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Come on baby, let’s go to the hops

© Cape Times Friday 27th July 2012
Anyone who’s involved in any way with the wine trade, knows the importance of beer. Winemakers generally drink it by the gallon-load during harvest (“It takes a lot of beer to make a good wine”) and after any tasting event you’ll find the bar full of thirsty wine folk waiting to whet their whistles with a pint of the good stuff. South Africa is seeing a huge upsurge in interest in beer, particularly at the top end of the market with craft beer, as last weekend’s Hop n Vine Festival at Groot Constantia can attest.

According to beer writer, Lucy Corne, the growth of interest in handcrafted beers mirrors a trend seen in America in the 80’s when micro-breweries sprang up all over the country, but mainly – and interestingly enough – in the winemaking regions on the West Coast. Her book, a guide to small artisan breweries in South Africa, will be out next year and will include tasting notes and descriptions on thirty-seven breweries around the country. But the interesting part is that there are a further eighteen in the pipeline, merely waiting for licencing approval and, according to Lucy, this is just the start of an explosion which she expects to take place over the next few years as palates become more educated in the flavours and textures a truly handmade beer can produce.

One winemaker who hasn’t waited for the explosion to happen is JC Steyn who recently left Stellenbosch winery, Dornier, in search of a new challenge. Joining microbrewery, Devil’s Peak (www.devilspeakbrewing.co.za), a mere four months ago, he’s been on a fast-track of learning the differences – and similarities – between making beer and wine. “The production side is actually quite similar and working with yeasts is obviously very familiar for me” he says. He takes his inspiration from one of the partners in Devil’s Peak, Greg who is a brewer from Albuquerque and who taught JC the finer points of the brewer’s art. Because of his influence, at the moment most of the beers in the Devil’s Peak range are American-style, but JC is very excited about his new Saison beer, a Belgian-style brew. It’s aged in barrels and injected with something which is normally anathema for winemakers – brettanomyces or ‘brett’ to give the beer an extra tang. “It’s got flavours like a Chardonnay” he says, drawing off another half pint to drink as he talks “Light in hops, very aromatic and spicy!”

And therein lies one of the attractions of the beer world – its informality and accessibility as opposed to the stuffiness and pretentiousness of wine. As JC says “No-one ever gave me a high five when I was giving a winetasting!” and almost every stand-holder was cheerfully keeping pace, drink for drink, with the interested punters as they went around tasting and chatting. At the moment, the link between beer and wine is holding good with the majority of the craft brewers situated in the Western Cape – in fact, Lucy expects to see a Craft Beer Route opening in Stellenbosch/Somerset West before too long! And beer and food pairing is also taking off with Sofia’s at Morgenster and Majeka House in Stellenbosch (to name but two) regularly matching fine ales and food on their menus. Anything wine can do, beer can do too it seems.

In the meantime, for winelovers wanting to try the next big thing, visit Banana Jam Café in Kenilworth which organised the festival last weekend and which boasts sixteen craft beers on tap. Or try the newly-launched League of Beers (www.leagueofbeers.com) who will deliver mixed cases of craft beer directly to your door. There are plenty of different ones out there for you to try and more are coming on-stream all the time. Treat your craft beer as you would a wine – look at it, sniff it and then swirl it round your mouth to get every nuance of flavour. The only difference to winetasting is that beer-tasters don’t spit (apparently you pick up even more flavours as the beer heads off down your throat) – it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

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