Outside of a recent obsession with Ayinger Oktoberfest, I don’t typically go international when it comes to beer. There’s no philosophical reason for it. It’s just more accessible. It’s more familiar. Don’t go chasing waterfalls, someone once said - stick to the breweries and the craft beers that you’re used to.
This past week, though? I was put into a situation where I had no choice.
I was in South Africa. And - believe it or not - they don’t carry much in the way of Fort Collins breweries.
Though I’ll admit my time in Cape Town was spent drinking more wine than beer, I’m also a creature of habit. Wine doesn’t quench like beer. It doesn’t feel quite the same. And while no one will doubt wine’s ability to lubricate conversation and instil karaoke bravery, we can all admit that sometimes the situation just calls for a frosty cold one.
I wish I could regale you with stories of brewery tours and great craft finds, but the craft beer industry hasn’t taken off in South Africa like it has here at home. Yes: there IS a craft brew scene - I learned about this, of all places, in my copy of Sawubona Magazine, the in-flight magazine of South African Airways - but where I spent the week, near Stellenbosch in the Cape Winelands - vineyards reign supreme.
Castle Brewery and Hansa Brewery are both part of a collective called the South African Breweries (SAB). If it sounds familiar, it should - South African Breweries form the SAB of SABMiller. These beers aren’t just relegated to the BMC of South Africa - they ARE part of BMC itself.
Before this cascade of mergers, however, Castle was a 200-year-strong brewery created to provide alcohol to the Dutch settlers who had founded the Cape Town area. In the late 1800s, Castle incorporated and became Castle Breweries, which formed the original corporation of SAB - the first industrial company listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, it turns out. Hansa Brewery, which opened in 1928 in Namibia, came into the SAB fold in 1983 after it was purchased from South West Breweries Limited, eventually moving all operations into South Africa after closing their final Namibia brewery in 2005. South West Breweries - which changed its name to Namibia Breweries - now produces the Windhoek line and OH PLEASE MAKE IT STOP.
This? This. This is EASILY the most sordid and complicated world of production brewing I’ve ever seen. Which might account for the OTHER BMC characteristic of the three beers I tried: I can’t tell the difference between them. In fact, there’s a certain flavor that seems to be present in nearly all large market international beers. It’s a thin, moderately skunky taste. It tastes like “beer,” one might say.
A quick pass through ratings on Rate Beer (Castle got a 6 out of 100, Windhoek got a 7, while Hansa was unrated) and Beer Advocate (62, 74 and unrated but still below average, respectively) show exactly what I suspected - these are average quality, high production, instantly forgettable beers. Hansa was clearly the better beer to me, but all three - lagers and pilsners alike - seem to blend together into a murky mess of grain and hops.
But that’s okay. I wasn’t there for the beer, and I had little chance to venture out. All these things aside, the week was productive on an alcohol-related level. I toured the Van Ryn’s brandy distillery and now understand brandy’s allure. I gained a little more appreciation for wine - and I gained a huge appreciation for the dollar-to-rand exchange rate. (We went to one winery where the best bottle of wine was only $10 after conversion.)
Most of all, I gained a greater apprecation for the amount of choice and variety we have in the United States. I have complained in the past about not having some of my favorite breweries in South Dakota, but even a gas station beer cooler is an embarrassment of riches compared to the beer culture in Cape Town.