Gone are the days when the only beer available came from a single manufacturer. Dozens of independent breweries are springing up around the country. Alex does some sampling.
It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when we had no cell phones and no internet. We had to endure black, scratchy, vinyl-based audio and, worse, shoddy VHS imagery. We had but a single Rugby World Cup in the nation’s trophy cabinet and about the only beer available was produced by SA Breweries
The kids of today just don’t believe it when you tell them how hard it was in Africa in the nineties.
But there was hope for the revolution. In those dark days our family still lived on the wrong side of the pretty mountains. Johannesburg was a Machiavellian hell of Castle and Black Label. But down in the colonies, the dissidents took up the challenge. Mitchell’s Brewery had been in Knysna for years, and they were persuaded to share some of their finest with the rest of us – in two-litre plastic bottles, I might add, just so we northerners understood their feelings about us.
There was Helderberg Brauery in the Western Cape, but sadly, this esteemed establishment has closed down. (However, in an ironic twist of fate, the premises are now the school at which my daughter will complete her matric. Education at a brewery makes me very happy.)
Today there are dozens of independent breweries in SA, and they are especially thick on the ground in the Western Cape. The beer route is now as big a drawcard as the wine route.
Our first port of call is Triggerfish, and it’s only 200m from my workshops in Paardevlei – the old AECI explosives site in Somerset West. It’s well worth a visit for anyone touring the Winelands.
There are several Herbert Baker houses in the complex, built in the 1900s, as well as many other historic industrial buildings. Flagstone Wines occupies the old power station, and you can also visit the Cheetah Outreach Project in the old clubhouse.
Triggerfish is contained in the old sawdusting building – a beautiful Victorian industrial building set paradoxically in a large open park. You can hear the breakers 100m away on the other side of the dunes, but the beach is still off limits to us mere mortals. This must surely be one of the most unspoilt beaches on the False Bay coastline. I can only hope that it stays that way for years to come.
Triggerfish is unusual in that it has 18 different beers on offer, and brewmaster Eric van Heerden always has something special gurgling away in the back room.
The Tap Room is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 12h00 to 19h00, and on Fridays from 12h00 to 21h00. The regular beers are on tap from R20 to R30 each, and there is a selection that are bottled for take away.
It’s a huge range, and a great introduction to the different styles of beer. Tasting is recommended. The range includes American Pale Ale, Indian Pale Ale, English Bitter, Brown Ale, Hybrid Pilsner, Sweet Stout, Oatmeal Stout, Alt Beer, Weiss Bier, Barley Wine, Russian Imperial Stout – and a few more. My personal favourite is Titan – a hoppy Imperial Indian Pale Ale and, at 8.8% by volume, it’s available only in 340ml servings…
But today we are here for the latest limited edition beer, Crazy Diamond. In fact, it’s a collaboration between Eric and Andre de Beer from Cockpits Brewhouse in Cullinan. This is the “southern barrel”. Andre was due to release his “northern barrel” at about the same time.
The southern barrel is presented in a 750ml corked and wired bottle in a wooden box, and the batch yielded only 200 bottles at R250/bottle – more than I like to spend on good wines, never mind beer.
Even though the Crazy Diamond, at 13.2% by volume, has similar alcohol content to wine, it’s an awful lot of money for a beer. However, this type of “hand crafted” beer is gaining in popularity.
Crazy Diamond is, at heart, a Belgian dark strong ale, behind which there is an interesting story. Many years ago, before the Dutch and English began fighting over the Cape, the politicians in Europe were persecuting beer drinkers. The Belgian beers were taxed on malt content, so, being good brewers, they worked out that keeping the malt content down and adding a heap of sugar to increase the alcohol content would give you the best bang for your Belgian franc.
Crazy Diamond takes the idea a step further. It is fermented four times – firstly, as normal with grain, malt and hops. Then, when fermentation slows down, “the yeast gets another meal”, as Eric puts it (ie, sugar is added). There is a second serving of sugar once the first lot has settled, and to finish off it gets a final “meal” of minced raisins. That all takes four weeks and raises the alcohol level considerably. This is necessary to prevent the fruit from spoiling. The ale is then conditioned for a further six months before being bottled.
If you consider that commercial beer is brewed for only seven days before bottling, it becomes clear why proper beer tastes a whole lot better!
I had my doubts about the raisins, but I’m happy to report that once the yeast has finished digesting them, raisins are in fact delicious.
To describe this ale… It’s the colour of dark caramelised sugar with a small creamy head, not heavily carbonised. There’s a distinct sweet aroma, almost like maple syrup. It predictably tastes slightly sweet. The raisins are there, but certainly not an overpowering flavour. The caramel and dark bitter chocolate flavours are more predominant. Eric certainly didn’t skimp on the malt like the Belgians did! The flavour stays in the mouth. It’s a slightly “thick” and “sticky” beer which means the flavours linger, the caramel slowly fading away until there is only the taste of that very dark, unsweetened chocolate.
So, what do you eat with Crazy Diamond beer? It’s definitely not something to waste on bangers and mash. The big problem with Triggerfish (and many of the craft beer places) is that they serve grown-up beer but the food is still pub orientated and a bit ordinary.
To be very fair, on the average Friday afternoon Triggerfish is full of trendy varsity students drinking far better beer than I could lay my hands on as a student. But some things are eternal. Students drink a lot of beer, and they need some good, solid, starchy food.
The bratwurst is locally made by a real Bavarian on a fresh, yeasty bun with sauerkraut and proper mustard. It costs R25 and is far superior to the popular fast food type meals – but still ordinary.
Crazy Diamond needs something special, so … we plotted. Now, you do have to be careful about plotting while savouring a 13.2% alcohol content beer. First of all, beer drinkers swallow. We don’t do “spitters”. But a couple of glasses of Crazy Diamond in half-an-hour leaves you a little wobbly.
Fortunately I’d had the foresight to bring the lovely Yogagirl along to do the driving. Please bear this in mind when you go drinking craft beers. They often have high alcohol content and you can easily find yourself suffering the consequences. Drinking and driving is not smart. So have a nominated driver, or take a taxi. (Lecture over!)
Anyway, we did manage to decide on the perfect meal in the end – a mild and very aromatic lamb curry with rotis, poppadoms, atchars and the usual sambals, but no other starches. I made up the curry the following day and we tested it for suitability with the beer, and I had to be driven home again!
Right! I’m off to do some more research. Life is hell in the colonies I tell you!
How to get to Triggerfish:
Take N2 to Somerset West, and the R44 offramp. Turn right, go past Somerset Mall on your left. Turn right into De Beers Drive and go past the boom. Carry on straight, past the Cheetah Outreach Project, over a stop street until you run out of road. See also the websites, www.triggerfishbrewing.co.za and www.ratebeer.com.