03 March 2014 07:58

History of Beer in South Africa

Most South Africans tend to be a jovial bunch. We love being outdoors, we love our sport, we love to braai and most importantly, we LOVE to drink beer. And we do it well!

We’re home to a great beer consumption culture, and we’re pretty brand loyal. However, the beer landscape seems to have shifted into a new gear over the last few years with the advent of many microbreweries around the country. While the majority of beer consumed will continue to come from the major commercial brewers, a new market is emerging that enjoys more of the craft brewed variety.


Where did it all start?

A certain Jan van Riebeeck and his merry crew landed in the Cape in 1652. Shortly after in 1664, the first private brewing licenses were granted to four producers, who were given specific areas from which to operate and only allowed to produce small quantities. However, due to the lack of quality brewing ingredients, the majority of beer was brought in by ship and the Dutch East India Company therefore retained control of the supply of the beverage.

Some 40 years later, the Governor of the Cape took a more positive approach to the beer supply and sent for the ‘brewer’ Rutger Mensing. Upon his arrival, he was granted a substantial piece of land in what is currently known as Newlands and surrounds, and in 1696, Mensing produced his first batch of malt beer. Some of this beer was sold to Dutch East India Company as it was deemed necessary for the health of the sailors (who said beer was bad for you?) and the rest to the public in casks.

The brewery was then left to Mensing’s wife, Gerbregt, and his son Willem, who was a bit of a philanderer witha particular fondness for the slave women. Gerbrech, who was the holder of the brewing license, was said to be a feisty women who ended up alienating the customers, so in 1713, Willem was forced to sell the brewery to Rudolf Steenbok. After this time, various people were licensed to produce beer in the area. Most significantly, in 1783, Dirk Gijsbert van Reenen obtained a brewer’s license and set about trying to improve the quality of beer which was still largely reliant on using imported, dried hops. The most important factor in doing so was his decision to plant hops on his farm near Swellendam, which as it turns out, led to the development of George as a hops growing area.

Up until 1795, beer was still primarily being produced for the Dutch East India Company under monopolistic conditions. After the control of the Cape changed hands to the British in the early 1800s, the principles of free trade were implemented to the detriment of the brewers who had paid ‘handsome’ figures to brew beer under the monopoly system. This resulted in the properties changing hands under British rule, ushering in the new breed of modern breweries.

In the 1840s, Jacob Letterstedt, a well-connected businessman with varied interests, set up Mariendahl Brewery and Josephine’s Mill, making use of the natural spring water from Newlands Spring for the brewing of his beer. He also imported modern, updated equipment and expertise, which resulted in much better quality beer than was previously available. At the same time, there was another substantial brewing operation, Newlands Brewery, which was situated below the current Forrester’s Arms and brewed much more beer than Mariendahl Brewery.

In 1864, Anders Ohlsson came to the Cape and by 1881 had bought up a variety of commercial enterprises, one of which was a mill not far from the breweries. He had assessed that brewing had a bright future and proceeded to purchase properties in the area. In 1888, Ohlsson ended up leasing the Mariendahl Brewery and Josephine’s Mill with an option to buy all the leased properties and water rights from Newlands Spring. In this time he had also negotiated purchase of or rights to a number of other breweries in the area, namely the Martienessen Brewery, the substantial Cannon Brewery, and eventually the Newlands Brewery after the death of its owner.

Around the time that Ohlsson was consolidating his interests in the Cape, a new brewery was launched upcountry. With the discovery of gold and the subsequent establishment of Johannesburg at the epicentre of the gold rush in the Transvaal, South African Breweries was founded in 1895, and Castle Lager was launched the same year.

Over years, particularly during the outbreak of war and the Depression years, South African Breweries and Ohlsson worked closely to secure the supply of barley and hops, which resulted in the establishment of commercial hops farming in the George area in 1935. South African Breweries continued their expansion into other territories, including Rhodesia. By 1953, they had built a modern brewery in Isando, and by 1956, they had bought out their rivals, Ohlssons and Union Brewery, after the government had applied major pressure through taxation and banning of alcohol sales to black consumers. The purchase of the two breweries allowed SAB to effectively eliminate competition as they could rely on economies of scale and distribution.

In 1962, the prohibition of liquor sales to the African market was lifted and this led to major growth in the sector. This was followed by SAB gaining the licenses to brew Guinness (the first license granted outside of Ireland), Amstel and Carling Black Label.


Modern Times

The South African Beer landscape is vastly changed. After a period where SAB controlled almost 95% of the market, other major players have entered the fray. Brandhouse, a joint venture between international beverage companies Diageo, Namibia Breweries and Heineken International, is the main competitor. With Brands like Windhoek, Heineken, Guinness and lately Amstel, they compete predominantly in the premium sector and have eroded away some of SAB’s stranglehold.

A whole host of microbreweries have also entered the market over the years, with the most notable being Nottingham Road Breweries in KZN, Mitchell’s Brewery in the Cape and Drayman’s in Gauteng. This sector is seeing unprecedented growth, with new brands being presented on a monthly basis, either through importation of foreign beers or new local microbreweries. A certain segment of the South African market, it seems, has opened up to these new players, creating a completely new dimension to the beer sector. In times when beer sales have remained pretty stable, the availability of these new brands seems to be stimulating growth, which can only be a good thing. We’re all for the growth of the beer market. Long may it continue!



Article by Keg King - www.kegking.co.za

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