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Cape Town Festival of Beers

Michael Jackson, the other one, that is, draws a hard distinction between a beer hall and a beer garden. To his mind a beer garden is a quiet and slightly solemn affair; conducted under chestnut trees, doubtless crammed with birds in the summer months, which also happens to be beer drinking season. It can be little else, for those with a sense for good beer and sun and fine company, would have a sense for quiet too. Then there's a beer hall, a cramped and rowdy affair by all accounts. The Cape Town Festival of Beers was somewhere between these two extremes – not quite loud and cramped and smelly, but also no songbirds – no real breaks for sensible conversation, no wind rustling large leaves or silence enough to hear laughter.

Speaking of the advantages of silence, it's really a pity about Afrikaans pop. Also, come to mention it, about sunshine and rugby. And Castle of course. And this from someone no stranger to a case of the mentioned beer, on his own on occasion; with a father who played rugby for Van der Stel, and a surname Van Zyl to boot. Kaptein, Span die Seile. Please, someone, save me.

But what I see here, typing away at a bench – thankfully one of the ones under tarpaulin – is not all like that. I see relaxed and serious punters, biting away at pulled pork and Bratwurst sandwiches. I see empty beer glasses, maybe one or two with a finger of exquisitely amber liquid. I see women: dressed up or tattooed, some young and perfectly proportioned, others more full bodied. But all happy, talking animatedly, scratching in handbags perhaps, or licking a last morsel of pork belly from a curled finger. I see "rock and roll is dead" on the back of a black t-shirt; and a much older friend, probably a brewer on lunch, engaged in conversation with her. Sneaking behind one of the tents, I see a small troupe of men, doubtless staff of some or other designation, sleeping on the grass, a disinterested eye opening for a moment to see me taking a photo, then dozing off again.


It's hot. But this is not the reason for the small crowds heaving around each and every stall and the emptying glasses. Over the PA I hear, "the biggest beer festival in Africa". In the entire hemisphere, I read. In all earnest: it's actually a bit overwhelming. No single beer I've had is entirely bad and most of them are as nice as any. The more established international beers, some of which, alas, not available as tasters, are in no serious or fundamental way superior to the local fare. Quite frankly, I'm already a driving risk, and I've barely touched what's on offer. Over the PA now "Cruel Summer", nostalgic and apt. A little earlier something louder, and new. But the funny thing is – these are people I'd speak to, whether they're 14 or 64.

Of course it's all about beer. It's rather testing, in fact, to walk along the rows of stalls and try to taste everything, or to talk with every brewer. Almost every day there's a new brewer putting up camp. I sample a few tasters at Ndlovu, a new Franschhoek brewery on Haut Espoir wine farm. SAB had a beef about the name I hear, but they're playing nice. Their "Mock Charge" is a Naartjie Weiss I find pleasant. The "Stampede", a Chardonnay barrel fermented lager, I like a bit more. Standeaven's African APA is all litchi, in between the hops. By the time I get halfway down the first row to Red Sky Brew (after two months of bottling already an old hat) my mouth is ruined by one or two astringent IPAs, not to mention the almost overwhelming flavours (Morimoto Soba noodles, anyone?) of Rogue Ales' fare. A rather savoury house taste I think, but one has to consider that the beers have travelled far. Nice though. I rather sceptically try Wolfgang Koedel's Pilsener, but it's well made and those who prefer the style would love it. (Sadly I only later try the Amber Weiss – it would have cheered me up considerably.) Slightly tipsy by now, as is everyone, I hear the presenter, a little too loudly, perhaps, referring to the craft beer 'industry'. I'd have thought it's everything but an industry. But he also says 'culture', which helps. By the time I get to Dragon Brewing Company's fiery Ginger Beer, I'm ready for something sweet. Beer or no beer, I have one. Pity the owner isn't here. I speak with Greg of Citizen beer. "True to material" he says and I jot it down. We discuss contact brewing and where it fits into craft beer. It depends, is the short answer.

 As I at long last sit down for a beer a friend has brought me (just in case I still have a dry spot) I'm all hopped out. I think: there should be a rule. Either taste, or drink. And if you don't know the songs any more, go home.