Pouring pints in South Africa’s Cape Winelands
Both routes to the village of Stanford, 145km southeast of Cape Town, offer the kind of scenery you came to the cape for, snaking through mountain passes or along dramatic coastal roads. Occasional wineries punctuate the final stretch before the postcard-worthy village, with its river-meets-mountain vistas and deserted streets flanked with countrified guesthouses. Perched on the outskirts is the Birkenhead Brewery, its name taken from a nearby 19th-century shipwreck, HMS Birkenhead, which launched the nautical tradition of evacuating women and children first. The brewery shares the Walkerbay Estate with a winery, but the beers came first. Birkenhead was an early player in the craft beer scene, brewing their first batch in 1998, though it is only in the past couple of years that its beers have really taken off. The brews in question range from a premium lager to an odd blend of stout, light ale and brandy known as Black Snake, but it is the Honey Blonde Ale that gets people talking. You get an aggressive wave of honey on the nose, but on the palate the sweetness is well-balanced, making for a complex beer that can stand up to complex food. Grab some bottles to go and seek out a picturesque spot to taste them with the Cape Malay favourite, bobotie, a curried mince dish cooked with dried fruits and topped with a savoury egg custard. The slight underlying sweetness from the beer makes a perfect companion for the sweet and spicy nuances of this early example of fusion cooking, which combines Dutch dishes with flavours from what is now Indonesia.
About 75km north of Cape Town, the vineyards continue around the artsy town of Darling. Best known for its resident political drag act, Evita Bezuidenhout, Darling is finding its foodie feet, with country cuisine, a cluster of wineries – and the town’s latest boozy addition, the Slow Quarter. This minimalist bar is the official tasting room of one of the country’s coolest and most sought-after beer brands, Darling Brew. South African tapas-style bites like mini ostrich pies and cured kudu (a species of antelope) grace the chalkboard menu, but perhaps the best pairing for Darling’s most talked-about beer, Bone Crusher, is the braai (barbeque) staple, a boerewors roll. The South African beef sausage is heavily laced with coriander, a spice that also features in the Belgian-style witbier with a perfumed nose and a palate-cleansing finish. This beer style is usually paired with seafood, but Darling’s version is robust enough to stand up to meatier fare.
With more than 300 wineries in the Cape Winelands there is a long way to go before grain can give grape any kind of a battle, but with brewery numbers doubling in the past year and dozens more in the pipeline, it looks as though craft beer is going to be a permanent addition to the country’s culinary scene.