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South African Macro Brews

For me, experiencing other countries and cultures starts with their food and drinks. As a huge fan of beer, whose palate was blessed by brews on several continents, this usually means sampling local pints. Therefore, before I embarked on my first ever trip to the southern hemisphere, I started asking a friend about potential hop-themed events and incursions. When it comes to South African beer habits I was a complete virgin. Now, back in snowy Sweden, I can proudly say that I am, if not a fanatic, then at least an impressed sympathiser.

Before I go any further, allow me to make a few disclaimers. Firstly, I am not a brewer. But I am a devoted amateur whose interest go beyond taste-to-price ratio. Hops, malt, mash tuns and fermenting vats are all instruments in a beautiful symphony aimed to bring me a glass of liquid joy and I want experience every note. Secondly, you will find here personal impressions of a traveller and should not be mistaken for official ratings, grades, opinions on brewing techniques or similar. If a macrobrewery happens to make a lovely drink using buckwheat, a laundry machine and a microwave oven then hats off to them. Thirdly, just like all beer fans I have my preferences and favourites. Even if the top of the podium is currently occupied by Gulden Draak, a Belgian Tripel ale, the beer type that tickles my palate in most pleasant way is good old pale ale (although I am also partial to Czech pilsners). Now that you know a bit about me, let us proceed with the main dish - the beers.

 

To establish a baseline and explore the preferences of a typical South African consumer my friend took me to pick out a selection of cold macrobrews. Without any guidelines I just took whatever occupied most shelfspace. We ended up with a collection of pale lagers and a stout. The stout looked pretty on the shelf so I took it. It is as far as we Swedes can go in terms of spontaneity. We took our wares home, made ourselves comfortable on the stoep (see? I am picking up local terms already!) and started tasting.

Castle Draught 5% - 3.5/5

My favourite of the bunch, but only by a hair. A simple but well-done beer with a mild first taste that finishes with solid amount of bitterness. I could not find any information about the hops used in this brew but it sure has the Saaz character. I don’t like my beers jaw-wrenchingly bitter but it’s better than the lack of it. The mouthfeel was foamy but without any distinctive characteristics. A light amber colour fit well with the body. Sadly, by the time the beer glass travelled to my lips for a second gulp the foam was already gone. Ah well… To conclude, an on-par macro pilsner that would probably sell well in any country in the world that have a lager-based preferences.

Hansa Pilsner 4.5% - 3.5/5

There was no doubt about Saaz hops in this case as the producer proudly highlights that fact on the bottle. The line separating this lager with Castle Draught is thinner than an African hornet’s petiole (as you can see this trip was not exclusively about beers). In fact, it practically came down to the colour. Hansa looked pale by comparison. Although, who knows… Maybe it was just the lovely warm evening, so soothing for my Swedish eyes. I would gladly trade you our weather for this macro, South Africans. Bad deal, you say? I just had to try...

Castle Milk Stout 6% - 3.0/5

I cannot recall ever drinking a milk stout before this one. Chocolate, cocoa and coffee stouts, sure, but not milk ones. What’s the difference? Nothing, this is another another stout made of dark roasted malt with added lactose sugars for sweetness. Lifted in front of the sun the glass remained black and opaque, as the craft requires. The head reminded me more of a Dunkel or another dark lager, with all its hills and valleys. Time for a swig and… Hm, a rush of bubbles the gums. Way fizzier than a regular stout, and slightly metallic. The flavour reminded of roasted barley with a tiny hint of coffee but buried under the tingling of all the bubbles. Bad or good then? Neither, rather… mislabeled. A better name would be Castle Caramel Dark Lager. Freed from the expectations associated with the label the brew is totally acceptable. Just don’t expect a thick, smooth body. Unless we are talking about an actual body. This baby packs 51 calories per 100 ml, compared to, say, Guinness’ 35 per 100 ml.

Windhoek Premium Lager 4% - 2.0/5

The bleached-teeth white foam popped right away. The glass filled with a harmonious pale amber colour and… Hold on, where is the head? Seriously, I just looked away for a second! Moving on then. Ah, no wonder, the mouthfeel felt very flat. This brew could certainly use more fiz. As for the flavour I can describe it as imbalanced. The bitterness hits you right in the beginning and leaves nothing for the finish. The producer’s website promises “complex tones of hops” but that is precisely what this beer is lacking. An underwhelming pale lager.

Carling Black Label Premium Draught 5.5% - 1.5/5

Every country has a popular macro pale lager that makes a beer enthusiast scratch his head and wonder “how is that even selling?” This is the one. At least the head stayed a bit longer than in the Windhoek. The colour was pale straw. The mouthfeel was flat and subdued, not frothy at all. The bitterness rivaled that of broken political promises, with a matching aftertaste. To top it off the brew carried a distinctive flavour of ethanol, an unpleasant surprise in any beer. I’d rather have a Pimm’s. And I don’t like Pimm’s.