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Interesting facts about Beer in SA

23 June 2015, 09:31

Around the braai or in a pub, South Africans love the taste of good brew. Whether at the game or at a music festival people of all classes, colours, and creeds regularly clamour for the unique refreshment of an ice-cold beer. South African Breweries has never looked healthier and the craft beer market has recently exploded in SA - Fokofpolisiekar recently launched their third craft beer, Hemel op die Platteland Amber Ale. The following are four interesting facts that explore the fascinating world of beer in South Africa.

1)      We are an Incredibly Thirsty Lot

First and foremost, South Africans like to drink. A lot. This is no secret and is reflected in the fact that we are considered the thirty firstiest consumers of beer per capita in the world. At an average of about 60 litres of beer per person per year – 182 bottles of green or brown – South Africans are truly beholden to the gods of hops & barley.

2)      South Africans Love Craft Beer

Craft Beer - “An explosion of art and science coming together to build a drinking masterpiece”

This is the top definition of what constitutes a craft beer on the tongue-in-cheek Urban Dictionary. Less poetic and more substantial definitions are however quite hard to come by. The American Brewer Association considers a craft brewery to be small (produces less than 3% of annual sales), independent (less than 25% of brewery is owned by anyone who is not a craft brewer) and traditional (majority of beers’ flavour derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation).  South Africa, however, is much formal about what constitutes a craft beer, but everyone seems to agree that it basically includes anything that is not brewed by SAB.

Those who know seem to agree that it was Lex Mitchell, an ex-SAB brewer who kick-started the craft beer brewing revolution in South Africa back in the 1980s with SA’s first microbrewery – Mitchells, in Knysna. Fast-forward 25years in the future (no doubt in an alcohol induced haze) to 2015 and there are currently more than 135 brewing companies that can be considered craft brewers (please note that the very nature of craft beers mean that it is possible that a few of the smaller brewers have fallen through the cracks and have not made the accompanying infographic, not because they are not worthy, but purely because they were tragically overlooked). 

Of the 135 craft beer brewers, an impressive 66 (48%) of them are currently practising their ale-chemy down in the Western Cape. Although Gauteng (33) and kwaZulu Natal (15) seem almost ready to join the company of the big boys of brewing down in the Cape. It is a bit more difficult to gauge who the single biggest microbrewery is at the moment in SA, but the general consensus seems to favour Mitchells as the biggest nationally, with Jack Black, Darling Brew, and Boston breweries all a firm second. Of course craft beers are best enjoyed locally, so the popularity of a beer might differ significantly from province to province, region to region.

3)      South African Breweries Dominates National and International Beer Markets

SAB was founded in 1895 as Castle Breweries to quench the thirst of the miners and prospectors that were flooding in towards Johannesburg in search of realising their own dream of Egoli. Since the turn of the 19th century SAB has dominated the national beer market and today it provides for about 89% of the SA market. However, in 2002, after SAB’s acquisition of the American Miller Brewing Company, the newly minted SABMiller would also begin its reign of the international beer market.

Today SABMiller is considered the world’s second-largest brewer, measured by revenue, bringing home around R220 billion per year. The wholesale purveyor of liquid gold currently puts a smile at the end of a long day on the faces of hard workers across 80 countries in the world with a selection of over 150 beer brands.

Would you like to know how many litres of lager does the second largest-beer brewer in the world produce? The second-largest beer brewer in the world produces 24 billion litres of lager, or around a 100 billion bottles of beer, per year. That is enough beer to gift every man, woman, child and centenarian on earth two six packs of beer on their birthday every year.

4)      Castle Lager - The Only Truly South African Beer

A popular game that barmen like to play on lazy Saturday afternoons, before the regular crowd shuffles, is to guess the main ingredients of different types of alcohol (Vodka = potatoes, Tequila = cacti), as well as from which countries each brand of beer originates. The selection of major beers distributed between the two big national beer distributors, SABMiller and Brandhouse, and their country of origin are as follows: Amstel & Heineken (Netherlands – Brandhouse); Fosters (Australia); Pilsener Urquell & Hansa Pilsner (Czech Republic); Peroni (Italy); Miller Genuine Draft (USA); and Grolsch (Netherlands). Most of the brands mentioned so far are quite easy to distinguish as not being truly South African, but there is one other brand that has, through a feat of ingenious marketing and branding, established itself as the quintessential South African beer for the man on the street – Black Label. However, this would only be true if the particular street that the man in question was on had an oft-used ice hockey rink at the end and a lone Moose meandering in the background – Carling Black Label is Canadian.

In the end, unless Lion Lager decides to make a definitive comeback, Castle Lager remains the only beer conceived, brewed and distributed on a national level in South Africa. Voted the “World’s Best Bottled Lager” at the 2000 International Brewing Industry Awards, the refreshing creation of Mr. Charles Glass (although some would say that we should rather be thanking Mrs. Glass) celebrates its 120th birthday this year and will remain the only truly South African beer sold en masse in SA for the time being.

So there you have it – the fascinating world of the South African beer industry. We love to consume copious amounts of the stuff and are also really good at making it, at least good enough dominate the international market. We inexplicably have only one national beer, even though the much smaller Namibia Breweries have two – Tafel and Windhoek. And lastly, we love beer so much that we have almost three times as many craft beer breweries in South Africa as we have Black female professors. But then again, that’s South Africa for you – interesting, contradictory and a little bit funny at times.

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