Giving Good Head, Naturally

GQ commissioned me to write a microbrewery story a couple of years ago. It never appeared and editor Craig Nobody ignores my e-mails. After checking out a review copy of Michael Jackson’s Beer which stretches to three SAB brews, I realized SA beer is in worse shape than SA wine. So here is the GQ beer story that never appeared.
mj Giving Good Head, Naturally
While polar bears and residents of New Orleans may not be in favour of global warming, beer marketers are not complaining with a succession of long hot summers pushing volumes off the chart. SA is no exception, with lager sales up 4% last year. Premium beers, which means Namibia Breweries’ Windhoek range, divers imports and the SAB trio of Miller Genuine Draft, Pilsner Urquell and Amstel account for around 5% of total volumes – a market share expected to grow to 10% in five years. With year-on-year sales of Amstel up 20%, this trend to upscale drinking is clearly on track.

Which is good news indeed for the SA microbrewery community. Dubbed micro on account of volumes and market share but definitely macro when it comes to taste and sales growth, there are now 18 microbreweries in the country producing pints with such rustic names as Whale Tale Ale (try saying that quickly after a few) Tiddly Toad and Pye-eyed Possum Pilsner.

The first microbrewery was started by Lex Mitchell in 1983 in Knysna and the eponymous Mitchell’s Cape Waterfront brewery is the biggest in the country producing 650 000 litres of Forester’s Draught and Bosun’s Bitter a year. The Paulaner Brauhaus confirms the Cape Town waterfront as microbrewery magnet although the Kwazulu Natal midlands seem to be the most well supplied thanks to a recently launched brew route which includes the Farmers’ Brauhaus at Hattingspruit, the Wartburger Brauhaus in Wartburg and the Nottingham Road Brewing Company. Located at Rawson’s Estate, the in-house brew master who started as a cleaner and worked his way up to master brewer, rejoices in the name Armstrong Matric.

In Gauteng, Steve “Gil” Gilroy makes 10 000 litres of traditional ale a month at the Tienie Crous Industrial Park in deepest Roodepoort. His flagship brand called the Serious was hailed by the late, great, beer boffin BJ Lankwarden as “the best beer in the southern hemisphere” in the SA Beer Drinkers’ Guide published by Diners Club.

Gil is an import from Liverpool where his aunt Amy used to own the Bush Vaults, one of that city’s largest pubs. When he arrived in 1970 to work for a cement company on the West Rand, beer was the thing he missed most about Blighty. So he ordered some Fuggles hops and started brewing his own. Not an unreasonable thing to do when your family has been brewing the stuff in Ireland since the 1840s. As Gil puts it “look after your Fuggles and your Fuggles will look after you.”

For the past 35 years, Gil has been teaching himself the tricks of the brewing trade. It all started on a small scale in his garage. When something went wrong, it was only a bucket of beer down the drain. As he notes: “no one died.” Today he employs five people and next year watch out for “serious growth.”

Barley is the traditional grain used to make beer in Britain so, trying to recapture the flavour of Liverpool, Gil imports it in 25kg sacks. He buys three kinds, malted in different ways to produce different tastes: pale malt, which forms the basis of most of his ales; crystal malt; and black malt, which gives Guinness its distinctive flavour.

Being mostly water, the taste of beer depends on the chemical composition of the water used in the brewing process. Of course the quality of the barley and hops, the yeast and temperature and length of fermentation all count, but all things being equal, Gil reckons it’s the trace chemistry of the local groundwater which determines overall quality.

One of the first English beers was brewed at Burton-on-Trent in the 6th century. Burton’s water is hard, with a high calcium sulphate content. Calcium is critical to beer brewing, controlling as it does the acidity of the wort (the mixture of mashed malt and water), the development of the yeast and assorted enzyme reactions. Burton water extracts the bitter tannins from the hops as they are boiled in the wort and produces a beer with a classic (and popular) bitter taste.

By way of contrast, the water of Nantwich, further west, is rich in salt, producing a sweet and sour beer with a much fuller palate. The beers of southeastern England are brewed with water high in calcium carbonate, which leads to pale, insipid brews – which could explain the popularity of imported lagers in London and its southern stockbroker belt.

Over in the Czech Republic in Pilsen – or Plzen as the locals call it – the water is exceptionally pure and free of dissolved solids, which leads to lighter but seriously alcoholic beers like SAB’s Pilsner Urquell. Plzen water caught on early. In 1295, the year the city was founded, King Vaclav II granted all residents the right to brew beer. Municipal libraries followed 600 years later so the town certainly had its priorities sorted.

Gil’s own water comes straight out of a municipal tap courtesy of the Rand Water Board and is “about the flattest water you can get”. Gil double filters it (with carbon and bug filters) before “building it back to the place I’m making the beer from”. In the case of a Burton-on-Trent bevvie, by adding 200ppm calcium sulphate.

After the mixture of barley and Gil’s designer water has finished fermenting in a mash tun (a giant stainless-steel cooking pot salvaged from the compound kitchen of one of Roodepoort’s defunct gold mines), the hops are added. The choice here is between the noble Fuggles, Goldings and hops from the Devon North Downs. Hops play a starring role in determining the ultimate flavour of a beer. Introduced in the 15th century as a preservative, the bitterness of hops balances the sweet barley malt flavours.

Gil’s brewery is a triumph of Heath Robinson make-do and improvisation. Pumps are out (grandma Gilroy maintained you should never pump beer as it bruises the ale and makes it cross). Only gravity is allowed to move the liquid between the various stages of the brewing process.

A quartet of beers is produced. There’s a refreshing lager and three ales: the lightest is called the Favourite, an easy quaffer with a modest 4% alcohol content. The Traditional is a classic ruby ale with 5% alcohol and a pleasant nutty taste. The pièce de résistance is the Serious, a strong ale at 7.7% alcohol with loads of malt flavour.

None of the Gilroy quartet is a “little Miss fizzy” and all claim to be “the only beers in the south that give good head naturally”, and their heads are magnificent. Gil’s ales, “absolutely unpasteurised”, unfiltered, crafted by hand in small volumes in accordance with a “nothing added, nothing removed” philosophy, are about as far as you can get from mass-produced carbonated beverages.

Each bottle boasts the family coat of arms: three dolphins frolicking in the sea off the Irish coast that remind of the tribal brewing heritage. The foaming tankard of beer speaks for itself and a mailed fist giving the competition the finger completes the picture along with the proudly Luddite motto “120 years behind the times”.

For a brewery tour or to join Gilroy for a pint call (011) 763 5403.