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Little Brewery On The River, Port Alfred

After tasting the macros my appetite was ready to taste the more sophisticated stuff. My friend arranged a meeting at The Little Brewery On The River in Port Alfred. The owner, Ian “Squire” Cook, agreed to show us around and give as a sample of his brews. Needless to say, I was overjoyed.

The Little Brewery stands on the bank of the Kowie river in the Eastern Cape. It occupies the only stone building in town which also happens to be something of a historical landmark. Since its construction in mid-19th century it has been a Harbourmaster’s office, a city hall, a general goods store and even a cinema. A brewery was established in 1998, with the current owner taking over in 2008.

Right next to the brewery, patrons can enjoy a pleasant meal and home-made beer at the Wharf Street Pub, a gastropub, which is worth a look in itself. It tells a story of the town in wall-sized black-and-white photographs. The walls and thick wooden beams are original and on one of the walls you can see a beautiful relief of a coelacanth, a fish species thought to be extinct until a fisherman caught one off the shores of the Eastern Cape in 1938. Add in the riverbank location and you have a perfect environment to enjoy a pint.

The brewery itself consists of a brewing room, a fermentation room and bottling corner. It is truly micro-sized with a batch of one thousand litres being brewed twice a week. Only around one hundred liters gets bottled in big plastic flasks during manual bottling process. A total staff of three, two of them non-drinkers, makes sure that everything runs smoothly. With 29 established local customers the place has an established brand and even became somewhat of a tourist landmark for the region.

Enough of the background, let’s get to the main dish. The Little Brewery produces only three brands of beers: Kowie Gold Pilsner, Coin Ale and Squire’s Porter. The porter on the menu surprised me. South African climate combines poorly with thick, strong, roasted beers. I asked Ian which type captured most customers' hearts. Unsurprisingly it was the pilsner with around 45% of the sales but the ale and the porter split the remaining ones equally. I love to see a public that takes to different types of beer.

Kowie Gold Pilsner 4,5% - 3.0/5

The glass filled with a colour of medium yellow, with a thick frothy head. The liquid contained some turbidity but it only made the beer look more natural. I took a swig and felt immediately refreshed by the bubbly satiating mouthfeel. First taste was mildly bready and I anticipated a strong dry hoppy finish but it didn’t quite reach the heights of Czech pilsners. However established microbreweries have a benefit of knowing their customer tastes rather well so this might be due to local taste preferences. It certainly does its job as a refreshing drink to be enjoyed in the sun while looking at the river Kowie slowly flowing by.

Coin Ale 4,5% - 4.5/5

Oh my! This is not a typical European brown ale. The colour is a lovely clear brown but the head betrays its unusual characteristic. It’s thick and foamy, much more reminiscent of lager. And the fizziness can be felt on the tongue. The beer tickles gums like an energetic mountain creek. The flavour contains none of the sweetness sometimes found in brown ales but instead is a smooth equal ride of dry malt that fits well with the fizzy body. This variation of brown ale goes really well with the local climate. Don’t get fooled by the darker colour, on a sunny day this beer can go toe-to-toe with any frothy lager.

Squire’s Porter 6% - 4.5/5

I always associated porter with the wet and foggy weather of the British Isles This dark and heavy type of beer seemed unsuitable for a warm climate. But I got surprised once again. When the glass was being pourn I could already see the unusual fizziness of the brew. Porters are supposed to be opaque black and this was no exception. Again, the head was thick, with good retention. The mouthfeel felt just as intensive and refreshing as in the Coin Ale above. To my pleasant surprise the roasty, malty taste contained only a hint of sweetness. The fizziness did a good job of breaking a full heavy body of a porter. And unlike several high-ABV porters I sampled in Europe it did not leave an aftertaste of ethanol. Once again The Little Brewery managed to create a version of a beer tailored to the local climate. I would not mind having more of similar porters in Swedish pubs.

Whenever I travel abroad I want to compare how local beers differ from the brews I drink at home. A visible trend with South African beers is that they are fizzier than their European counterparts. Considering the climate it is no surprise. I certainly cannot imaging opting for a heavy Irish while the air temperature outside exceeds thirty degrees. Undoubtedly some purists would frown at a fizzy porter or pale ale but during warmer months in Europe they would certainly provide a nice change from the domination of lagers and introduce these beer types to a wider audience.

The owner, Mr. Ian Cook, deserves a few words himself. Apart from being a charitable host, who waved off my attempts to pay for takeout beer and souvenirs, he is also somewhat unusual microbrewery owner in that he did not have any brewing history before getting into the business. In fact, he confessed to not being a huge beer fan in his non-brewing days. He employed the help of a brewmaster acquaintance to teach him the ropes and the results speak for themselves. Outside of serving beer he also arranges tours of the brewery for visitors during which he also tells the stories of Port Alfred. And he sponsored the Wharf Street Wife Carrying Race where participants could win their wife’s weight in beer!

The Little Brewery On The River is situated at 20 Wharf Street, 6170 Port Alfred and can balso be visited on their website  http://www.littlebrewery.co.za/.