For craft beer to grow in popularity in South Africa, consumer education is important, as it will ensure that craft beer is on every restaurant’s menu, says Hate City Brewing Company.
Consumer advocates, such as beer and food reviewers, can also help weed out breweries that are not producing high-quality craft beer, which will, in turn, result in a more robust craft beer industry, says Hate City owner Marcel Harper.
However, he says the jury is still out on whether there is a big enough craft beer market in South Africa.
“So far, things are looking good. There is a growing awareness in South Africa of the craft beer revolution in other countries, and I have seen the establishment of at least 10 to 15 new breweries since Hate City started in 2013. But I do not think the industry is at its peak yet.”
Harper says a typical craft beer drinker likes spending money on good-quality food and drink, enjoys the spirit of the craft beer industry and, “above all, appreciates good beer made by a brewer they can speak to, rather than a marketing department of a big and distant brewer they interact with through flashy advertising”.
Hate City is currently not able to source all its natural ingredients in South Africa, as local producers of hops and barley “are still pretty much catering for the macrobreweries”.
However, Harper says the situation is slowly changing and is expected to be much better in a few years.
“I would say we source about 60% of our ingredients in international markets like Germany, Belgium and the US, but, given the current negative exchange rates, that is not doing much for our margins, unfortunately.”
Further, there is a specific way of building a brewery to ensure that it is suitable for brewing. “Just because it is craft beer does not mean the brewing is primitive.”
Harper says craft brewers can use high technology, custom-designed brewing equipment to produce the best possible beer. “The craft is in the techniques used and the commitment to uncompromising quality and flavour, even if it means taking a knock on your margins.”
Craft breweries are able to use traditional brewing methods that the big brewers do not use because of the latter’s focus on volume and margin, states Harper, adding that craft breweries often do things that the big breweries would never consider, such as bringing out seasonal beers or experimenting with flavours and ingredients that might not have mass appeal.
“Our techniques prioritise flavour over commercial considerations, which is why our beers might not have as long a shelf life as macrobrewed beers.”
However, there is plenty of innovation in craft beer making, as these brewers are not subjected to the same constraints as big breweries that have to first make business considerations.
Hate City can, for example, include rooibos in a beer, should this be the customer’s wish, says Harper. In addition, the brewery can even go as far as experimenting with things such as making a roasted coconut chilli stout.
“To add to that, we can also do seasonal releases of new or different beer brands. So there is plenty of room for experimentation.”
The company regards craft beer making as “a labour of love and a passion”. “You have got to love making exceptional beer to be in this industry,” Harper stresses, adding that craft beer making is about the beer and pleasing the fans of good beer.
The craft beer industry operates along different lines, compared with the mainstream beer industry, he adds.
There is greater emphasis on cooperation among business owners, a focus on quality rather than profit margins, and a commitment to slow and steady growth of the beer, rather than producing it quickly and cheaply, Harper concludes.