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
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.
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.