If you scan the shelves of a South African liquor store, you’ll find American pale ales and German pilsners, Belgian blonds and Mexican lagers. You’ll see beers made with New Zealand hops or English ale yeast, but you might be forgiven for wondering where the South African styles are hiding.

South Africa does not have a deep-seated beer culture. It has long been dominated by the mighty SAB and between 1983 and 2008, only a handful of hardy microbrewers survived. They looked to familiar styles for their inspiration, honouring beers from staunch brewing cultures like Germany, Belgium and the UK. Today, with around 200 breweries and brands, the market is becoming crowded and brewers are realising that they need to find ways to make their beers stand out. It’s no secret that craft beer drinkers are always on the lookout for something new and local breweries are learning that showcasing local ingredients is a way to keep their brands fresh and relevant.

Hops and fynbos

Somewhat ironically, one of the biggest cheerleaders for South African ingredients is American-born Nick Smith. After ten years working in the US craft beer industry, Nick moved to the Cape Winelands and opened Soul Barrel Brewing Co. As well as a West Coast IPA and a Belgian pale ale, Nick brews Cape Cone, an IPA utilising only South African hops. “As South African brewers we can contribute to the global art of brewing by creating beers that uniquely express our culture and agriculture,” says Nick. “South Africa is not an ideal hop growing region but these varieties have adapted to our climate – in that way they represent our “terroir”, which is exciting. What I find interesting is the deep berry, dark fruit and passionfruit flavours they offer rather than the predominant citrus of most American varieties. Additionally some varieties have a soft floral, noble type profile which we find interesting for kettle, whirlpool and even dry hop additions.”

There are plenty of local brewers using South African hops in their brews, but Nick has truly embraced his new home, turning to the native botanicals to give character to one of his beers. Live Culture is a Belgian farmhouse ale, fermented in oak barrels and infused with locally grown fynbos, a type of vegetation endemic to the Western and Eastern Capes. “A big part of the flavour of this beer is the local fynbos,” says Nick. “The biggest contributor is a plant called pelargonium citronellum, which delivers a huge lemon, citrus fruit character.” The botanical additions change depending on the season, and Nick has also used various species of sage, citrus buchu, lavender and even local wine grapes in the beer. “Additionally there is a wild harvested yeast strain we isolated from our environment,” he adds.

The Western Cape is home to one of the world’s six floral kingdoms and Nick isn’t the first to realise that borrowing from the botanical diversity of the region makes for an interesting beer menu. One of the country’s first fynbos beers was Boisterous Buchu, an English IPA from Dog and Fig Brewery near Johannesburg. The beer is infused with buchu, an extremely fragrant plant that is notoriously difficult to perfect in a beer recipe. Used in traditional medicine and sometimes as a tea, buchu in its leaf form has a minty, almost eucalyptus-like aroma, but when used in moderation in beer it lends a blackcurrant note to the brew. Of all the fynbos plants (and there are around 9000), buchu is the one that brewers have had the most success with: Winelands-based brewery Triggerfish makes a buchu blonde ale, while north of Johannesburg, Anvil Ale House produces an award-winning witbier called Bookoo, with additions of buchu and honey.

But if there’s one beer that truly marries South African ingredients with a South African beer style, it is Loxton Lager. Brewed in Johannesburg the 5% ABV pale lager is infused with a blend of buchu, kankerbos – another fynbos species – and Cape honey. Crisp but complex with a prominent aroma of blackcurrant, the beer lives up to its slogan, “Brewed for food”.

Honouring tradition

Perhaps the most famous botanical added to South African beers is rooibos, an endemic plant that is processed into tea and sought-after the world over for its antioxidant properties. In 2014, a local company even went as far as trying to patent the use of rooibos in beer, wine and cider, though that hasn’t stopped others from continuing with their versions. The tea is earthy with a hint of red berries and it’s tricky to get right in a beer. When Randy Mosher, American beer writer and fan of brewing with unusual ingredients, visited South Africa in 2016, he suggested that the tea might work best in a porter or stout, rather than the lighter ales most brewers blend it with.

Not everyone looks to the bushes when it comes to designing a quintessentially South African beer; others have turned to the trees in search of indigenous fruit. Luca Tooley of Zwakala Brewery in Limpopo, not far from the Kruger National Park, worked with Cape Town brewing company Drifter on a weissbier featuring fruit from the emblematic baobab tree. Luca followed up recently with a pale ale featuring the fruit of the moringa tree. “The fruit is usually used as a tea,” says Luca, “so we add fruit in the whirlpool to get the best flavouring out of it. It’s a very herbal flavour, almost grass-like and quite bitter.”

Meanwhile in Cape Town, Ukhamba Beerworx utilise perhaps one of the most African ingredients of all – sorghum. It’s not as flashy as baobab fruit or the pungent whiff of buchu, but sorghum has been used as an ingredient in traditional African beer for millennia. Ukhamba’s founder Lethu Tshabangu honours his mother when he uses sorghum for a portion of the grain bill in his slightly sour saison. Although Lethu grew up seeing traditional sorghum beer produced at home, it was an encounter with a beer-loving Australian tourist in Cape Town that inspired him to create a clear beer using sorghum. “We got chatting and he asked why I hadn’t brought any of my knowledge of traditional African beer into my brewery,” says Lethu. “I decided that a season beer would work the best. The natural yeast found on sorghum gives a tartness that goes perfectly with saison yeast.”

South Africa’s beer culture has blossomed over the past decade, with brewers moving from lager lookalikes to classic styles and global trends such as New England IPA, barrel-aged sours and even glitter beer. Now that the beer scene has matured, the brewers are finding their feet and soon we will hopefully see that instead of following the latest trends, South African brewers might just be setting a few.

Author: Lucy Corne

Pictures: Lucy Corne