience, technical skills and training to coax almost any flavour from the yeast, malt, hops and water that go into their beer. (Graduate science degrees and international brewing and distilling diplomas? Who knew there were such things?)
A self-professed beer nerd, Nxusani is not much of a drinker but has been captivated by the brewing process since she visited an open day at the University of Johannesburg where she learnt that a career could be made of brewing and distilling.
“I’m like a chef; they don’t eat a lot,” she says. “They just eat to appreciate the tastes they’ve created.”
Madlala also came of age at SAB Miller, climbing the ranks alongside Nxusani before branching out in 2011 to start his own operation. When investors failed to materialise, he headed back to overseeing SAB breweries across Africa and learnt even more about brewing and branding.
A great beer lover – our outdoor interview was accompanied by delicious winter sunshine and a pulled pint in front of the Orlando brewery – Madlala saw the opportunity to reach an untapped African market ready to step out on SAB.
Ndumiso Madlala with vats of his Soweto Gold. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)
They labour at opposite ends of the city both geographically and socially – Nxusani deep in middle-class suburban Kyalami, Madlala in the heart of Soweto – but the two have a similar reading on how to enchant beer drinkers whose thirsts will feed their bottom lines.
For Nxusani this means creating a ladder to more complicated, tastier beers. With her Brewhogs pilsner and red lager she’s building “a bridge to people who are used to drinking lagers. What we make is drinkable; it’s more like what they know. We want to play around in the lager field, but it will be lager with a twist.”
A taste fundi, she experiments at home with more outlandish inventions but realises that South African tastes will take time to follow the yellow brick road.
Madlala’s approach is equally calculated but he hopes to bypass Oz and get straight to El Dorado. Soweto Gold is not aimed at beer connoisseurs, nor is it intended to take its drinkers on a gustatory journey. Instead, he has created a full-flavoured beer to capture the lucrative black market.
“If you look at the recipe, it has similar properties to Carling Black Label,” he says. “It’s slightly sweet, lowly hopped.”
He adds special malts and a proprietary yeast blend to up the flavour profile, but is not too bothered if drinkers don’t savour the difference.
“What we’re selling is also an aspirational product. We are adding something for them at the top end. There are taverns here in Soweto that outsell those in Sandton in single malts and exclusive products. We want to tap that market.”
And tap it he has. With his Orlando brewery only set to open in late July (he currently crafts in Nottingham Road Brewery’s KwaZulu-Natal facility), he is already outselling SAB products in select pubs around town.
With a planned onsite canning facility and new varieties coming up, he is riding a brand wave likely to lift him and his investors to prosperity.
Look out for an Orlando Pirates Football Club-inspired Orlando Stout in black and white and a clear sorghum, maize and malt beer sure to be a hit with Madlala’s KwaZulu-Natal homeboys.
As with any South African industry, race matters.
Nxusani is proud of what she has accomplished and the role she can play in transforming the business: not only wresting total domination from SAB, but also adding diversity to the craft brew scene. There is evident pleasure in startling people out of their comfort zones.
“We serve my beer in restaurants and at festivals and people are often shocked when they find out I made it. Obviously first because I’m a woman, then because I’m black.”
Madlala does nothing to disguise his background, instead making it foundational to the brand. “I’m the face of this company. I’m critical to where we are going. When I give the beer to my friends in KwaZulu-Natal they love it,” he says. “One thing I can tell you about people there, they enjoy anything from Johannesburg. When they see that this is done by one of their own, I know it’s going to sell very well.”
But this is beer, after all, so although race will always be an issue, people would prefer to bicker over malt or hop profiles or football prowess.
Soweto Gold may be mining the black market, but almost everyone living in South Africa – and wealthy foreign tourists keen for a taste of the fabled township – can sip proudly from their trademark golden cans.
White Braamfontein hipsters are already savouring the stuff. If you can crack that uber-cool crowd, who knows who is next?
Nxusani’s hopes are, like her, somewhat more muted: “There are a few home brewers who are black. Sometimes they call to ask me for advice. Hopefully with time there will be more as I’m often the only black person in the room.
“Still, I’ve never felt I don’t belong. When they ask, I tell them – and honestly this is how I feel – that we are like one big family; we’re all there for the love of beer.”
Cheers to that.
Loren B Landau is a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and a beer blogger at mzansibeer.blogspot.com.