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Craft Beer 101

When I was asked to do some blogs on craft beer, I thought very carefully. First, I contemplated the fact that I’m a woman, and in South Africa, that makes me a beer-drinking minority. Then my (ever-so-serious) thoughts turned to the fact that, while I’m a long-time fan of beer – or as long as my youthful age allows me, ahem – I’m not all that au fait with the ins-and-outs of the actual craft beer process. I am most definitely not a beer connoisseur. From there they flew to the fact that I’m not a hipster, and craft beer seems to go hand-in-hand with hipsterdom.

Oh, who am I kidding? I jumped at the chance and said yes, immediately, and am now looking forward to a boy’s beer club-smashing, beer-tasting, beer people-meeting, hipster-only-craft-beer fallacy-busting couple of months. And to getting an inside view of how they’re made. My liver is quivering. Perhaps, by the end I’ll be a connoisseur?

In the interest of honesty, I feel I need to disclose. I am a dedicated Castle Lite drinker. Shock, horror, SAB! On a craft beer blog! I like it. Not because it’s ‘Lite’, or supposedly low in calories (I couldn’t give a hoot about calories), but because I like the taste. I find it refreshing and easy to drink. Before that, in my ‘younger’ days, I was a dedicated Black Label fan. I went to Rhodes. No further explanation is necessary. There, that’s out of the way. Let’s see how I feel in six months’ time!

So it came to be that I found myself sat at a wooden table with Russ Meyer, head of Sales and Marketing for Boston Breweries, with a tray of eight of their beers in front of me. They looked up at me, smiling, freshly poured from the taps at the industrial-looking bar in the corner. This is The Market Bar, hidden in a corner of the Cape Quarter (the new one), and the tasting space (and get-together spot) for Boston Breweries.

Admittedly, the requisite table of hipster boys was there, all skinny-jeaned and wispy-moustached.. it is only a week into Movember, remember? Did you see that rhyme? How prosaic. And I haven’t even started talking about the beers, yet. The hipster boys were sweet, though, and smiley, and there were other tables of people, too. Less hipster types.

Anyway, back to Russ, who played perfect host and was a great introduction to my adventures into craft beer. He’s a mine of information, having been with Boston Breweries for six years, through the development of six new brands, bringing their bundle up to an impressive range of ten. And they started in a nappy bucket. 

Yip, a nappy bucket. Chris Barnard, master brewer and founder of Boston Breweries, after spending some years travelling around Europe tasting as many beers as he could, returned to Cape Town and began working in his father’s plastics factory – they make bank bags. Bank bags, and now beer – and decided to try his hand at home-brewing. From the nappy bucket he graduated to the bath, and the rest is history.

And boy am I glad he did all that. From the lightly-coloured and flavoured Whale’s Tail Ale to the dark, in-your-face, coffee-aroma of the Black River Coffee Stout, these beers tickle all your senses. I guess that’s the joy of having ten different ones.

I’m not going to go into each one, just the ones that stood out for me. The joys of writing a blog – it’s all mememe! If you want a detailed review of how each one tastes, take yourself off to any of the numerous bars in Cape Town that stock them and get yourself tasting. Listen to me, all bossy-like.

Having told you at the beginning of this piece of my Castle Lite affliction, the thing that has always stood out for me is that craft beers have taste. Real, discernible flavours – banana, hops, malt, coffee, pumpkin… I’ve always found them quite heavy. I guess that’s part of the joy of them. They’re made to enjoy slowly, to savour. My perceptions were blasted out of the water.

The Naked Mexican is not heavy. Not at all. On the contrary, it is light, tasty and highly drinkable. I pictured myself on the stoep in summer, the smell of lamb chops on the braai, the inevitable suburban Sunday soundtrack of a lawnmower somewhere in the neighbourhood, and an ice cold Naked Mexican on the requisite plastic garden table. Highly refreshing.

I was most excited about the Van Hunk’s Pumpkin Ale, named after that legendary dude up on Table Mountain who smoked and smoked with the devil, creating the ‘table cloth’ that so often obscures the top of the mountain. The ale is made using pumpkin and butternut. Very South African (although highly reminiscent of American pumpkin pie), which I love. Its deep orange colour is gorgeous and it smells of cinnamon and nutmeg and all those cosy spices.

Thinking I’d find it too heavy to drink a whole glass, as opposed to just the tasting, I ordered a full pumpkin ale after the tasting. Too heavy? Nah. Just a glass full of orange loveliness. I can see it becoming a winter favourite for me.

And then the two that stood out, not because I loved them particularly, but because they… well, stood out. The Black River Coffee Stout – heavy, dark, with a strong coffee aroma and taste, this one is for the coffee and beer lovers. Who could ask for more than to combine two loves in one glass? I was nervous to take more than two sips. It was way after 2pm and anything caffeinated after 2pm is an invitation to my bastardly boyfriend, Insomnia, to come over and breathe heavily down my neck while I try to sleep.

The second, Loaded Canon Ale, has a distinct aniseed taste, which reminded me of those hard, multi-coloured round sweets that were black on the outside. The ones that are called something politically correct now, I can’t remember what. It’s yummy. This beer, however, is no child’s play. At an alcohol content of 10%, you’d want to be sipping on this one really slowly. A taxi home is a prerequisite.

It’s a nice evening space, I learnt lots, and learnt there’s even more to learn. And so many beers to taste! So it was that I was introduced to the world of craft beer. 

I think I might like it here.

[Beer tasting was courtesy of Boston Breweries. Thanks to Russ Meyer of Boston Breweries and Jacqui Barlow of Jolie 360 for organising.]

Read more by and about Briony here.