SOUTH AFRICA – “We’ve got plans to export to the US,” grins Luca Tooley who co-owns the Zwakala craft brewery in Limpopo.
“Hopefully, within the next two to three weeks, we’ll be sending a full pallet of beer over,” he adds, standing outside his brewhouse, overlooking the river that provides the crystal-clear water for his ales.
SA is renowned worldwide for its wine exports but has fallen far behind the craze for craft beers that came of age in the US before exploding in Britain, Germany and elsewhere.
The beer market is dominated by South African Breweries (SAB), which is better known for its affordable lagers.
More than four out of five beers sold in the country are made by SAB, but a growing number of craft brewers are pushing to put their creations into the hands of drinkers in SA and beyond.
Craft ales are distinguished from mass-market lagers by their more artisanal manufacturing process, smaller production runs and innovative flavours.
Market analysts Grand View Research estimates the global craft ale market could be worth $500bn by 2025 — six times more than in 2015.
Zwakala is finalising a deal with Nando’s to provide their US restaurants with hoppy, hand-made brews — a major breakthrough for their fledgling operation.
“We’re also looking to export our beer to Zimbabwe and to Zambia and China,” says Tooley. “Export is going to be quite a big market soon.”
As South African craft beer takes the first steps to establish itself abroad, hand-made ales are surging in popularity at home, becoming a niche premium market.
Currently just 3% of beers sold come from craft brewers but that figure has more than tripled since 2013 and is expected to grow to 10% by 2022, according to industry statistics.
In the US, craft beer has reached 21% market share.
One key to securing domestic success will be tapping into the booming black middle-class.
“The industry is still very white, beardy hipster guys,” says Tsikwe Molobye, who runs the Stimela craft brand. “I’ve had moments at festivals where a person would say ‘But you’re black, what do you know about beer?’ I’m thick-skinned.”
Despite the challenges, his dream is to develop a beer that will appeal to black professionals like himself who have been aggressively marketed premium products such as champagne but have had little exposure to craft ale.
Local brewers are also seeking to attract beer aficionados and tourists with their quirky brewery concepts.
Johannesburg is home to Africa’s first airport brewery, which is run by the Skosana family, and opened its doors to passengers in 2015.
The on-site brewery, within sight of passing aircraft, makes 3,000 litres of craft beers a month that include porters, India Pale Ales (IPAs), blondes and pilsners.
“Even the landlord was excited ahead of the opening,” says the brewery’s chairman, Brian Skosana.
The Zwakala brewery in Limpopo is also a tourist hotspot and sits in the heart of a region popular with visitors from home and abroad.
“We get quite a lot of Americans coming through here and quite a lot of Dutch tourists stopping. It is a market we want to target,” says Tooley.
Greta Edwards was brought to the brewery by her husband to celebrate her birthday. “It’s very much a draw for overseas visitors. It’s like tasting French champagne against sparkling wine,” she says.
But all that glisters is not gold, warns Lucy Corne who runs the Brewmistress blog that chronicles the highs and lows of the South African beer industry.
“There are approximately 200 breweries in SA now, and if I walked into a store with beers from all of them, I would probably risk my money on a maximum of 50 of them.”
Major brewers also threaten to muscle in on the untapped market. Dutch beer giant Heineken recently snapped up one of SA’s most iconic craft brands, Soweto Gold.
Not to be outdone, SAB has developed its own range of craft beers. At one of its giant brewing sites outside Johannesburg, brew master Warren Wiese prides himself of the trio of craft beers he brews manually, unlike its lager stablemates.
“Our beers are different enough that they stand out, nice enough that if you are into craft beer you can still appreciate them — and if you are new to craft beer it is a nice stepping stone,” he says.
While SAB has deep pockets to experiment and develop its answer to the craft phenomenon, Corne sounds a note of caution for start-up opportunists looking to cash in: “There are also the bandwagon jumpers who are, like ‘everyone is opening a craft brewery, I’ll do the same’. Those guys aren’t going to survive.”