Long before craft beer became the rage, my father turned our garage into a microbrewery. At a time when my friends’ parents were warning their teenagers against imbibing alcohol, Dad was trying to get us to drink beer with him. Visiting boyfriends were only too willing and, after a quart with Dad, would earnestly promise me the sun, moon and stars and ‘anything, really anything’ I desired.
Homebrew can spoil a girl’s taste for commercial beer, so when I moved to Bathurst I was delighted to discover the microbrewing trend had already put down roots in this part of the world.
Bitter hops and golden pilsner
The Little Brewery on the River at Port Alfred’s Wharf Street waterfront has a jaw-dropping setting on the Kowie River, where rowing fours in training streak past chugging pleasure craft.
Stopping in on a sunny day for a brewery tour and tasting with my beer-loving friend David Forsdyke, an incoming tide was lapping against the jetty where three-masted sailing ships used to offload their cargo more than 100 years ago. The brewery is in the oldest commercial building in Port Alfred and these thick stone walls have seen a succession of occupants, from harbour masters to cinema patrons.
Our tour starts upstairs in the next door building where we meet senior brewer Bethwell Dube in a tasting room furnished with two long pews from a decommissioned synagogue, which bear witness to a very different type of service these days. Bethwell shows us the main ingredients of their beer (aside from rainwater) – hops and a range of malted barley.
“Taste them,” he offers. The roasted malt that gives stout its rich colour has a coffee-ish taste and the small piece of hops pellet is bitter. “We use the Saaz hops from the Czech Republic for the sweeter Kowie Gold Pilsner. It’s our most popular beer,” says Bethwell, explaining how he varies the proportion of hops and malt in their range of four beers, from the pale pilsner to a robust stout.
A little brewery on the river
We troop downstairs to the brewing room. Standing amid giant stainless-steel kettles, Bethwell explains the process of turning water into good ale – getting the temperature just right to cook the starch out of the malt, rinsing it and adding hops before it goes to the fermentation tanks for eight days.
The Little Brewery on the River was started ten years ago by Ian Cook who brought in Colin Coetzee, formerly of SAB, as a consultant brew master. Bethwell was Ian’s curious gardener. “Mr Coetzee taught me all the secrets of beer,” says Bethwell, who brews three times a week in season, making up to 1 000 litres at a time. “Nothing is wasted,” he says. “The used mash goes to local farmers to feed their sheep, cows and goats. It’s a very good protein supplement.”
We sip some pilsner that’s had two weeks to settle before it is filtered and carbonated, and see the very active yeast, a precious commodity Bethwell nurtures like a spoilt child. “We reuse it 14 times, but even then it’s still active enough to bake bread.”
An expensive hobby to local business
We choose to do our tasting in the atmospheric Wharf Street Brew Pub next door, where Colin’s son Bram is owner-chef and has retained the ‘good-time emporium’ feel of the old building. The Kowie Gold Pilsner is pure liquid refreshment on a warm day and goes down a treat. We work our way through the Benn Koppen Lager and the Coin Ale to the Squires Porter, at six per cent alcoholic content the strongest of the beers. Stouts are normally David’s favourite, but today his vote for best beer goes to the Kowie Gold.
Our appetite for craft beer well and truly whetted, our next stop along the meandering Kowie River route is Bathurst, often pronounced Baa-thirst by regulars at the Pig and Whistle, one of the oldest licensed pubs in the land. But we skip this watering hole as we’ve arranged to meet two self-proclaimed ‘hop heads’ from the Bathurst Homebrew Club at the Village Bistro, a couple of doors away.
“To beer or not to beer: it’s not a question, it’s a necessity,” is the leg-pulling welcome greeting we get from André Roodt and Brian Thomas. Given their enthusiasm for making – and sampling – ale, they are surprisingly slim. “I have a high metabolism,” says André with a chuckle, coaxing the cap off one of his Indian Pale Ales, which he’s christened Bistro Bru for club members Annie and Barry Hartley, co-owners of the Village Bistro, who are making chilled music at the other end of the restaurant.
What was an expensive hobby, sourcing ingredients from far afield has reached the butterfly stage, where it is turning into a business. “We aim to supply local pubs,” says André.
A gallery and a brewery
Their all-natural beer is not pasteurised or filtered, so doesn’t have a long shelf life. It’s not carbonated either. “We add a little sugar when we bottle, which gives a secondary fermentation and natural bubbles. The big breweries carbonate with CO2 in order to stabilise large volumes of beer,” points out Brian as we sip the Bistro Bru. It’s hopped at the end of the boil of a 25-litre batch and is too bitter for my taste, but it reminds David of an ale he used to enjoy in London. But their rich, dark stout with a creamy head gets enthusiastic endorsement from both of us.
Once they have a licence, the Bathurst Homebrew Club will sell its beers from Bleak House, a historic building in the centre of Bathurst, where André’s wife Cindy has a cake shop (at a local fundraiser, someone recently bid R800 for one of her death-by-chocolate confections).
Meantime, nature lovers can pay a small fee to walk in the park at Brian’s wife’s art gallery, Just Off Centre, where the farmers’ market is held each Sunday morning. And if someone looks thirsty after their walk, Brian might just offer a taste of home brew…
A slow process
David and I continue tracking the Kowie River, taking a wild back route through Waters Meeting Nature Reserve to its source in the hills south of Makhanda (Grahamstown’s new name). This is where Featherstone Brewery taps clear water from a spring in the hillside to craft six fine beers. Mark Riley started brewing as a hobby and finally gave up his day job teaching primary school to brew full-time at their farm nearly three years ago.
“I bought the largest stainless-steel pot I could find online and adapted it. We built most of our equipment ourselves,” says Mark. “It takes a month to make a batch of 150 litres – two weeks to ferment and two weeks to condition.”
Mark normally brews twice a week and ‘alewife’ Clare manages the business side of things. With a young family of their own, they’ve made Featherstone a child-friendly venue – there’s a play area for kiddies while the adults imbibe in the beer garden or on the newly built deck atop the tiny pub.
Farm hikes connect to the Odenburgia network of trails that Mark explores regularly when he goes out trail running. “People can also hike here from Mountain Drive or Grey Dam and get a taxi back to town,” says Clare. “Or just bring a picnic and braai.”
A hike to the eye of the spring
Our tasting starts with the aptly named Oldenburgia, a Weiss beer that is so refreshing and light David declares one could easily get caught out downing too much of it. I’m surprised when he prefers the Bell Ringer Rooibos Infused Pale Ale to the fuller-bodied Drostdy English Ale as he doesn’t enjoy the health tea.
As we sip the US-style Golden Mole Indian Pale Ale, Mark explains the strong hoppy taste. “Hops was used to preserve beer as well as flavour it, especially on long sea voyages.”
Tumble Bug, a rich, smooth stout named for the local dung beetle, has a roasted coffee flavour and instantly gets my vote as opposed to the Blaauwkrantz Porter. “Tumble Bug is good paired with strong cheese,” advises Mark, “whereas the Blaauwkrantz with its unusual coriander and orange undertones is an after-dinner type beer that goes well with chocolate.”
Talk of food reminds me of the picnic goodies we brought, and we leave Mark to hike to the eye of the spring from where our beer sprang. But somehow the hops has robbed our legs of their vigour and we sit atop the first hill, marvelling at the miracle of turning water into beer…
Hoppy Hunting Grounds
The Little Brewery on the River does tours and tastings weekdays at 11h00 and 14h00.
046 624 8692, www.littlebrewery.co.za
Bathurst Homebrew Club André Roodt
072 603 7212, Brian Thomas 072 090 6757
Featherstone Brewery tasting room and beer garden is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, more often during the holidays, and by special arrangement for groups and food pairings. 078 040 0982