Author: Lucy Corne 

I hold my pint glass up to the light. The liquid within is orange in hue and completely opaque. But this is not the latest hazy IPA. This is a half pint of butternut soup, produced in the mash tun of a Cape Town microbrewery.

The beer scene in South Africa has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. When lockdown was introduced on March 27, it came with a law that few other countries thought it necessary or prudent to pass: the production, sale or distribution of alcohol was completely forbidden.

The six weeks since lockdown began have been worrisome for most small business owners, but as restrictions have been gently eased, many are allowed to trade in some form. Not so for the brewers. Despite numerous petitions, public outcry and constant lobbying, the alcohol ban remains in place.

Many of the breweries are scrambling to set up infrastructure for online sales and deliveries, in preparation for when the total alcohol ban is relaxed. Others though have fired up their kettles, but instead of producing wort, they’re producing vast amounts of nutritious vegetable soup.

A volunteer army

 “We have big pots,” says Andre Viljoen of Woodstock Brewery, in a straight-to-the-point explanation of why he decided to transform the brewhouse into a soup kitchen. “Over history, brewers have always provided in times of famine and disease. There are a lot of hungry people in South Africa at the moment and we have these giant vessels sitting unused.”

Woodstock’s 3000-litre brewhouse is usually used for its crisp pilsner, potent IPA and delectable hazelnut brown ale, but instead of malt and hops, the mash tun is now filled with pumpkin, butternut, potatoes and onions. “We didn’t have to make any adjustments to the brewery,” says Andre, adding that it’s a much easier process than a normal brew day. Brewer Dylan Franz doesn’t entirely agree. “Sure, there’s not much to the recipe – just get it up to a boil and let it go,” he says, but physically it is a more demanding process, with the team lugging heavy containers of fresh vegetables peeled by an army of volunteers.

Volunteers work three-hour shifts, chopping hundreds of kilos of pumpkin, potatoes and collectively crying as they peel and chop bags and bags of onions. The operation is overseen by local chefs. As in many countries, restaurants are currently closed, so chefs from neighbourhood restaurants are volunteering their time to help run the project. Every couple of days, members of the team visit a fresh produce market in the early hours to secure the next truckload of produce.

“Yesterday I worked a 21-hour day, starting with a 1a.m. visit to the market,” says Nick Bush, owner of nearby Drifter Brewing Company. “It’s quite an amazing place – it’s like the stock exchange of vegetables!” Nick and Andre work together to purchase bulk vegetables for their giant vats of soup, purchasing around 12 tons of fresh veg at a time.

Desperate times

Drifter began producing soup shortly after seeing the impact Woodstock’s initiative was having. The strict lockdown has meant that most people have been unable to work for several weeks. Unemployment pay outs have been slow to materialise and food parcels have often gone astray. NGOs and soup kitchens have been inundated with requests and even producing several thousand litres at a time, the brewers-turned-soup-chefs can’t keep up. “There is so much demand,” says Nick. “We get calls every day but we can’t help everyone so we are working with 10 established NGOs.”

So far the projects have largely relied on donations from the public, as well as some sponsorship from local businesses. “We’re making the soup as nutritious as possible while being affordable,” says Nick. “But unfortunately our donations are running out.” A 1000-litre batch costs around R6000 (€300) to produce and provides lunch for up to 3000 people, many of them children. The soup is sometimes served with pasta, or more often with a couple of slices of bread.

The initiative has quickly gained traction and there are now five breweries cooking up daily batches of soup. Long Beach Brewery caters to hungry mouths south of the city, while Stellenbosch Brewing Company serves soup to children in the Winelands region, about an hour from Cape Town. “The NGO we work with has been doing this for 22 years and they’ve told us that they have never seen such desperation in the eyes of the children,” says Stellenbosch Brewing’s co-owner Bruce Collins, who is also producing big batches of porridge when there is a demand for a hearty breakfast. 

 A long-term plan

Over in the Eastern Cape, one of the poorest provinces in South Africa, Richmond Hill Brewing Company has also started boiling soup instead of wort. When I spoke to brewer-owner Niall Cook, he was in the middle of his first batch and impatiently waiting for the soup to boil. Once he gets to grips with the recipe he’ll be “brewing” 800-litre batches to send to soup kitchens and old age homes around Port Elizabeth. “In the first 24 hours we raised enough for seven batches, which is amazing,” says Niall, although he knows that finding funding will be the biggest challenge. Although the breweries are working together on recipes and some are shopping together to gain bulk deals on pricing, each brewery has its own fundraising platform.

At every brewery, the donations are used to cover basic costs: the raw ingredients, electricity for running the brewhouse and fuel to cover deliveries. “This is not about keeping the brewery afloat,” says Niall, “It’s a way to give back. At least we can do something during this time instead of just sitting at home.” For most of the breweries though, the longer term goal is that the fundraising could also cover staffing costs. Many breweries have had to retrench their staff; some are continuing to pay them despite the business seeing no cash flow. Others are receiving unemployment benefits, but those could fizzle out before the alcohol ban is lifted.

But this isn’t a project that ends as soon as the brewers are allowed to start producing beer again. All five breweries plan to keep making soup, albeit probably on a smaller scale, once the alcohol restrictions are lifted. “We are unlikely to be producing at full capacity for quite a while once we’re allowed to brew again,” says Bruce, “but even when we are close to capacity we intend to find time to keep serving soup to those who need it.”

Want to make a donation?

Woodstock Brewery:

Drifter Brewing Company:

Stellenbosch Brewing Company:

Long Beach Brewery:

Richmond Hill Brewing Company:

Pictures: Lucy Corne