The trend for hand-crafted beers has hit South African shores, and breweries are piggybacking onto the foodie culture that seems to follow grapes wherever they grow.

For foodie travellers, a tasting tour of the Cape Winelands – the mountainous, vineyard-dotted region 60km east of Cape Town — is an African must. It is a place where chocolatiers, cheese makers and boutique vintners ply their wares at artisanal markets, while in nearby restaurants, chefs serve multi-course banquets, each dish painstakingly paired with one of the thousands of wines that give this region its name.

So it is no great surprise that South Africa’s latest culinary craze has set down its roots alongside those of the centuries-old vines.

After livening up bars in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Far East, the trend for hand-crafted beers has now hit South African shores. Craft breweries are springing up across the country, and nowhere more so than in the region dominated by the beverage whose crown craft beer hopes to steal. Suddenly, top chefs are cooking with it, sommeliers are swapping wine for it, snazzy hotels are dedicating portions of their menus to it, and consumers are trading in their glass of pinotage for a taste of it. The amber nectar is finally finding its place in the South African spotlight.

New brews and traditional food
Brazenly sitting in South Africa’s most famous wine town, the Stellenbrau brewery is a relatively new addition to the country’s beer portfolio, pouring its first pint in mid-2012. Their easy-drinking beers are not only gracing the taps of Stellenbosch’s  many student bars, but are also infiltrating upmarket hotels, restaurants and even some of the wineries themselves. The flagship Craven Craft, named for South African rugby legend Danie Craven, is a crisp lager with subtle malty notes. It was developed with summer in mind, so it is only fitting that it pairs perfectly with a South African summertime institution, the snoek braai.  This perch-like fish was shunned by the British as a World War II ration, but for South Africans, it is the perfect protein to throw on a barbeque.

Vine-lined roads wind north from Stellenbosch amid a landscape dotted with whitewashed Cape Dutch homesteads, and in the distance, the jagged blue-grey mountains of the Simonsberg range. It is here, nestled between vineyards in Stellenbosch’s northern reaches, that the Wild Clover Brewery can be found. Amiable brewer Ampie Kruger began his fermenting career as a garagiste, or small-scale winemaker, but a long-lasting love affair with ale has finally proved profitable, with a duo of beers from Ampie and co-brewer Karel Coetzee launching to high praise at the third annual Cape Town Festival of Beer in late 2012. Their  warming porter, laden with toffee- and chocolate-like qualities, is a perfect companion for South Africa’s home-grown dessert: malva pudding, a gooey sponge cake made with apricot jam and served with a rich, caramel sauce.

It is a short hop from Wild Clover Brewery to the Cape Brewing Company (CBC) in the outskirts of Stellenbosch’s neighbouring wine town, Paarl. Opened in January 2013, the most recent addition to the cape’s ale trail is a magnificent one, with world-class equipment, endless winelands vistas and an elegant tasting room reminiscent of the region’s wineries. This is no surprise since CBC is part-owned by local wine giant Charles Back, whose Fairview estate is one of Paarl’s most popular wineries. And CBC produces some of the best beer in the country too, thanks to the expertise of German brewmaster Wolfgang Koedel, a familiar face in the cape brewing scene. The malty pilsner, with its pleasant underlying bitterness, is the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of biltong, a spiced jerky-like meat snack that is often munched alongside a pint in South Africa.

Breweries off the beaten track
South Africa’s wine region stretches further than most people venture on a first trip, but away from the oft-visited towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl are dozens of remote wine routes offering free samples, crowd-free tasting rooms and unpretentious farm-kitchen eateries. You will also find breweries piggybacking on the foodie culture that seems to follow grapes wherever they grow.

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.