What’s wrong with South African craft beer?

Last week concluded the 2016 edition of the World Beer Cup hosted by the Brewers’ Association. The awards were presented at the conclusion of the Craft Brewers’ Conference & BrewExpo America in Philadelphia , Pennsylvania.  Nearly 6600 breweries from 55 different countries competed in the world’s most prestigious beer competition with 287 awards being won by 253 breweries.  “Brewing has no boundaries or borders,” said Charlie Papazian, founder, Brewers Association. “The World Beer Cup recognizes the very best in the global community of brewers—their innovation, creativity and the craft of beer and brewing.”

Categories for judging were arranged loosely aligned to BJCP guidelines but included an extraordinary amount of wondrous new options.  New innovation and creativity really shine through in categories such as:  wet and fresh hop, historical, herb and spice, chilli, chocolate, honey, rye, barrel ageing, sour, experimental and specialty beers.

The field, as is to be expected, was massively dominated by the USA.  The States have been the champion and captain of this now global movement of innovation and creativity. The majority of new styles, that are poster children for the movement, have been in some way created or adapted by American brewers. No one can argue that the star-spangled banner is the flag bearer of the revolution. Evidence of this is seen in the increasing use of the ‘American Style’ prefix for new beer styles and the overwhelming number of entries in these categories: American Style IPA 275, Imperial IPA 181 and American Style Pale Ale 167 entries.

However the rest of the world is catching on, with Japan showing impressive results and taking two medals in the experimental beer category and six overall.  Germany was second on the medal list but their medals were garnered from more traditional style European beers which you would expect them to be best at.

So why only one South African entry and no medals in this year’s World Beer Cup?  There are many factors at work, including those of practicality, resources and availability.  For a South African brewery to enter they would have to freight the beer over at their own cost and hope that it arrives in its best condition. This is a consideration,  but if Lithuania (four entries) and Vietnam  (seven entries) can do it, then  so can we.  So what’s the problem then? Perhaps we are too young and still finding our way and international competition is beyond us*.  I have personally handed over South African micro-brewed beers to international judges who have been very pleased with the contents and quality.

This world cup thing is by no means the absolute barometer of our industry’s health and progress. However, it does evoke interesting observations of where we are on our revolutionary road trip. We have literally just checked the tyre pressure in the petrol station while America is pedal to the metal down route 66.

Let’s just check the oil quickly before we set off.

The SA industry is still establishing itself and still very much playing it safe. Much like the kick and chase mentality we have employed in our rugby ethos for the last decade, our national psyche runneth over into our beer mugs too.  I can pretty much guess a new South African breweries’ line up.  A lager, a light easy drinking ale like a blonde, pale ale or Golden ale, an amber and then an IPA, oh and don’t forget the weiss.  Where are all the specialty beers, historical beers, fresh or wet hop beers?  These are all indicators of a thriving self-assured industry that embodies the “craft” beer ethos of creativity and innovation.  Craft beer knows no boundaries! Oh wait, yes it does! It’s just over there. It’s called the market. Damn market!

Yes, thanks to a few, we have seen some barrel ageing, smoking, specialty and sour beers. However, these are not made at any real relative volume and probably will not be in future, as both the industry and market it looks to serve are too conservative and somewhat ignorant. I have overheard some South Africans exclaiming with glee that “craft” beer is a South African phenomenon. Bless! I would suggest that there are not many stamps in that person’s green mamba.

Innovation and creativity is stunted by the need to compete commercially. Breweries are playing in a red ocean strategy where shark eats shark. No one is brave enough to swim into the blue ocean and create and capture new demand rather than exploiting existing demand. More breweries   chase and hope  mentality needs to be replaced by free-flowing creativity and a bit of flair.  It’s not just well-designed labels on your light ale or lager that will make you stand out on Beerhouse, Banana Jam, Liquor City or Roeland Liquor’s shelves.

I believe a second revolution is coming and that in five years’ time the original beer Bolsheviks will evolve into fully established revolutionaries where pure innovation, sublime creativity and disruptive energy will be able to trump domineering and stifling market forces. Perhaps when breweries have paid back their loans, expanded, and have a significant foot print in the market then we will see the Van Gogh rather than the paint by numbers. A small enclave of current breweries are showing inclinations but more as window dressing than a substantial statement of “This is who we are. We do it our way. People will come”.  After saying all that, Sierra Nevada did not become a ‘Billionaire Brewery’ by selling Bigfoot Barley Wine  but rather the now iconic but safe Pale Ale.

For a list of stats from the World Beer Cup 2016 have a look at this fact pack

For a  full list of winners at the World Beer Cup 20216 click here

* Local South African micro breweries like Cape Brewing Company (CBC) & Jack Black’s Brewing Co  have picked up numerous international medals over the last three years.  In particular Jack Black’s Lumberjack Amber Ale was awarded with a Bronze at the 2015 edition of the San Diego International Beer Festival . An American style beer made in SA and being recognized in USA. CBC just recently received 4 awards at the Meiningers International Craft Beer Awards , impressively a Platinum Medal for the Cape Of Good Hops Imperial IPA. Once again an American-style beer from SA taking big honours.  I want to take nothing away from these great achievements however I would love to see SA win some medals at the bigger World Beer Cup with some truly innovative and creative unique beers. That would be a sign of a mature thriving industry.


World Beer Cup #3

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