I have been saying this for a little while, and now the eminent MW Tim Atkin has agreed: now is the most exciting time to be involved in the South African wine scene.
If you are into new and sparkly things, however, the local craft beer scene may be even more exciting. It is burgeoning. Nowadays it feels like you can’t open a garage door in Cape Town without finding some bearded, skinny-jeaned chap messing about with barley, hops and water.
The one producer who for me is leading the charge in scale, quality, and intent is Devil’s Peak Brewery. I first head about them when I tasted my first Indian Pale Ale, the King’s Blockhouse IPA. It’s a super hoppy, fruit bomb of a beer. On that day I woke up to a different beer drinking life. The insipid, fizzy, flavourless larger scales fell from my eyes. No longer was I a Black Label sipping Saul, but an IPA guzzling Paul.I popped down to Salt River last week – where Devil’s Peak are in the final stages of building their new brewery, tap room and restaurant – to witness a coming together of these two exciting industries. Earlier in the year Devil’s Peak had procured some Chenin Blanc juice from Swartland producer Mullineux Family Vineyards, and put it in the freezer. Their plan was to use this juice in an experimental beer. Last week I joined them to see the juice being added, along with Chris Mullineux and the whole Devil’s Peak crew.
Currently Devil’s Peak are able to produce 9000 litres of beer per month, but as soon as the new Brewery is running at full capacity this number will shoot to 30 000. Add to that a keg room where experimental beers will be tested on the public, and a restaurant managed by a successful Cape Town restaurateur, and I reckon Devil’s Peak Brewery is going to be one of the places to go for a pint next summer. Their aim is to be open by August.
Beer making is an interesting endeavor, especially when you are viewing it through wine tinted spectacles. There’s no ‘vintage variation’ excuses here. You have to perfect and maintain a recipe to ensure that each time a punter buys your IPA, stout, or larger it tastes the same. Consistency is king. That along with cleanliness, as explained to me by JC Steyn – the brewer at Devil’s Peak – who used to make wine at Dornier. There’s no tasting from barrel and chucking the left overs back in, oh no no; everything must stay sterile.
I am still slowly progressing with my brewing education, so it was with keen interest that I watched this beer/wine combo come together. Just like winemakers, brewers are looking for ways to add complexity to their final product. The type of malted barley used – a fairly complex process in itself – the type of hops added and when it’s added, what yeast is used, and how the beer is matured all add complexity to a beer. And each process can be screwed up to ruin the beer. An over simplification if there ever was one, but I hope you get the idea.
When I arrived last week, mashing had already taken place; this is the process that converts starches released in the malting stage into sugars that can be fermented. The result of this process is a sugar rich liquid called the wort. The wort is boiled to kick-start various chemical reactions that will have an effect on the final beer. During this boiling various hops are added giving aroma, bitterness and flavour to the beer. The timing of the hops addition is paramount, and the brewers had their stopwatches out to make sure they nailed the recipe. “Three, two, one, hops.”
Hops, apart from its glorious spliff-like aroma, is interesting. Due to our location to the equator and our resulting lack of sunlight hours, South Africa is not able – according to the Devil’s Peak folk – to produce the right hops for truly great beer. As such, they import their hops from the US; Oregon specifically for the wine/beer combo.
The plan here was to add the Chenin just before the wort was cooled down to a fermentation friendly temperature. This would mean the chenin juice could also be sterilized. Once cooled, the Chenin’s extra sugars and acidity would add complexity to the beer, give a more sour finish and increase the alcohol content.
The complexity continues.
After fermentation is complete the beer will be racked into two different older oak barrels. One is a 225l ex-Chardonnay barrel. The other, an old 300l Pinot barrel that’s known to be ‘tainted’ with Brett (beer makers like brett you see, and different strains can be ordered via catalogue), will house the rest of the beer along with skins from a Mullineux straw wine pressing. These will all age together for around 5-6 months, or until the beer is tasting right. The beers will be blended, put into pressured vats, and then bottled.
What will this beer taste like? Well, the same yeast is being used in this beer as is used for the Silver Tree Saison, so it is going to be similarly styled – think medium bodied, slightly spicy, medium hoppiness. However, because of the added acid and sugar from the Chenin juice and skins, and the way there will be a secondary fermentation in barrel, this beer will tend a little toward a lambic styled beer. These are Belgian beers that are twice naturally fermented, and end up with sour finishes due to higher acidities.
It’s all quite a lot to take in. But the excitement is palpable. It’s not a world first adding wine to beer like this, but that we have facilities, talented people, and those willing to put up the money to make these sort of products is great.
This is no man in his garage who makes a few bottles, sells them at the The Biscuit Mill Market, and now is an artisanal craft brewer. This is a serious minded business looking to produce top end, complex and interesting beers. Cape Town, we are lucky.
The other beer I tasted was the Woodhead Amber Ale. It’s a darker version of the King’s Blockhouse IPA. Very hoppy, but with the malted barley being roasted, the bitterness from the hops turned from being a pithy, fruit-pip bitterness into a more dark-chocolate nutty bitterness. It worked well and is a good winter beer to drink if you like your beers hoppy. This, I have found, is something I do enjoy very much, very much indeed.
I have also made a very short, very roughly edited video, so the moment of the Chenin adding is saved for posterity. I think the Devil’s Peak folk will be putting out their own out soon. This promises interviews, time lapses and steadier hands.