Author: Lucy Corne
As I write this, I should have a hangover. It is the last Monday in November and in a normal year, this past weekend would have been the Cape Town Festival of Beer (CTFOB). Founded in 2010, the three-day festival attracts breweries from across the country who come to showcase their beers to thousands of thirsty revellers.
It is at this festival, back in 2011, that one of South Africa’s most successful craft breweries first launched its beers. Devil’s Peak Beer Company had humble beginnings. In 2011 they were brewing on a 90-litre system that would not feel unfamiliar to the more enthusiastic homebrewer. At that time South Africa’s craft beer industry was very much in its infancy. There were less than 40 breweries in the country and most of them counted on a similar beer repertoire: many were producing a pale lager, or if lagering capabilities were lacking, a blonde ale to try and draw in the country’s lager drinkers. There were a few stouts, a number of weissbiers and a healthy dose of fairly tame pale ales.
Devil’s Peak launched with an amber ale, an imperial stout and a classic West Coast IPA that won best ale at that year’s CTFOB. Their stand was swamped with drinkers in search of bold flavours. Craft beer had arrived in South Africa.
Long live the King
It was the festival that gave Devil’s Peak its launch pad; that got the beer drinking public talking about this bold new brewery, but while they poured their first beer a decade ago this year, the team won’t be celebrating their official 10th anniversary until March 2022.
“It was March 23, 2012,” says Derek Szabo, one of the company’s directors. “I was in Johannesburg and I sent out Devil’s Peak’s first invoice from the hotel room just before heading to a wedding. It was for a keg of First Light Golden Ale for a bar in Cape Town whose owner had tasted the beers at CTFOB.”
Devil’s Peak quickly became a must-have for the South African craft beer fan – in particular their King’s Blockhouse IPA. After that initial festival award the IPA went on to win many more, as well as winning a cult status among South Africa’s beer nerds. “When we officially launched, we decided to do it with King’s Blockhouse as our hero beer,” says co-founder and director Russell Boltman. “It was always going to be a key differentiator as it was very different to everything else that was out there at that time.”
King’s Blockhouse has remained on Devil’s Peak’s line-up ever since the launch, although many other beers have come and gone. The brewery, named for the peak that flanks Table Mountain, became known as an industry innovator. It was the first to popularise the term “taproom” locally when the team opened their brewpub in 2013. It is such a widely used word in South Africa today that this seems implausible, but back then the term hadn’t been introduced to the local lexicon. In fact, while other breweries of course had taprooms, if someone suggested meeting at “the taproom”, you knew you were headed to Devil’s Peak.
There, winemaker-turned-brewer JC Steyn produced an ever-growing selection of beers on a copper-clad 20 hectolitre system. The core range featured a golden ale, saison and amber ale alongside The King’s Blockhouse, and while the core range thrived, experimentation is what the brewery became known for.
Kings of collaboration
The same year that the taproom opened, they released the first vintage of Vannie Hout, a 7% ABV saison that had been aged in ex-wine barrels for 14 months and inoculated with two strains of Brettanomyces – something South African beer drinkers had certainly never seen on their soil before.
Although other brewers were dabbling in wooded beers, Devil’s Peak was the first to set up a barrel ageing programme on any sort of scale. “It was something that we were all passionate about,” says JC. “Russell, Dan (Badenhorst, another of Devil’s Peak’s founders) and myself. Russell and Dan had become interested in barrel-aged beers while travelling in the US and obviously with my wine background I had spent plenty of time working with wood.”
JC’s wine experience led to a much-talked about collab with celebrated South African winery, Mullineux. Vin de Saison was made with Chenin Blanc grapes from Mullineux’s 2013 vintage and while it wasn’t the first beer-wine hybrid in South Africa, it was widely talked about and largely adored. Over the next five years Devil’s Peak would become the kings of collab brewing, working with big-name international breweries like Four Pure, Fierce, New Belgium and Mikkeller, as well as numerous local brewers.
Devil’s peak outgrew their brewpub, moving to large, warehouse-like premises in an industrial estate in 2017. This was also the year Devil’s Peak would launch a beer that would completely change their business plan, their market and some would argue, their position in the industry.
The beer was a pale lager and it would go on to become Devil’s Peak’s biggest seller by a sizable margin. Since the introduction of the lager, Devil’s Peak has been somewhat shunned by the craft community, particularly by some other brewers. “People of course say we’ve sold out,” says Derek. “There is this idea that you can’t sell lager and craft and I think that’s wrong. The lager feeds the machine that allows us to do the creative, small batch, innovative stuff that we have become known for.”
Although the limited release beers and collab brews have certainly slowed down in the past couple of years, there have still been releases in what is known as the Afrofunk range. First named for the beers coming from Devil’s Peak’s expanded barrel ageing programme, Afrofunk now encompasses anything that is not in Devil’s Peak’s core ranges, including their hugely popular Juicy Lucy, a New England IPA. Launched in 2017, it was one of South Africa’s first forays into a style that has become a global phenomenon, and Juicy Lucy has gone on to become a legendary beer that tends to sell out within days of being released.
Devil’s Peak’s other recent success story is a wildly different beer. First launched in 2017, Hero – originally called Zero to Hero – was the first locally produced non-alcoholic beer, beating even South African Breweries to market. It plodded along in popularity until 2020, when Hero suddenly began to live up to its name. “We started selling 12 times what we would sell in a usual month,” says Derek. “I would argue that is what saved us during the lockdown. I mean, we would have survived, but I think things would have looked a lot different without Hero.”
A different market
The pandemic and associated lockdowns – which in South Africa included numerous alcohol bans – have of course provided a massive challenge to the Devil’s Peak Beer Company, but it’s certainly not the first speed bump in the brewery’s 10-year journey. “The South African beer scene was going through a massive dip even before Covid,” Russell says. “Covid might even have helped, in an odd way, as it has forced brewery owners to reassess and refocus. I think craft will come back, but more from a business-focused perspective than just a passion project.”
But South Africa’s craft beer industry has certainly grown over the past decade, and Devil’s Peak’s directors are largely optimistic about the future. “A lot of people who had tried craft beer over the years got disillusioned by sub-par beer,” Derek says. “Consumers would trial it and then give up. I feel like with the recent challenges to the industry, people are upping their game and the overall quality is improving, which is great for everyone involved. The pie is definitely getting bigger, which is of course a good thing.”
Growing that pie – that is, the pie comprised of people who drink something other than their chosen mainstream lager – is a key part of Devil’s Peak’s plan. With their outside investors, their expansion, the heavy focus on lager and the move to green bottles for certain beers, it has been said that Devil’s Peak is no longer a craft brewery; that they are attempting to go up against South African Breweries, a part of AB-InBev. Russell chuckles at the prospect. SAB accounts for more than 90% of all beer sales in South Africa, and while Devil’s Peak is the largest “microbrewery” in South Africa, their volumes couldn’t begin to make any noticeable dent in SAB’s sales. That said, it is clear that with certain lines, particularly the Striped Horse Lager and Milk Stout, which come in 600ml bottles as well as the usual 330s, the goal is not to lure craft drinkers away from their chosen brand, but to entice a few SAB drinkers into trying something different.
Devil’s Peak has been accused of selling out, of losing touch with its craft roots and even of shunning the craft community, but there is another way to look at it. With their widespread distribution and foray into styles typically associated with SAB, they certainly succeed in encouraging some mainstream drinkers to try a new brand, and from there it’s not such a big leap to try a different craft lager, or stout, or eventually one of the country’s many, many IPAs.
As I write this, South Africa is reeling from yet another huge blow to its economy as travel bans related to the recently discovered Omicron variant cause chaos for tourism and hospitality. The nation sits on tenterhooks wondering if we’ll see the year out without experiencing yet another alcohol ban, and brewers are understandably nervous about their future. But despite all the hurdles, Devil’s Peak is making plans. After many months in a production manager role JC is about to get back into the brewery, his creativity and passion something craft beer drinkers have been eagerly awaiting – I, for one, am excited to see what’s coming up on the brew sheet.
The company is expanding deeper into Africa, buying Sierra Premium Beer in Kenya, one of the beer industry’s fastest growing markets. And in March of 2022, Covid restrictions permitting, the Devil’s Peak team will hold a 10th birthday party to celebrate everything they’ve achieved over the past decade. For even their toughest critics would have to admit that Devil’s Beer Company has been setting trends ever since that victorious launch at a fledgling festival 10 years ago.
Photos: Karen Smith (header image and photo of Derek Szabo, JC Steyn and Russell Boltman)