(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This did not stop other people from sending him books to review. The backlog is high and the conscience is guilty. Let’s crack on. )
One of the more interesting books on beer I’ve seen this year is African Brew: Exploring the Craft of South African Beer by Lucy Corne and Ryno Reyneke. It’s easy to review a straightforward book on beer and food or a guide to the world’s beers. I have context for that kind of book and there have been a lot of them published in recent years.
African Brew is interesting because it performs the difficult function of explaining the past and present of brewing in a country that I cannot say I know very much about. The entirety of my context for South Africa is Bryce Courtenay, J. M. Coetzee, a handful of Tom Sharpe novels and a Matt Damon rugby movie. I don’t know the Transvaal from Transylvania. All I know is that you shouldn’t leave a coke bottle lying around.
What I have learned, and what this book helped me realize, is that brewery scenes seem to be subject to convergent evolution. Starting from the early 1980’s beer scenes in various countries have developed in largely the same way.
That said, the book is not formatted as a history. It is a layman’s guide with the usual appointments that style of book requires. There is the obligatory explanation of the brewing process and a short history of the brewing industry in South Africa. There’s an admirably concise section on beer styles, the brevity of which has partially to do with the fact that South Africa’s craft brewers have not yet caught up with North America stylistic diversity. There is a brief introductory section on beer and food.
At first glance, these sections seem too brief. What Corne and Reyneke have managed to do is fold much of the material into the other sections of the book as pop out windows with information or, in the case of recipes, as full page affairs tied to the brewery or brewpub that has supplied them. It lends a good deal of character to each chapter. The book does an excellent job of making the stories of the brewers the focus of an understanding of the South African beer scene.
It seems as though their scene is going through much of the same process Ontario’s went through. There was the first generation of craft brewers in the 1980’s and they were a wild, windswept bunch of eccentrics, engineers and disgruntled professionals. They seem to have developed a number of newer school breweries over the last few years (probably the impetus for the book) that mirrors our own development. Some of them I desperately want to try (Triggerfish, Darling Brew, Bridge Street) and I sense that some of the breweries suffer from early adoption. It’s just like here.
It is also nothing like here. Ontario was a British Colony. South Africa had both Brits and Boers and Zulu and Xhosa and instead of being in a similar climate, it’s much more temperate. The Dutch and European brewing influences seem more widely accepted on a historical level than they were in Ontario. Perhaps most importantly, the location of South Africa as a trade route means that the food is influenced by neighbouring countries on the Indian Ocean.
While the storytelling in African Brew is very good, the included recipes are a real surprise and paint a picture of an increasingly multicultural society with a wide swath of inherited foodways. It’s not all biltong and boerewors. It’s Weissbier and Waterzooi from the Dutch. Pilsner with a Veal and Bacon Meatloaf shows some Bavarian influence. There are curries borrowed Thailand, Malaysia and Alleppey. Some of the cuisine displays a really deft touch with seafood.
African Brew succeeds as a basic guide to South African beer, but it exceeds expectations to the extent that it makes me want to know more about South Africa’s brewing scene. If I were writing about beer there, how would I talk about the flavours in a cuisine like that with new hop varieties and beer styles? With the stories of the individual brewers, how could I frame the effects of Apartheid on a manufacturing industry like brewing? It seems like the rich variety of influences on the culture seem to be winning out as the country becomes more progressive. It would be a fascinating beer scene to work with over the next five years.
African Brew is so good it made me envy the authors.