Craft beer in South Africa - me with beer at airport

Craft Beer in South Africa: A Beer Lover’s Guide

You know I love Africa. And you know I love beer.

And you probably can guess that I jump at the opportunity to combine the two – and South Africa is an ideal destination to do so.

South African craft beer - A red ale from Montagu Brewery

The craft beer scene in South Africa has exploded in recent years. Driven by a thirst for full-flavoured, locally-produced beer, small-scale artisanal breweries are popping up across the country to meet demand.

Craft beer encapsulates a return to traditional brewing methods and ingredients while experimenting with new styles and flavours.

For beer lovers like me, South Africa offers an exciting array of craft brews to sample. Read on for an in-depth look at the origins, leading breweries, popular styles, and best places to experience the country’s thriving craft beer culture.

Key Takeaways – Craft Beer in South Africa

Topic Key Points
History – Brewing began in 17th century with European settlers & indigenous tribes
– SAB dominated mass beer production until microbreweries emerged in 1990s
– Mitchell’s pioneering microbrewery opened in 1983 in Knysna
Beer Styles – Pale ales, IPAs, wheat beers very popular
– Also porters, stouts, sours gaining popularity
– Traditional lagers and pilsners still staples
– Constant experimentation with new styles
Breweries – Devil’s Peak, Cape Brewing lead the way
– Mitchell’s first microbrewery in 1983
– 200+ microbreweries across South Africa
– New startups constantly joining the industry
Beer Bars – Banana Jam Cafe, Sugarbird Brewhouse top spots
– Brewery taprooms offer fresh beer straight from the source
– Bars focused on quality food & beer pairing growing
Beer Culture – Brewery tours a key experience
– Beer festivals like We Love Beer gaining popularity
– Specialty beer routes and trails developed
– Short beer education courses available
Challenges – High excise taxes imposed by government
– Market dominance of SAB mega-brands
– Restrictive distribution for small breweries
– Ingredient access and cost issues
Trends – Increased domestic tourism to breweries
– More restaurants pairing beer with meals
– Unique local ingredients used in beers
– Shift towards canning craft beer
– Development of formal craft beer trails

A Brief History of Craft Beer in South Africa

Beer brewing in South Africa stretches back centuries, with the first brews believed to be made by early European settlers in the Cape Colony during the 17th century. British, German and Dutch colonists all contributed brewing know-how and traditions during this early colonial period.

At the same time, indigenous tribes including the Xhosa and Zulu were developing their own unique sorghum and maize-based beers, which shows the diversity of traditional brewing practices across different cultures in the region.

In the late 19th century, Castle Brewery opened in Johannesburg, eventually becoming South African Breweries (SAB). By the 1950s, SAB had grown to dominate commercial beer production in the country, focusing mainly on economical lager-style beers like Castle Lager and Carling Black Label that were easy to mass produce.

In response to the homogenization of beer happening under SAB’s umbrella, home brewing started to gain popularity in the 1970s and 80s among beer lovers seeking more diversity and flavour complexity.

This growing homemade craft beer movement set the stage for the rise of professional microbreweries in the 1990s, with enthusiastic amateurs turning their passion into careers by establishing the country’s first proper craft breweries. Mitchell’s Brewery became South Africa’s pioneering commercial microbrewery when it opened in 1983 in Knysna, thereby kickstarting the growth of craft beer in South Africa.

The fledgling industry saw relatively slow but steady growth over the following decades as more microbreweries gradually opened and found a niche market. In recent years, the popularity of craft beer has absolutely surged as beer drinkers continue seeking out quality ingredients, complex flavours, and innovative techniques.

As the public demand grows exponentially, South Africa now has over 200 microbreweries operating across the country, providing beer lovers with an excitingly diverse array of craft beer styles and flavours to suit all tastes.

Get ready to learn more about the South African craft beer scene…

South African craft brewers have embraced both traditional European-inspired beer styles and more experimental American-influenced varieties. Some of the most popular craft beer styles being brewed in South Africa today include:

  • Pale ales – A classic style, pale ales are refreshing, medium-bodied ales with fruity, floral hop flavours that provide a very drinkable introduction to craft beers. South African versions like Darling Brew’s Slow Beer are more balanced and dialed back compared to the often intensely hoppy American styles.
  • India Pale Ales (IPAs) – IPAs distinguish themselves with a strong hop-forward and bitter flavour profile. Leading examples include Jack Black’s Cape Pale Ale and Triggerfish’s Titan IPA. While extremely popular in modern American craft brewing, South African IPAs tend to be less aggressively hopped.
  • Wheat beers – South African craft breweries produce delicious fruity and spiced wheat beers, like Darling Brew’s popular Bone Crusher. Brewed using wheat malt, these beers offer lovely flavours like banana, bubblegum, and clove.
  • Porters – Porters are medium-bodied dark beers with chocolate, coffee, and roasted malt flavours, such as the rich, roasty Black Mist from Cape Brewing Company. While stouts are more common, quality porters are also brewed by South African microbreweries.
  • Stouts – From dry Irish-style stouts to sweeter milk and oatmeal variations, South African brewers make excellent dark, creamy stouts. Knuckle Brewing’s Maroela Milk Stout uses lactose sugar to provide a silky sweetness.
  • Sours – Tart, funky sour beers offer an exciting flavour change, with a sharp, acidic tanginess often balanced by fruit flavours. Brewers skillfully use wild yeast strains, mixed fermentation, and barrel aging to produce sought-after sour beers.

South African craft brewers also make very drinkable lagers, pilsners, saisons and honey-infused braggot ales. More limited edition seasonal brews and constantly changing small-batch beers provide additional variety for adventurous beer lovers to explore, and many brewers use South African hops and South African yeast, too.

With so much choice, it’s impossible to name the best craft beers in South Africa so try as many as you can and let me know what you think!

Top Breweries and Beer Brands

South Africa’s vibrant craft beer culture has given rise to numerous excellent breweries and beer brands across the country. Some of the leading lights in South African craft brewing include:

  • Devil’s Peak Brewing Company – Based in Cape Town, Devil’s Peak has earned national and international acclaim for their balanced craft brews like the hoppy King’s Blockhouse IPA. They are one of South Africa’s pioneering craft breweries at the forefront of the movement.
  • Cape Brewing Company – This well-established Cape Town brewery has built their reputation on brewing diverse European and American-style craft beers to the highest standard. Their tasting room allows visitors to sample special limited releases.
  • Darling Brew – Darling Brew is a leading microbrewery that offers both craft beer classics and more experimental seasonal offerings like their acclaimed Slow Beer wild ale. Their beautifully designed labels match the creativity inside the bottles.
  • Mitchell’s Brewery – Located in Knysna, Mitchell’s holds the distinction of being South Africa’s very first microbrewery, kickstarting the country’s craft beer tradition back in 1983. Their beers can now be found countrywide.
  • Clarens Brewery – Situated in the small town of Clarens, this modest brewpub crafts beers like their deliciously smooth and velvety Clarens Stout. The relaxing brewery offers tastings with scenic views.
  • Copper Lake Breweries – A family-owned craft brewery located in Gauteng, Copper Lake specialises in brewing refined European lagers and ales like their Copper Weiss wheat beer.

With new players constantly joining the scene, there are many more excellent breweries and craft beer brands to experience across South Africa.

Where to find craft beer in South Africa: Beer Bars and Brewpubs

To truly experience South Africa’s flourishing craft beer culture, beer lovers need to visit some of the country’s top beer-focused bars and brewpub restaurants. These spots offer the perfect atmosphere to sample an array of local brews. Recommended places for tasting South African craft beer include:

  • Banana Jam Cafe in Cape Town – This laidback cafe in the vibrant Woodstock neighbourhood has over 30 tap lines pouring the city’s best craft beers. Their outdoor courtyard is a favourite local hangout.
  • Beerhouse in Cape Town -Located on lively Long Street in Cape Town and in Tygervalley in Cape Town’s Northern Suburbs, Beerhouse is a local institution and its contemporary beer hall has 25 taps and a legendary ’99 Bottles’ of the best local and international beer.
  • Sugarbird Brewhouse in Plettenberg Bay – Settle in at the bohemian-inspired Sugarbird Brewhouse to try their lineup of German-style lagers and ales paired with woodfired pizzas.
  • Airport Brewing Company at Johannesburg Airport (international and domestic) – An absolute must visit and well worth arriving early at the airport for. In fact, I have actually planned my connections to Durban or Cape Town to have a few hours here before travelling onwards. Is that wrong? Excellent food, too.

Many breweries themselves have excellent taproom bars that provide the ideal laidback space to sample their beers straight from the source while mingling with fellow beer aficionados. These include taprooms at breweries like Triggerfish Brewing and Mad Giant Brewing in Johannesburg.

Experiencing South Africa’s Beer Culture


 

To gain a deeper understanding of South Africa’s blossoming craft beer culture, visitors should immerse themselves in experiences beyond simply tasting the beers by:

  • Taking a brewery tour – Most microbreweries are very welcoming to visitors and offer behind-the-scenes tours that provide fascinating insight into each brewery’s processes, equipment, and operations. They usually conclude with a tasting session too.
  • Visiting brewpub restaurants – Eateries like Sugarbird Brewhouse that brew their own beer on-site are wonderful for chatting with passionate brewmasters and sampling exclusive small-batch brews that may not be available anywhere else.
  • Attending a beer festival – As craft beer has grown more popular, South Africa has seen various local and national craft beer festivals emerge as annual events, like Cape Town’s We Love Beer Celebration. These vibrant outdoor events let you sample from dozens of breweries in one place – so time your visit for one or more of the South African beer festivals.
  • Going on a dedicated beer safari or tour – To fully embrace South Africa’s beer culture, travelers can book a custom tour focusing on visiting breweries and local beer hangouts across different towns and townships. African Beer Tours is one company providing specialised South African craft beer tours.
  • Taking a hospitality course – For a truly immersive experience, beer lovers can even take short courses at institutions like the Beer Academy of South Africa to learn about beer styles, flavors, and food pairings from brewing experts.

Challenges Facing the Industry

While South Africa’s craft beer segment is booming and full of enthusiasm, it still faces some economic and distribution challenges common to small startups in an industry dominated by large conglomerates. Some of the key hurdles the country’s craft breweries continue to face include:

  • High excise taxes – The exorbitant alcohol excise tax rate in South Africa increases operational costs substantially for craft brewers, which limits their ability to compete with beers from large companies like SAB who can benefit from economies of scale. Efforts to lobby for a reduced excise tax rate specifically for small brewers are so far making little progress.
  • Market dominance of SAB brands – Due to their huge brand awareness and distribution reach, SAB beers like Castle Lager still dominate shelves and taps at most restaurants and bottle stores. Breaking into this market presence as a small craft brewer can be extremely difficult.
  • Restrictive distribution – Unlike the big brewers, many craft breweries struggle to distribute their beers widely across different provinces. Most craft beers are confined to their immediate local area. Accessing distribution channels is both logistically and financially challenging for small operations.
  • Access to ingredients – Imported premium hops, malts, and yeasts are not always readily accessible or affordable for craft brewers in more remote areas. This can limit creativity and expansion into more diverse beer styles.

To help overcome common challenges, many South African craft breweries have banded together by forming the Craft Brewers Association of South Africa (CBASA). This allows coordinated efforts in areas like lobbying for reduced excise and easier distribution. The entrance of more black-owned microbreweries is also helping to diversify the playing field away from the legacy of SAB’s monopoly.

Several exciting developments look set to shape the future direction and growth of South Africa’s craft beer industry, including:

  • Increased domestic tourism – As more South Africans become interested in craft beer, brewery tours and ‘beercations’ visiting multiple brewpubs within the country are gaining popularity. This provides a growth area separate from exports.
  • Beer and food pairing – More restaurants and gastropubs are realising the potential for matching locally-brewed craft beers with specific dishes, promoting South African beer as a culinary complement rather than just an alcohol component.
  • Experimentation with unique ingredients – Drawing on local ingredients like rooibos, honeybush, malva nuts and African hops, innovative brewers are testing the waters with experimental beers that reflect South African terroir.
  • Growth of canned craft beers – To reach broader distribution and markets, small breweries are canning more of their beer production. Cans help craft beer become more mainstream and summer-friendly.
  • Development of craft beer trails/routes – Regional craft beer tours and trails are being formalised, linking together breweries, beer bars, shops, and festivals to promote ‘beercation’ tourism.
  • Increasing popularity of craft beer festivals – As the number of microbreweries has grown, more local food & drink festivals are celebrating craft beer, such as Cape Town’s We Love Beer event.

With the craft beer industry professionalising and innovative new players constantly entering the market, the future looks very bright for South Africa’s small-scale brewers. Most importantly, it’s a vibrant scene focused on satisfying the country’s growing ranks of passionate beer lovers.

Final thoughts: Cheers to South Africa’s Craft Beer!

In just a few decades, the craft beer segment in South Africa has transformed from a niche hobby into a diverse, experimental and fast-growing industry full of skilled entrepreneurs producing beer with genuine passion. For travellers and beer aficionados visiting South Africa, it provides the ideal opportunity to experience bold new flavours and styles while supporting genuinely local businesses.

By exploring South African craft beer styles by visiting breweries, attending festivals, going on guided tours, and stopping at brewpubs along your journey, you are sure to discover new favourite brews and a vibrant local beer community. So next time you travel in South Africa, be sure to indulge in the country’s flourishing craft beer culture and raise a glass to the pioneering independent microbrewers who are shaping the future of South African beer.

Cheers!

Andy Higgs
Andy Higgs

I know what it's like to go from being a crazy backpacker without a care in the world, via being a vaguely sensible parent to being an adventurer once more. In other words, evolving into a Grown-up Traveller.

Like everyone else, I love to travel, have visited a lot of countries and all that but my big thing is Africa.

I also own and run The Grown-up Travel Company as a travel designer creating personalised African itineraries for experienced adventurers

Articles: 1227

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