Holidaying in South Africa this winter? Fans of real ale take note - the Western Cape is no longer all about wine. Regular contributor and Cape Town resident Lucy Corne is back to guide us through the sudden explosion of craft beers and microbreweries in and around the Mother City...
Following the ale trail
For years, centuries even, wine has been the king of boozy beverages in the Western Cape. Be it red or white, sparkling, port or brandy, ever since Jan van Riebeeck planted vines in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs in 1657 it’s been all about grapes in the Cape.
But suddenly people are also discovering the wonderful things that can be done with grain. Beer has always been there in the background of course and South Africans certainly drink a lot of the amber nectar, but only recently has craft beer started to boom in almost every province. Follow us along the Western Cape ale trail for brewery visits and samplings within easy reach of Cape Town.
Start your sampling session with Boston, the largest and oldest craft brewery in Cape Town. Established in 2000, Boston has expanded from their original flagship brew, Boston Lager, and become a household name boasting a six pack of beers. Three light, easy-drinking beers are backed up by a few that are big on flavour – and in the case of Hazzard Ten, also big on alcohol.
But it is Boston’s newest brews that really have people talking. The Johnny Gold Weiss makes for a superb hot weather beer and is adored by men and women alike. The surprise hit though, is the Van Hunks pumpkin ale, filled with cinnamon, nutmeg and coriander. Named for a legendary Cape Town figure, the beer is great with (or for) dessert and is quickly becoming legendary itself. Boston currently doesn’t offer tours, but you can seek out their beers at restaurants, bars and markets across the city, with the full range available at La Cabane in Hout Bay.
Paulaner is the quintessential brewpub and yet another good reason to hang out at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. The German brewer puts out excellent weiss, dunkel and lager as well as an ever-changing range of seasonal German-style brews.
Gleaming copper brew kettles provide a photogenic backdrop for the bar and on brew days you can watch the magic happen from your table, a foamy stein of the award-winning Red Weiss in hand. The menu matches the beers – hearty German fare like pretzels and sausages to soak up the beers, which also come in litre maß if you fancy a taste of Oktoberfest. Luckily, taxis abound at the Waterfront to get you home afterwards.
These beers are made for drinking – and that’s just what you’ll do. Jack Black’s trio of easy-drinking pints can be found in the hands of the cool, the beautiful and of course, the thirsty throughout Cape Town. The lager, pale ale and pilsner are all crisp and endlessly drinkable without straying too far from the beers South Africans are most familiar with. You can’t visit the brewery, but buy the beers to enjoy at a braai or join the hip set to sip Jack Black from elegant glasses in elegant bars such as the Caveau Wine Bar in town.
If you stray a little further from Cape Town, you’ll find the brand spanking new Darling Brew tap room, the Slow Quarter. It’s a sleek and sexy place to taste an hour north of Cape Town in the arty town of Darling. Darling is known for wine and known more for its extravagant political drag act, Evita Bezuidenhout, but soon the town will be known just as much for its ever increasing range of beers.
Currently brewed in Cape Town, the quartet of beers is widely available on taps around the Mother City, but nowhere is a pint of Slow Beer or Native Ale as enjoyable as at the Slow Quarter. Each beer from their range – including the coriander-filled Bone Crusher witbier and the roasty, toasty Black Mist dark ale – comes with suggested food pairings from their proudly South African tapas menu. Open Wednesday to Sunday 11am to 6pm.
It’s a bold move, opening up a brewery in the heart of wine country, but Triggerfish’s refined flavours and elegant labels make it right at home in Somerset West. Start with a quick tour of the surprisingly small setup then prop up the bar for a tasting session with the brewer. Their flagship beers are big and bold – from the hop-filled American-style ales to the oh-so South African Bonito. This refreshing beer was made with SA’s climate in mind and its surprise ingredient – not a secret but I’ll leave it for the brewer to unveil – is indigenous to the Cape.
On Friday afternoons simple food is served and the outdoor tables fill up with beer connoisseurs here for the brews, each sporting a maritime moniker with views over the Hottentots-Holland Mountain Range. Triggerfish is open for sales daily 1pm to 5pm and for tasting Friday and Saturday 10am to 5pm.
Can’t get out to Somerset West? Try Triggerfish beers at Banana Jam Café in Kenilworth, a southern suburb of Cape Town.
If Triggerfish brazenly challenges wine’s spot at the top of the Western Cape booze charts, then Birkenhead is even cheekier. Without doubt the prettiest of all the Western Cape’s breweries, Birkenhead is an impressive estate just outside adorable Stanford, two hours east of Cape Town. The mountain vistas rival any seen from the famously gorgeous wine farms (OK, so they also produce wine on this estate, but the beer came first).
On cool afternoons, snuggle up by the fire with their brandy-infused beer (admittedly an acquired taste) or on sunny days sit outside with a honey blonde and some fresh calamari and chips. Simple pub lunches are served daily and beer tasting is available every day from 11am to 4.30pm. Brewery tours happen on weekdays at 11am and 4pm.
Can’t get to Stanford? Sample Birkenhead’s brews at the Earth Food Fair in Tokai, 20 minutes south of Cape Town and accessible by train.
Still squarely in wine country, Saggy Stone is one of the newest brews on the block. It’s a mission to find the place – call ahead for directions before delving into the maze of dirt roads in Robertson’s outskirts – but if you persevere, the rewards are there. The tasting room and restaurant sit in an utterly charming building whose deck is flanked by rustic stone pillars.
The menu features perfect beer food with a pie that will delight ardent lovers of encased meat. The toffee-sweet Steam Ale is a hit with many, though if you don’t dig caramel tones in your beer, the uber-light Stone Draught is a fine accompaniment to an afternoon in rural Robertson. Open Friday to Sunday, 11am to 4pm.
Montagu is an oft-ignored gem. Flanked by winding mountain passes on a road best known for brandy, it’s often dismissed as a lunch stop for those driving between Cape Town and the Garden Route. But those who stay over find healing spa waters, friendly faces and a surprising amount of restaurants for a two-street town.
You’ll also find Karoo Brew, the micro-est of microbreweries sitting in a backpackers-cum-restaurant. The brewery itself is a tiny and tours take a mere handful of minutes leaving you more time for the tasting. The trio of brews have a smoky flavour that’s a little strong for some palates (mine included) but they work well quaffed with some hearty Karoo food. Accommodation is available at the brewery or if you can still stumble a little further, there’s nothing in Montagu that’s not within walking distance.
Our ale trail ends pretty much where the Western Cape does – along the oft-visited Garden Route. The Garden Route couldn’t be so-named without heavy doses of rain to keep everything green, so it’s good to have something to do on wet weather days – and what better way to escape the rain than at South Africa’s oldest microbrewery, set up in 1983. Their English-style ales (and two lagers) are low on carbonation yet high on flavour – a perfect balance that makes for very drinkable beers.
A trip to Mitchell's should be high on your list of Knysna musts, starting with the tour and ending at the bar (or the patio when the sun shines) with samples of their brews. The lightly hopped and always delicious Bosun’s Bitter and its malty companion Forrester’s Lager are the most widely available outside Knysna, but at the brewery you can also sample the warming 90 Shilling, Milk & Honey, Old Wobbly and Raven Stout – all ideal for Knysna’s often English-like weather. To fully indulge, pair your beers with the local oysters that Knysna is known for. Tours take place on weekdays at 10.30, 12.30 and 2.30.
Can’t get to Knysna? Sample their full range of beers at the Mitchell’s Scottish Ale House at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront.
Other brews to look out for: Royal Mzantsi, Devil’s Peak, Gallows Hill, Valley, Napier
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.