On the Lowveld Ale Trail

Pure, fresh water, a happy attitude and a few prayers seem to be the secrets to brewing good craft beer in Mpumalanga. Contributor, Sue Adams explores the ale trail in Dullstroom.

Words and Pictures: Sue Adams

Ale Trail Lowveld Breweries (43)In this neck of the woods it seems the craft brewers have added equal dashes of magic and science to their golden-delicious beer. Theo de Beer is one of the wizards, and I suppose it’s fitting that I meet him in the wee hours just after midnight (03h00 actually) to watch him at work in his Anvil Ale House and Brewpub in Dullstroom.

The steam inside the brewery is thicker than the mist outside and Theo leaps around, climbing ladders, measuring liquid in glass pipettes, stirring the steaming mash and muttering to himself about temperatures, yeast and hops. When I ask why this is happening at such hour he replies, “The Prince of Darkness strikes later, so I need to plan around load shedding.”

Theo has been brewing for quite some time, and also started Hops Hollow Brewery on the R37 between Lydenburg and Sabie. After taking a break from it, he started Anvil Ale House in 2009. But why the anvil? “My father was a boilermaker and a skilled metal worker, and ‘A’ is at the beginning of the alphabet,” she says. It’s the sort of reply you get from wizards and beer drinkers. He says he likes to play with words and this is “Dullstroom’s heavy-metal brewery”.

So when brewing stops at 05h00 as the sun comes up, we sit down to taste a few beers. “This is a breakfast beer,” says Theo, handing me a concoction of stout and orange juice. I am sceptical but brewing is thirsty work and it is delicious. Sarie, Theo’s wife, serves it with bacon chilli poppers, cheese and chocolate and, as strange as it might sound, it’s a great start to the day.

Theo loves to experiment and at the moment is developing a new beer called Kriek (Flemish for cherry), leaving brewed beer to soak in a barrel of cherries. He also makes a Belgian white (wheat beer) with naartjie peel, coriander and ginger. This he describes as his “lawnmower beer, for when you’ve cut the grass and you’re sweating”. His most unusual beer is his Bookoo beer (spelled like this in Jan van Riebeeck’s time), which he infuses with dry hops and adds buchu for about 24 hours. “The art is when to take the buchu out of the beer so it tastes exactly right,” says Theo.

Next stop is the highest brewery in Africa – Hops Hollow Brewery on the Long Tom Pass in the mountains outside Mashishing (Lydenburg). Colin Ntshangase, who studied at Durban University of Technology, followed his girlfriend from KwaZulu-Natal to Mpumalanga and ended up here. Colin explains the process to me, from milling the barley to mashing, when they put the barley in the mash tank and start fermenting, and then later add the yeast.

“I always feel excited when I see the bubbling. It’s like there is something living in the tank,” says Colin. “It’s a thin line between good beer and bad beer.” Colin has been brewing for eight years but says it will be a while before he’ll call himself a master brewer – he has too much to learn. He bottles each and every beer himself and his greatest reward is to see the customer smile.

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When I ask him if he likes beer he rubs his tummy, smiles broadly and says, “Can’t you see?” He says the secret is to start brewing only when you are happy. Although the recipe is not complicated, Colin feels there is something about having a good attitude that’s essential to successful brewing.

Hops Hollow has a wonderful kraal and barn area with big fireplaces if it’s cold. I am served freshly baked bread with olives and feta, a beef potjie cooked with a dark Porter beer and a hot drink called Boilers Brew made like a Glühwein, but with Old Bull Bitter, orange juice, cranberry juice and herbs and spices.

As I sit next to a crackling fire looking over Lydenburg’s rolling hills I decide this is a good way to start every day. Luckily it’s an easy downhill ride to Sabie Brewing Company in the town of Sabie. A couple of years ago Shaun McCartney knew nothing about beer.

“A group of us in the Lowveld felt we could not get decent craft beer down here and we got enthusiastic. The next thing I knew I was off to study brewing at Brewlab in Sunderland in the United Kingdom,” says Shaun.

Now Shaun talks about beer brewing like a detective in a thriller mystery. He expounds on the qualities of yeast and how good the underground water of Sabie is as it has the perfect pH. He lovingly sifts the hops through his hands and gets us to smell each one. Shaun talks of all beers as female, “They are temperamental and never identical. Quite unpredictable.”

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Sabie Brewing has a range of beers commemorating the history and people of the area. Glynn’s Gold is a best-seller named after H T Glynn, a big-game hunter and farmer credited with finding gold in the area. Wheelbarrow Weiss is named after Wheelbarrow Patterson, an early prospector in the area famous for using a wheelbarrow to transport his goods.

And Shaun is not afraid of experimenting, so for the Solstice Festival in Magaliesberg last year (2014) they made an African Pale Ale and added hemp. The brewery itself is the original trading store of Sabie, built in 1921, and still has some of the old wooden floors. They had all their steel tanks made in the Cape, and use water from a stream that runs deep under Sabie town. Local produce goes into their food, much of it cooked using their beers. They also use the grist (spent grain) in delicious bread.

I have always loved this area for its rivers and waterfalls where prospectors panned for gold nuggets. And this new gold just adds more sparkle to Mpumalanga.

Did You Know?

  • Hops assists in treating dementia and mental illness.
  • India Pale Ale was brewed in England for expats in India. In order to preserve it on the long sea journey they had to add a great deal of hops which made it a bitter beer.
  • Originally, to remove the cloudiness beer was filtered through the gallbladder of a sturgeon fish. Gelatine also works well but you’ll be glad to hear that other methods are usually used these days.
  • Beer should be served at 7-8 degrees Celsius. If a beer is too cold all you taste is the fizz and bitterness. Theo de Beer says, “Be wary of a really cold beer.”

Anvil Ale House and Brewpub

  • Open daily except Tuesdays until about 16h00. Free tasting, but if you want a proper presentation for R25, book ahead. Pet friendly – in fact you might find that your dog gets served a drink before you. And the food is great. 073 168 6603

Hops Hollow

  • Taste five beers for R15, and there is a cosy restaurant. Open Wednesday to Sunday from 08h00 to 23h00 but book for dinner. 013 235 8910

Sabie Brewing Company

  • Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner. Try the beef and ale pie. Beer tastings cost R40. Look out for their quirky labels done by Dr Jack, the well-known South African cartoonist. 013 764 1005

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