A Tipsy Tale of Maverick Brewers
Words Stephen Smith, pics Stephen Smith and supplied
Our unofficial KwaZulu-Natal Midlands beer route is a day trip that begins in Durban and ends at a warm Midland’s pub with supper and a comfy bed for the night. So designate the driver and head out there.
The Standeaven Brewery
Our day of tasting starts at the Shongweni Farmers Market just 35km from Durban. We arrive in drizzle at about 08h30 to a field of mud, but when we catch sight of The Standeaven Brewery stall there are already a few people standing around, beer in hand. It’s obviously the place to be, even at breakfast time.
The man behind this success is Shaun Standeaven (is that not the perfect surname for a brewer?) but he’s not exactly what you’d expect of a brew master. Firstly, he’s 25 years old and, secondly, his training is not in beer, but in food.
“I came into this as a trained chef,” says Shaun, “but I love interacting with people too much to be stuck in a kitchen. Instead I saw brewing as the opportunity to cook, but in a glass, and still have the chance to meet people. I wanted to make beers I enjoyed drinking, that other people would too.”
The result of Shaun’s plan is five brews that other people certainly have enjoyed drinking, with another about to be launched. In less than two years since he first opened, Shaun’s little brewery has garnered critical acclaim and a loyal following. He’s already battling to keep up with demand, and more and more enquiries are coming in. In fact, the demand has grown so much that he has had to order a new, much bigger brewing setup from Europe.
His beers are all traditional bottle-conditioned beers – naturally carbonated, unfiltered, unpasteurised and preservative-free – and they get even better with age.
As Shaun tells us the Standeaven story, he pulls pints for customers, his African Pale Ale apparently the most popular. It’s made to honour the local hops grown in and around George, and certainly does it justice. Then we get to sample a little taster of each, from Bohemian Pilsner to African Pale Ale to Hefe Weizen, Press Club Stout and finally Best Black Gold. Shaun is about to launch a beer called LagerX that will be the sixth beer in his range.
While the market is a great place to sample Shaun’s creations (along with some of the wholesome grub on offer), he is planning to open his expanded brewery to the public. There, in a tranquil farm setting, you will soon be able to sit at a pub overlooking his brewery and taste each of his unique creations.
We enjoyed all of Standeaven’s beers, but it was the Hefe Weizen that edged out the Press Club Stout as our favourite. It’s an unconventional take on a weiss (wheat) beer, more laid-back than traditional weiss beers, with low levels of hops and hints of wheat coming through.
Old Main Brewery
Less than an hour up the road, another 25-year-old is keeping the beer drinkers of Hilton happy. Matt Swemmer recently took over brewing here at Old Main, having been manager for the past couple of years.
Matt learnt his trade from one of SAB’s past masters and, like the other breweries, Old Main is enjoying great success. “About 65 per cent of the beer we sell in our pub is made here by us, which is a great feeling,” says Matt.
He walks us through the operation, an impressive collection of brass, copper and wooden vats set in what used to be the Crossways Hotel. Beers are fermenting at just the right temperature, getting ready for the keg, the glass, and the palate of appreciative drinkers.
Old Main craft beers differ from the others we’ve sampled today as they aren’t bottle-conditioned. Instead, the yeast is filtered out and carbon dioxide is added for bubbles, similar to commercial beer. This process leaves no sediment in the bottles and the beer is clearer.
What Matt does have in common with the other brew masters is a battle to keep up with demand. Hopefully this means the future is bright for the craft beers of KwaZulu-Natal, and when we persuade the editor it’s time for another story, there’ll be even more ales for us to sample.
Porcupine Quill Brewing Company
Next on the agenda, this brewery is set in the beautiful grounds of the 1000 Hills Chef School. John Little is the hop head behind the three ranges of craft beers – Quills, Dam Wolf and African Moon. John is a bit of a maverick brewer, experimenting with flavours and making small batches of 11 different beers and never sticking exactly to a style or recipe. He might even try his hand at whisky in the future, while cider is definitely on the cards.
Like Standeaven, Porcupine Quill uses the traditional method of brewing, so its beers are also bottle conditioned and ‘alive’. While showing us his purpose-built brewery complete with a beer cellar for aging beers, John tells us a story.
“My girlfriend is diabetic, and the other day she needed to have some blood tests. When the results came back the doctor was amazed at her high vitamin B levels – and that’s because we drink a beer or two every night. They’re full of iron, vitamin B and antioxidants.”
“So a beer a day keeps the doctor away?” I ask, and he chuckles before agreeing. Brewing is one of the courses included in the chef school’s syllabus and, on the day we visited, four students were busy bottling. “It takes us about four hours to bottle 1 000 beers,” John tells us. “At SAB a machine does about 1 000 beers a minute!”
John is full of interesting little titbits. “You’ll never see a craft beer in a green bottle,” he tells us. “Natural beer goes off if it’s kept in anything but a brown bottle, because UV light gets in. The commercial beers in green or clear bottles, like Heineken or Millers, have been chemically treated to prevent this.”
After a wonderful lunch we sit down to the job of sampling a few of John’s beers. His enthusiasm is contagious, which is probably why he has started the East Coast Brewers Club, a social group that aims at increasing the number of craft beers in KwaZulu-Natal.
“It’s a pity you’re not doing this story this time next year,” says John. I ask why. “Because there will be at least another three or four breweries by then.”
Nottingham Road Brewery
We round off our day in the picturesque grounds of the grand old dame of the Midlands Meander, Rawdons Country House in Nottingham Road, about 150km from Durban.
Nottingham Road Brewery really got craft brewing going in KwaZulu-Natal, back in 1996 when Peter Dean started a 50-litre brewery in the hotel’s cellar, with the help of ex-SAB brewer Trevor Morgan.
“I’m from Oz,” he says, “and craft breweries are everywhere over there.
I couldn’t understand why there weren’t any around locally. Our little brewery was quite successful, so in 1998 we got a bigger, 1 000-litre brewery, and things really got going.” The brewery was really started as an added attraction for the hotel, to get people off the Meander and into the pub, and it has worked a treat. “People come from all over to have a beer, and about 40 per cent of our output is sold either in the shop at the brewery, in the pub here at Rawdons, or at The Bierfassl, our Austrian tavern up the road.”
A tasting of Notties’ beers is like strolling through the pages of the Wind in the Willows, with whimsical names such as Tiddly Toad Lager, Pye-Eyed Possum Pilsner, Pickled Pig Porter and Whistling Weasel Pale Ale. The names are charming and perfectly in keeping with their home, and the Meander as a whole.
“For years it was a battle to get people to even try our beers,” says Peter. “Guys would just drink their regular SAB favourite. But over the last two years we’ve seen significant growth in the craft-brewery industry. Our pale ale and porter are now the biggest sellers.”
While craft breweries traditionally cater for their immediate area, inside maybe a 100km radius, Peter finds that most customers want to take beers home with them, which has led to Nottingham Road Breweries introducing something new for the local craft-beer market – canning.
To the uninitiated, canning might seem unnatural for craft beer, but it’s the best way to keep beers fresh and tasty on the shelf, or during transport. It will allow Notties to sell its beers across the country, without any risk to the quality.
The brewery is open for tours on most days, including weekends, or you can skip the education and give the beers the taste test at the cosy bar.
Source: Country Life