The History of Beer in South Africa

[Keywords: South African beer, South Africa]

Hand of bartender pouring a large lager beer in tap. Bright and modern neon light, males hands. Pouring beer for client. Side view of young bartender pouring beer while standing at the bar counter.

South Africans love their beer. Whether it be a refreshing Carling Black label on a Friday night or a refreshing can of Castle lager, we South Africans can’t get enough of the stuff. Small wonder we’re going through a home brewing revolution. Despite being renowned for our classic wines, beer is increasingly the drink of choice amongst South Africans. In fact, South Africa consumes the most beer of any African country. In the average year, we guzzle 90 litres of beer per person – that’s a lot!

We don’t just drink the stuff; we sell it too. South Africa is also the largest beer producer on the continent, brewing more than 30 per cent of the total African beer market. And, of all the players, South African Breweries dominate – accounting for almost 88 per cent of the beer market by volume.

How did this happen? When did South Africa’s love affair begin – and where is it heading?

Does beer predate the European settlers?

Yes and no. It all depends on what you mean by beer. It’s often assumed that beer was first brought to the tip of the continent by Dutch immigrants from the 1650s onwards. The truth is a little more complicated.

Alcohol is one of humanity’s oldest pastimes – and one of our favourites. We’ve been doing it since before the dawn of civilisation. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that groups such as the Sotho, Zulu, and Xhosa had their own thriving brewing culture like the Europeans. Rather than malts or hops, they used locally available sorghum as their feedstock.

Furthermore, umqombothi – which is unlikely to predate Europeans – is the descendent to these early beers. It’s a traditional beer made using maise, maise malt, sorghum malt, yeast, and water. It demonstrates how traditional brewing cultures adapted age-old techniques to new methods and ingredients – like maise from South America.

You’ll find umqombothi still brewed to this day. Known for its heavy and sour aroma, the beer is rich in vitamin B.

Beer and the European Settlers

South African beer can be thought of as blending multiple different cultures and brewing traditions. On the one hand, the indigenous methods of brewing; on the other, the techniques brought over by Europeans – first the Dutch, and later the British in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both cultures have some of the strongest brewing traditions in Europe. Beer consumption there outstrips demand for wine or spirits.

According to the diary of Jan van Riebeeck, the governor and founder of Cape Town, October 4th, 1658, was the date Europeans first brewed beer in the Cape. It was a prioritised foodstuff. Not solely to get drunk – though that’s always a benefit – but also for its potent nutritional profile. Beer prevents scurvy caused by a vitamin C deficiency.

But the South African beer culture was only just beginning.

How South African beer industrialised

Beer factory interior with a lot of machines

There’s one thing brewing beer for your community; there’s quite another doing so for a nation. Enter South African Breweries – the beer behemoth of the south. In fact, the secret to South Africa’s industrial revolution began in beer.

Named Castle Brewery, South African Breweries (SAB) was founded in 1895 to serve the growing market of miners and prospectors flocking to Johannesburg. It had outstripped all expectations within two years, becoming the first industrial company listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. A year later, it was listed on the London Stock Exchange.

It was instrumental in growing the South African beer market, albeit from its London headquarters. The company wouldn’t relocate to the African continent until 1950. Still known as Castle Brewing (from where the name Castle lager comes), it was rebranded South African Breweries in 1955, after the purchase of Ohlsson’s and Chandlers Union breweries.

The result was the colossal titan of African brewing that has dominated the market ever since. And by far the largest brewery in all of Africa.

The rise of Bantu beer

Bantu beer is more than just a refreshing beverage. Its brewing and consumption played an important role in Bantu life. Like European-style beers, it contains a mixture of water and a malted grain (kaffir corn) fermented with yeast. However, unlike European beers, it is neither strained nor is the fermentation process stopped before leaving the factory. Indeed, Bantu beers can continue to brew, increasing the alcohol content by a percentage point or two. It also gives the beer its characteristic “sour” taste.

Strange as it sounds, the two beers actually have a lot in common. In Germany, centuries-old breweries produce beers almost indistinguishable from their Bantu brethren, despite never having met.

To this day, the Bantu brewing tradition remains strong. Whether it be home breweries using family recipes, or larger breweries servicing their local area, the beer is much the same as it has been for generations.

South African beer in the 20th century

As much of the world underwent a prohibition craze, so did the South African government investigate alcohol consumption during the mid-20th century. However, unlike the US, which banned all alcohol, the 1960 Malan Liquor Commission came to a very different conclusion:

“The thought of the Commission underlying this report is that conditions should be created which would encourage the consumption of natural alcoholic beverages, preferably in conjunction with food, at the expense of stronger liquor or spirits.”

Nor were they the only ones to come to such a conclusion. Dr E. M. Jellinck – the world’s leading research scientist in alcohol studies at the time – remarked, “The type of beverage used is always revealing of drinking habits. Beer is a beverage selected, not by inebriates, but mainly by moderate users of alcohol.”

South African beer was safe – and with a scientific seal of approval. But the conclusions were already evident in the South African drinking cultures. Whether it be European settlers or native brewers, the culture was one of care and love for their beers.

It’s a fact that continues to this day.

Which beer is brewed in South Africa?

Unlike other nations, most South African major brands are all owned by one company. As mentioned, the market is diversified by the production of Bantu beers. However, the South African beer market is still dominated by South African breweries.

Amongst the most popular beers brewed by SAB are Castle Lager, Castle Milk Stout, Flying Fish, Lion Lager, and more. They also brew several beers on behalf of other companies, such as Carling Black Label, Budweiser, Beck’s, and Corona Extra.

However, despite their market dominance, there’s a growing trend of small microbreweries arising in the past decade. Jo’burg beer, for example, is an independent business producing low-priced beer that incorporates traditional brewing techniques. Much of these microbreweries are focused on the Western Cape – accounting for half of all beer microbreweries in South Africa.

Many of these microbreweries are regionally focused, producing craft beers for the local taste. Each one might be small; however, collectively, they produce 34 million litres annually.

Finally, South Africa also has a big homebrewing culture – drawing on the very earliest traditions. Cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Bloemfontein even host monthly meet-ups for homebrewers to share tips and sample their delights.

Which beer is strong in South Africa?

Most beers in South Africa hover around the average of 3-4 per cent. If you want a beer with substantially more punch, you need to try the latest craft beers. Our Newton Nemesis and Braamfontein Brawler come in at 5.5% ABV.

Some are even stronger!

Crazy Diamond, for example, currently holds the title for strongest craft beer – produced by Triggerfish Brewing. It’s a delicious Belgian Strong Dark Ale – and not for fainthearted.

South African beer brands

South African Breweries dominate the market. But there are notable exceptions, such as imported brands like Heineken and Guinness. SAB produces all other major brands.

Is Black Label a South African beer?

Carling Black Label was first introduced in 1927. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not actually South Africa – nor is it British – it was first produced in Canada. However, in South Africa, the beer is produced exclusively by SABMiller – it is the most awarded beer in all of South Africa.

It also has a special connection to the continent – with the name “Black Label” being associated with the anti-apartheid movement.

Is Lion lager a South African beer? Unlike Black Label, there are few beers as quintessentially South African as Lion Lager. First brewed in the 1920s, it was known as Black & White lager. It wasn’t until 1927 that the name was changed to Lion lager. It took the country by storm, becoming one of the most awarded beers in the world. Its clean, refreshing taste put South African beer making on the map, establishing the country as the continent’s hub for all things brewing.


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