My take on beer festivals

I love beer festivals. They’re the best way to try lots of different beer while hanging out with your friends, consuming some great food from food trucks and chilling out to a band. These days, however, I pick and choose my festivals very carefully. I have a few issues with beer festivals, which were brought to the fore when I read this article (for the record, the ones I most agree with are lack of drinking water as well as only having beers you can get at any old store). The other thing that kicked it off (and my biggest issue at festivals) was this status that I put on Facebook that opened quite the can of worms.

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So Lucy Corne, Ivor Swartz and I decided to do a collaborative blog each offering our take on beer festivals. I’ll be focusing on tasters and stand costs.

First, I’ll take care of tasters. I’ve been to quite a few festivals where tasters weren’t openly offered. The official stance was “pints only.” As a paying guest of the festival, I don’t want to have to go to each stand and ask the brewers if they offer tasters. I did this anyway, and had a 20% success rate. I can’t drink 35 to 40 pints of beers and besides, I go to festivals to try lots of different beers. The unintended consequence of this is that I stick to beers I know, and that hurts the guys whose beer I really wanted to taste (but I’m not willing to risk R30 on a possibly average beer).

I’m also not advocating brewers just give free beer away. They’re running a business and I don’t expect stuff for free (and neither should you). So my wish for tasters is not a wish for free stuff, so I have two suggestions to festivals:

a) Give each attendee at the festival a taster glass instead of a pint glass. They can then go around tasting and buy a pint at the stand if they wish. Each brewery can charge a standard price to fill the glass (R5 for example) and you can buy a pint glass if you wish.
b) Have a separate ticket for tastings and one for normal entry. For example, entry is R80. You pay an extra R100 for 20 tasters. This way those that want to taste can taste and those that just want to drink pints aren’t forced to cover the costs for those that want to taste.

Either one would make tastings official, and would simplify my life at festivals. I understand different people go to festivals for different reasons, but this accounts for each of them.

And then a few words on the cost of having stands at festivals. I understand logistics and running costs, but when you’re charging a small, local brewery a few thousand rand to compete with 20 to 25 other breweries for people’s attention (and there is no taster policy in place, see above), it makes it very difficult for them to justify appearing at the festival. Then it’s time to find a new venue or a way to cut costs somehow because when you only have the big breweries that can afford your festival fee, then you’re going to start only having the beer that people can get at supermarkets (see the Thrillist article linked above).

The bottom line is we need a more creative approach to festivals where more people in the supply chain benefit.

Why I don’t stick with the Reinheitsgebot (and neither should you)

Ah, the good old Reinheitsgebot. I’m sure you all know what it is but if not, here is a link to the article on Wikipedia. Many purists (especially in Germany) say it’s important for beer. I disagree. And here are two reasons why:

  • It doesn’t guarantee quality.

I’ve had great beers that only contain barley, hops and water (and yeast obviously). I’ve also had awful beers that follow the Reinheitsgebot. Just because you stick to certain ingredients, doesn’t mean you have the proper hygiene and quality control practices in place to make good beer. Of course, I’ve also had terrible beers that added extra ingredients, and great beers too. I just don’t think it’s relevant anymore

  • It limits creativity

Recently, as we all know, beer is going through a revolution of sorts (as are gin and wine, which are following a very similar path to beer). And for a revolution to be fully effective, you need to first learn the rules, then throw out the rule book and push the envelope. Sure, you’ll have some terrible beers, but they may lead you down a path to an exciting new style or process which creates wonderful beers. And I know there are millions of combinations of malts and hops, not to mention the adjustments you can do to the water, but why can’t I add oysters to my stout or honey to my pilsner? In an industry like beer, I don’t want some 500 year old law dictating what we’re allowed to add.

So that’s my take on it. It was written before they discovered yeast for goodness sake! They’ve updated it since, and there are exclusions for top fermenting beers, but I still feel it’s outdated and unnecessary, only useful as a marketing tool to those that don’t know better. It’s the MSG of beer.

If you want to see what’s achievable when you ignore the Reinheitsgebot, visit the Southyeasters fest this year.

Why you should attend Southyeasters Summer fest

It’s almost upon us! In less than a week (it’s on Sunday the 20th, tickets here), all the eager homebrewers from Cape Town descend on the Village Green at SAB Newlands to display their newest alcoholic concoctions for the 10th annual Southyeasters Summer fest. Grab your tasting glass as you enter and wander from stand to stand to sip the finest homebrew the Western Cape has to offer, voting for your top three tipples in the hotly anticipated People’s Choice competition. Local craft breweries, including Cape Brewing Company (they have a new can) and Lakeside Beerworks, who will also be in attendance.

Expect to taste well over 100 beers, including some truly innovative brews – in past years, members have showcased everything from salt water weiss and chilli chocolate stout to a beer designed to taste exactly like a bag of biltong. Brewers also design a beer for the ‘Wolfgang Cup’, a competition sanctioned by the USA-based BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program), where a specific style is chosen. This year’s style is fruit beer, so you’ll find anything from a watermelon witbier to a peach and pineapple porter. Of course, there are plenty of more familiar beers on offer too – you’ll find pale ales and dark lagers, Belgian blondes and American IPAs.

A trio of food trucks will be in attendance to soak up all the tasters along with stalls selling brewing supplies and beery merchandise. Make no mistake though, this is an homage to beer. Live music doesn’t make an appearance and unfortunately we are strictly unable to accept any under 18s at the festival at all. Tickets are available now from Quicket – book online to avoid disappointment at the door.

Even though a lot of them won’t subscribe to the Reinheitsgebot (post on my feelings about that coming up later in the week), there will still be many interesting, experimental beers there. And the fact that they are homebrewers has a few advantages:

  1. You know they’re passionate. You won’t get someone who’s hired for R20 an hour to try and push the beer. You’ll get to chat to the folks who make beer simply for the love of it. There is no pressure on bottom line or shifting volume, they just brew the beer they love drinking or the frankenstein beers they’ve always wanted to taste but wouldn’t be commercially viable. The sky is the limit! (Disclaimer: I’m not saying people who sell beer don’t have passion or that all stands at other beer fests employ disinterested people).
  2.   The beer is free! Once you’re in the gate (tickets are R120 and include a taster glass), all the beer is free! They’re homebrewers, so they’re not allowed to sell. Which means you can budget quite easily for the day.
  3. You get to learn a lot about brewing. Always wanted to try brewing yourself but afraid to try or have no idea where to begin? Then this is a great place to start because every homebrewer I’ve ever spoken to is more than happy to share their tips and tricks with you. And there is nothing like tasting your first beer you’ve made yourself. For most of us, it’s average, but it’s still a noble pursuit!
  4. It’s in a great central location. SAB Newlands is just down M4 main road, so it suits most people in and around Cape Town. So if you plan on drinking a lot, it would be best to organise a cab, grab some friends and then the fee will be covered by four of you instead of one or two (plus what’s better than chilling on a Sunday with a bunch of mates drinking interesting beer?)!
  5. The next day is a public holiday. Ok, so this has nothing to do with homebrewing but it’s still great news. So there is lots of time for partying on the Sunday then a lazy brunch and chill to recover on Sunday. That’s my plan anyway.

So there you have it. Five reasons you should buy tickets to the Southyeasters fest. It really is a no brainer, but if you needed more motivation, I’ll be there with my homebrew club with our beer. Come one, come all and taste what we’ve come up with!

I’m giving 2 pairs of tickets away to this phenomenal event. Simply tweet the following: “Hey @BeerClubSA, I’d love to attend @Southyeasters Summer Fest!” Winners will be chosen at random on Friday the 18th at 12:00.

Fast facts
What: SouthYeasters Summer Festival
When: Sunday 20th April, 10am-4pm
Where: Village Green @ SAB Newlands, 3 Main Rd, Newlands, Cape Town
How much: R120 – tickets in advance from Quicket
Why: Because beer.

 

CBC pale ale in a can: launch and review

It’s not everyday I get whisked around to secret locations on a Thursday at lunch time, so when CBC invited me to a secret event, I had to go. There was simply no other option. So I patiently waited (ok, impatiently) for the day to arrive and when it did, it was warm and sunny and perfect for spending a day out with Scott, Wolfgang and the team, but I still had no idea why they were treating us (other than because they’re great people). We got to the brewery and were greeted with delicious biltong and a choice of CBC beer to keep us hydrated. Then we were ushered in to finally find out what all the top secret arrangements were about. I for one wasn’t disappointed.

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Mmm, harvest lager

Finally, the Youtube video started playing that we had been teased with the previous week. But then it carried on. You should watch the video, I get goosebumps every time (and not just because of the snow). Then the video finished and I had mostly figured it out when this happened.

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Wolfgang most definitely has style

Wolfgang arrived in this classic beauty and then finally revealed what we were there for: a brand new beer. In a can no less! You’ll know by now that I’m a huge fan of cans, so the fact that another top class SA brewery is embracing them gets me giddy.

We had a tour of the brewery, some absolutely delicious food as well as live entertainment by Gerald Clark, who I really enjoy.

So how is the beer you ask? It’s a classic CBC beer, clean and refreshing and perfect for a hike or a hot Summer’s day. It’s at 4.8% so still full of flavour but not so much alcohol that you’ll fall off a mountain after one or two. The hop bitterness balances out the grainy malt sweetness nicely and I could easily smash a few. Personally I would like more hop flavour and aroma, but that’s just my taste, and as we know, tastes differ. You should definitely pick up a four pack when you see it (they’ll be in all major retailers soon). And for just R59.99 for a pack of four, it’s a great deal.

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How to improve the craft beer experience for everyone

Or: How to enjoy yourself while letting others do the same.

I love the craft beer world and since getting more heavily involved/passionate about 3 years ago, I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive experience. But it’s not so for everyone, and this is not a uniquely South African problem. I follow many local and international people who mostly do beer for a living and there are some common threads running through the craft beer scene. So I thought I’d offer some friendly advice on how we can make it more inviting and welcoming for all. Most of them are aimed at brewers/those serving craft beer. So here we go.

  1. Consistency

 

If you’re making beer for a living and expect to do so for the foreseeable future, you should make sure each beer that comes out of your brewery is consistently of a high quality. Like SAB does. Have you ever had an SAB beer that smelled of plasters and medicine or that gushed for minutes on end? I haven’t. Because they understand that consistent quality is key. I don’t mind some slight variations, but quality should always be consistently high, and the beer should be balanced. It’s ok to focus on just a few styles for the first few months/years, until you feel you have those perfected, then move on to the next one.

  1. Constructive feedback

       The only way brewers will be able to make sure they’re putting out consistent beer is if you tell them when you’ve gotten a bad one. It’s good to educate yourself on what off flavours you can get in beer, but generally you go with your gut. If a beer tastes or smells a bit funny, try and think about what it reminds you of and then contact the brewer to let them know. It might be a single bottle that was a problem, or a bar that hasn’t been cleaning their draught lines. Either way, I’m sure the brewer would like to know about it so they can fix it asap.

  1. Find your style.

The saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind. You have to figure out who you’re brewing for and target those people. If it’s easy drinking, lighter beers, focus on those. I’m not saying never bring out experimental beers (after all, that’s a large part of craft for me), but make sure you’re taking care of the market you’ve identified.

  1. Entry level beers

You don’t have to have an IPA in your line up if that’s not the market you’re brewing for (see above). It’s ok to focus on blondes, lagers, cream ales etc. They can be some of the most delicious, refreshing beers if done properly (see the first point) and great in a climate like South Africa. This brings me to my next point.

  1. Cheaper beers

Of course there are lots of costs involved in craft beer. Never mind that all the ingredients are imported, but then you have to pay excise, tax, rent, salaries, etc. But that’s another thing about a craft: creativity. Brew using local ingredients. Make a no-hop beer if hops get expensive. Make easier drinking, entry level styles (see above) that are full of flavour and still interesting but cost less to produce. Start a bulk buying group with other brewers in your area to get economies of scale. I’m sure there are lots and lots of other very smart ideas for cost saving, so that you can sell cheaper beers either for those that don’t want to spend so much on a beer, or for those that can’t.

  1. Treat everyone the same.

This for me is the most obvious and also the one that people just get wrong all the time. When I say the same, I mean treat them like they’re an adult that is capable of making their own decisions. “Careful sweetheart, that IPA is pretty bitter.” “This is nothing like Black Label.” Enough with all that. If someone orders a beer, give it to them and leave them be. You can of course ask for feedback on what they thought, but leave them to discover beer on their own. Unless they ask of course, but then all you need to do is describe the flavours, not make any judgment calls on what you think their palate enjoys.  

  1. Accept other people’s choices

If your friend wants to drink mass market, macro beer that you consider to be watered down horse urine mixed with the compost from your neighbour’s yard, then that’s their right. You have no business telling them what they should enjoy (see point above). Of course, try and get them to try your beer and discuss what they think, but then you should leave them alone to enjoy their beer, happy that they’re happy.

  1. Always learn, always listen

Never assume you know it all. You’d be surprised what you can learn from unexpected people if you remove your prejudices. I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking I know better than someone or I’m smarter or I make better choices. Then life comes and teaches me otherwise. It’s best to stay humble and learn as much as you can from as many as you can.

So that is my two cents. Let me know what you think (but please turn your caps lock off first). Here’s to a great world full of peace, harmony, good times and great beer.

On beer reviews

Taste (noun): a person’s liking for particular flavours

After Lucy Corne’s article (which apparently opened a can of worms judging by all the comments), I’ve been thinking a lot about beer reviews and the beers I post to social media. My policy tends to be “post the beers I like” most of the time. The reasoning behind that is that a) I don’t have enough time to post all the beers I drink and b) I don’t want to give bad/average beers publicity. But I’ve decided to change this. However, I won’t be slating beers or ranting about how overpriced it is. Bad beers will be bad beers and I’ll leave those in the sink thank you very much (when I say bad, I’m referring to infected or those with off flavours). But I’ll be posting more beers that, while not bad in the infected sense of the word, just aren’t to my taste.

It might be that the brewer is brewing for someone else because all brewers must have a target market in mind, otherwise they won’t know how to structure their beer. Taste is too subjective to please everyone all the time. I have friends that don’t enjoy the beer I brew very much. There are also people that do enjoy the beer I brew (importantly including me) so I’m happy with that.

So I’ll describe what I’m experiencing (good practice for BJCP anyway), but I will also say it’s not to my taste. I’m hoping that people will discover what sort of taste I do have (which is full flavoured, in-your-face beers that are still balanced and drinkable) and know that, if they buy a beer I recommend, they’ll enjoy it. And if not, they’ll tell me. Because that’s what makes the world fun, interesting and exciting: having a debate about what you like and what you don’t and having a beer afterwards anyway because everyone is entitled to drink whatever it is they enjoy, whether I agree with them or not.

We can’t all like the same things and that’s OK.

Why I blind taste – and you should too

We all have preconceived ideas. I like this brand of car, I drink that sort of beer. I don’t like dark beers. I don’t like Chardonnay but love Sauvignon Blanc. These ideas are usually born out of a mixture of past experiences, things we’ve heard and our expectations based on what the people around us are saying/doing. It’s also a way of simplifying the world so that we can narrow down our options to a workable amount in this crazy world full of choice.

But that leaves us in the uncomfortable (comfortable?) position of not trying things we profess not to like either because we expect not to like it or we don’t want to be wrong, and like something we said we didn’t.

So blind tasting is a great activity, for a few reasons. Firstly, you can test yourself and whether you really know what you’re talking about for a specific situation. Think you can tell a Pilsner from a lager? A porter from a stout? The only way to know is to blind taste. Also, if you profess to have a favourite beer, especially of a certain style. The best way to test this is to blind taste 6 different beers of that style, and rank them. You might be surprised by the results. The third reason to blind taste is to prove yourself wrong. Perhaps you’ve stated that you don’t like this sort of beer (if it’s based on colour, you’re going to literally have to blind taste with a blind fold) or that sort of wine. Blind tasting puts that to the test and makes sure you’re not just acting on wrong or outdated ideas e.g. you may have had an infected amber ale, so now you don’t like amber ales. Wrong, you don’t like infected amber ales. Don’t worry, that’s 99% of the population.

Blind tasting is also a great way to spend an evening. So get some friends around, have some food and test yourself. It also forces you to really focus on what you’re tasting, and that will make you a more informed drinker.