What started out as a coterie of beer drinkers who shared an enthusiasm for beer produced in small batches by hand, using only natural ingredients, is fast becoming an industry that could shake up South Africa’s major beer producer.
But the momentum that is propelling craft beers on to the menus of restaurants, the shelves of bottle stores and into people’s fridges has as much to do with butt-kicking brew craftsmanship as it does with solid marketing savvy.
Contract brewing – essentially commissioning a beer to be made – has proved lucrative for beer brands and brewers in the past decade and has given the local craft beer industry the impetus to expand.
Jack Black, the brand that boasts four types of beer, is a textbook example of successful contract brewing. The beers were first brewed by Boston Breweries and sold at markets before making their big break at the luxury Mount Nelson Hotel and then the Banana Jam Café, both in Cape Town.
They are now some of the most recognisable local craft beers, sharing pole position with CBC, Alliance, and Mitchell’s ranges. Greg Casey, owner of brew pub Banana Jam Café and founder of the Craft Beer Project, says the synergy between a quality beer and a good marketing strategy pulled Boston Breweries from the brink of bankruptcy.
“Boston struggled for years. In 2003 it almost closed down; they couldn’t sell beer. But they didn’t have any marketing campaign behind it. They knew how to make beer, but they couldn’t get it to the people.”
Issues of access, market education and price make up the three-headed Cerberus that perpetuates the image of craft beer as a luxury item. “You go to where it’s more rural and you won’t find your Jack Black,” says Casey.
“Castle Lite has gone up in price and craft beer has come down in price as the breweries get bigger and as there is more competition in the market. So it’s becoming more affordable for everyone.”
Fokofpolisiekar, the Afrikaans band with punk-rock roots, are the most recent “brand” to vie for a top spot in the local craft beer scene with their release of Dag Dronk, a blonde ale brewed at Sir Thomas Brewing in Stellenbosch.
It is the first of four contract craft beers that will borrow their names from Fokofpolisiekar songs and have the lyrics of each song emblazoned on the bottle.
Right off the bat, Fokofpolisiekar face a brand association challenge with their latest venture. The anti-worsmasjien (anti-cookie-cutter) image they have created over the past 11 years of their existence does not fit into the slightly haute artisan-extolling world of craft beer. They stand the risk of alienating fans by entering this sphere.
Bassist Wynand Myburgh believes in the fans’ allegiance so much that he is able to dismiss these concerns.
“We don’t see it as selling out and I do not think that it is the message with this offering. This is a fun thing,” he said. “With Fokofpolisiekar we always do what makes us happy. We started making music for ourselves. We tried to create a sound that we could relate to. It is the same with the beer.”
The band’s relationship with Sir Thomas Brewing developed from a long-standing friendship they had with Dawid Fourie, one of the brewery’s stakeholders.
Fourie, who is the founding organiser of the annual Real Alternative Music Festival, or RAMfest, that takes place in Johannesburg and Cape Town, approached the band with the idea of producing branded Fokofpolisiekar beer.
The seeds for the Fokofpolisiekar branded beers were planted several years before Fourie called on Fokofpolisiekar, though. The band members had seen Iron Maiden, a British heavy metal band, when they performed live in the Netherlands years before.
“At the performance there was Trooper beer (Iron Maiden’s branded beer) and other beer merchandise everywhere,” says Myburgh. “So when Dawid approached us to collaborate on a beer, we said yes immediately.”
Since the beer’s release date, Sir Thomas Brewing has been inundated with orders for Dag Dronk, only available from the brewery in case batches that cost R640 for a 16-beer case.
The positive response aside, Dag Dronk will still face the challenge of making their beer widely accessible, a challenge faced by most other craft beer brands in the country. The beer is only available through online orders from the Sir Thomas Brewing website.
With their latest offering, Fokofpolisiekar might not be pioneering a way of undoing the brand loyalties – Castle for cricket-lovers and Black Label for soccer followers – that have been drilled into South African beer drinkers.
But they are pioneering a possible way of tapping into a craft beer market that is largely ignored by artisan brewers.
Craft beer is brewing up a froth. Contract brewing has boosted the local industry, with rock band Fokofpolisiekar ‘branding’ their own bottles with names and lyrics of their songs.