I consider myself a bit of a cider-tasting expert, in much the same way as people who do a two-hour cooking class rate themselves in the ranks of executive chefs. My cider ‘skills’ are due mostly to a bicycle trip around Devon, England in my youth, and a visit last year to Middle Farm (in East Sussex) and its wonderful Cider Barn.
A tot glass allows you to taste more than a hundred UK ciders. It’s basically a tasting on steroids. Guided by handwritten descriptions, you can enjoy the delights of Gillow Knicker Dropper Cider, Silly Moo, or the Rough Old Wife Cider. All the while, a tall gentleman in a decorated top hat with well-embellished tails provides commentary on the various offerings.
With so many varieties, the natural option is to attempt to taste them all. Around tasting number 14, we encountered an innocuous-looking Mrs Bottomley’s Red Moon Naga Chili Cider. It took a fair amount of Pete Pollock’s Surrey Cider to rectify that fiery situation. (The Naga Viper was, until 2017, the world’s hottest chilli.)
It’s at Loxtonia Cider in Ceres, that I discover the founder, Larry Whitfield, has also visited the Cider Barn in the UK, as part of a cider-making research and inspiration trip around Europe, Ireland and England. He was accompanied by Mark Carmichael-Green, who provides specialist input to cellars. Loxtonia Cider is the new kid on the block in the South African market, and the first stop on our (husband Anthony is the designated driver) informal West Coast Cider and Craft Beer Route.
I get to taste Loxtonia’s four existing ciders, as well as their newly launched African Sundowner Baobab Flavoured Apple Cider. “It’s made from Sundowner apples with a distinct baobab flavour. The baobab fruit has great nutritional value – antioxidants, electrolytes and essential minerals,” says Larry.
“South Africa is the second-largest cider-consuming country in the world, yet to date, there has been no true South African cider. We want to be innovative – to create a wow factor, making delicious-tasting cider with a quality and flavours not experienced in South Africa before,” he adds.
“We believe that everything you need to create the perfect cider can be found in the natural nutrients delivered by our soil, water and the Ceres Valley sunshine,” Larry explains. “We have an ‘orchard-to-bottle’ philosophy, meaning that we grow the apples, crush them and make the cider here. We’re the only cidery doing that in South Africa. Our cider is naturally fermented, and we use no artificial additives or preservatives. Sustainability is very important to us, even the tasting counter here was made from the wood that housed the German cider press.”
Larry hands me a baobab seed to suck before I try the new cider. It gives a pleasant creamy, sherbet-like taste that enhances the Sundowner apple flavour. The medium-sweet Stone Fruit Flavoured Apple Cider has a definite
peach aroma with nectarine and apple notes, which is interesting, but the baobab cider remains my favourite.
Lastly, I taste the Pale Amber Cider, a beer-styled cider. Personally, I prefer a drier cider, but I do enjoy its caramel notes and well-rounded smoothness.
Ali Whitfield, Larry’s daughter and marketing and sales manager, proudly tells me, “Our stone-fruit cider won the 2018 award for Best Cider at the Cape Town Festival of Beer.” For this family-run business, it seems like this is the first in what could be a long list of award-winning ciders.
Next stop is Charlie’s Brewhouse at Port Owen. We decide to avoid the many stop-and-gos on the Tulbagh/Riebeek-Kasteel road and take the R44 Gouda road through Porterville and Piketberg, where we inevitably encounter more of the same. We are compensated by stunning vistas of good-for-the-soul wheat fields and wide-open spaces, as we chat to other motorists enjoying a leg-stretch.
At Port Owen I’m introduced to philanthropist Russell Foster, owner of Russell’s on the Port and Charlie’s Brewhouse. (Together with his son-in-law, Russell owns a further 18 hotels and restaurants in the UK, so he’s a true professional in the hospitality industry.) Russell came to Velddrif 12 years ago, fell in love with the place and saw the potential of the area. His latest venture (other than 2 000 pairs of soccer boots donated to the local kids), is Charlie’s Brewhouse, which opened in June 2018 and the brewery in December.
“There is so much to offer here,” he tells me. “The Berg River has 41 kilometres of navigable river, with loads of fish. Then there are the kilometres of unspoilt, mostly deserted beaches, the sea is ideal for kiteboarders, and there’s the marina here at Port Owen, plus with Charlie’s and Russell’s, we have top-class restaurants.”
The walk alongside the marina from our accommodation at Russell’s to Charlie’s Brewhouse is an easy 15 minutes. It’s a beautiful walk that joins up with the Berg River, and a brewery situated in a marina certainly combines two interests. By the time we reach the brewery, we have been cheerily greeted by six ducks and at least five people going for a morning walk, and as a result, I already feel like a local.
At Charlie’s Brewhouse you can enjoy a meal while watching your favourite beer being brewed through the glass panel behind the bar. It’s a great way to connect with the process. It’s here, strolling between rows of shiny tanks, that I meet brewer Anton Knoetze.
“We have four core beers and then our seasonal beers,” Anton tells me, “a Czech-style larger, a blonde ale, a bourbon stout and an American Pale Ale or APA. The APA was a new experience for people on the West Coast, but they enjoy it now,” he smiles. “I started as a hobby brewer. I wanted to open my own brewery, but then I met Russell and embraced the opportunity to start here.”
My beer of choice is the Lighthouse – a light blonde ale which has a velvety smoothness and a crisp dry finish with a bit of a sweetness. Anthony enjoys the Harbour American Pale Ale, which packs a punch with its higher 5.4 per cent alcohol content, bold American hops and intense flavours of tropical and citrus fruits.
I ask Anton about consistency in craft beers, which has been an issue with craft brewing in general. “People should expect craft beer to differ slightly, but there’s no excuse for bad quality,” he tells me. “The large breweries blend different tanks to always have the same taste. Craft brewers mostly work with what’s
in the fermentation tank only.”
Before our next brewery visit, I can’t resist a quick stopover in the quaint Bokkom Lane in Velddrif. We greet the pelicans formally, observe the bokkoms being prepared and grab a quick moerkoffie, before heading to Darling Brew microbrewery.
Philippa Wood greets us. Philippa, together with husband Kevin, co-founded the brewery. Giving up their jobs in 2007, the couple set off on a trip through Africa in their Land Rover. Three days into the trip, however, they met Andre from Sneeuberg Brewery in Nieu-Bethesda, and the idea of Darling Brew was born.
The road to success, however, is littered with tribulations and the same proved true for the Woods. Legalities and red tape were crippling. “Back then,” Philippa says, “it cost R20 000, non-refundable, to apply for a brewing licence, and we had three attempts before we received it. Once we started brewing, difficulties continued and we were lucky enough to meet Chris Barnard of Boston Breweries in Paarden Eiland, where we brewed under contract until 2015 when at last, we could brew our own beer in Darling. If we had not met Chris, it’s unlikely we would be where we are today.
“We opened up a small tasting room. The place was constantly full and manned by only a few members of staff. I remember the day my assistant called in a panic after I had popped out for a few minutes, to tell me a tour bus had just pulled up outside. We knew then that we’d have to move to larger premises.
In 2015 we opened the new brewery and taste room. More recently, we’ve opened a taste room and restaurant in Woodstock, to engage people on a different level,” Philippa recounts.
Darling Brew has won numerous awards for its beers and is an inspiration to entrepreneurs in all fields. “The Darling residents are wonderful in supporting our brand and it’s a great place to raise our children,” Philippa adds.
It’s a hot day so I abstemiously order an alcohol-free Jinja Beer before embarking on the Ladies Flight, my choice from the tasting menu options. It comprises a taste of two shandies and a pale and red ale. Caution now thrown to the wind, I do battle with a taste of the 9% ABV Warlord Imperial IPA, a beer inspired by the black rhino. (Clearly only for the bold and brave.) It’s now definitely time to head home.
Hail Our Local Ales
Compared to the overall beer consumption, the percentage of craft beer and cider drunk may still be small, but the concept of craft beers and ciders is clearly here to stay. The craft beer and cider consumers are becoming more informed and discerning, and the variety is spicing up drinking life.
Charlie’s Brewhouse 1 Marina Centre, Port Owen Drive, Port Owen, Velddrif, 022 783 0448
Other Breweries on the Way
Flagship Brew 9 Church Road, Riebeek-Kasteel 083 659 4682, www.flagshipbrew.co.za
Indie Ale Brewery R44 Halfmanshof, Porterville 022 125 0187, 076 599 5995, [email protected]