LIKE many national institutions – such as braaivleis, rugby and cricket – beer is synonymous with just about all of South Africa’s many cultures and almost every leisure activity.
So much so, that the average South African beer drinker can be easily forgiven for downing his or her favourite beer brand without so much as a fleeting thought about where and how it is produced and exactly what goes into it.
Weekend Post was recently invited to join a very special three-day heritage tour, which by South African leisure standards can easily be considered to be the ultimate man tour.
The South African Breweries (SAB) Heritage Tour, which kicked off in George during early March, proved to be as much of an eye opener as an opener of new enthusiasm and appreciation for some of the country’s most consumed beverages.
This was due, in part, to the many astounding and interesting facts which emerged about beer, brewing and the sheer scale of one of the country’s biggest fast-moving consumer goods enterprises.
It was also due, in equal parts, to the easy-going, people-centric and friendly outlook of the many people from SAB farms, production plants and corporate management the tour group encountered.
Naturally, generous exposure to the company’s full range of beer and cider products, including its latest brand offering, Flying Fish, and amazing “extramural” excursions such as that which we experienced on the Peroni Yacht in Table Bay in Cape Town, helped keep any potential homesickness at bay.
The newly discovered art of beer pairing (with foods) and the newly gained knowledge of the unofficial cold war that has been brewing for some time between beer brewers and wine makers, also added much flavour to the tour experience.
SAB is South Africa’s largest brewer and a national business icon. More so because during the last decade it managed to outgrow the local market and engender parent company SABMiller, which is now ranks among the top volume brewers in the world.
The heritage tour started in earnest on what is considered hallowed ground by many a beer enthusiast – the SAB hops farm nestled in a stunningly picturesque valley in the Outeniqua mountain range just outside George.
Hops, which was first applied to beer by monks in Europe, is the critical ingredient which gives beer its trademark bitter taste.
It is an exceptionally difficult plant to grow and relies heavily on long daylight hours, which determines the volume of the harvest, and specific temperature ranges in order to flourish.
While the plant is classed as a creeper, it is grown vertically and in the fashion of a vine.
It was during a presentation by affable SAB Hops Farms general manager Laurie Conway on hops and its production at the company’s Rob Roy farm where some of the first surprising information about the greater beer industry was gleaned.
When a fellow beer tourist, to the group’s stunned surprise, questioned Conway on the DNA description of a particular strain of hops, the group was amazed firstly to learn that our fellow tourist was a beer writer and secondly that such a glorious occupation even existed.
The tour group was later equally stunned to discover that the hops plant’s closest relative was the cannabis or dagga plant.
“But there is absolutely no use smoking it, it does nothing,” noted Conway with a wry, knowing smile.
Stressing that although it would simply not be beer without it, Conway also went on to reveal that only a very small amount of dried hops – 40 grams – is required to make 100 litres of beer.
While SAB operates its own hops farm, it also uses hops produced by eight other private farmers in the area and collectively the farmers meet a substantial portion of SAB’s total hops requirements while also supplying the country’s increasing number of micro or craft brewers.
Caledon, where SAB operates a massive maltings plant, was the next stop on the tour. Here, SAB, in a highly intricate, technical and mostly automated process, converts thousands of tons of high-quality barley into malt. The complex process – which is considered critical to the quality and taste of beers – is ultimately aimed at converting the barley into a state where the necessary starches and sugars in the grain are conducive to producing alcohol when the yeast is added to the mix, at a later stage at the actual brewery.
This process involves grain cleaning, refinement and induced germination through a series of water and temperature treatments – all of which are strictly timed and controlled to produce wort.
The mere scale of the plant and the volume of barley, which is supported by the SAB Barley Breeding Institute and supplied by a collection of South Western Cape and Norther Cape commercial farmers, as well as a number of emerging farmers who are being supported by the company, is huge. SAB requires a whopping 271000 tonnes of barley per year to produce its products.
The next stop was the historic and awe-inducing Newlands Brewery in Cape Town. The brewery, which comprises state-of-the-art machinery and processes, is based on the site of one of the first breweries in South Africa.
Testament to the historical value of the site are archeological digs undertaken there in the past and present to unearth original kilns and other early brewing equipment and heritage artefacts.
The bottling section of the plant, which interestingly relies heavily on returnable bottles and accurate market and demand forecast, is one of the more visually stimulating areas of the huge factory, which sources all its water from a natural spring in the area.
It was also surprising to find that the brewery is an integral part of the Newlands community and participates in many aspects of its social, environmental and business life.
Finally, filled to the brim with new beer knowledge and a healthy new respect for this age-old beverage, the heritage tour, like all great things unfortunately came to an end. – Shaun Gillham