A rich smell of fermentation wafts through the Soweto air as brewers prepare craft beers designed to tap into South Africa’s new generation of discerning black drinkers.
The sprawling township outside Johannesburg city was once the centre of the violent struggle against apartheid and home to both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Soweto still has its share of poverty, and inequality and unrest have never gone away, but it is also home to the uBuntu Kraal micro-brewery that makes Soweto Gold — a niche craft beer aimed at the country’s wealthier black consumers.
“The microbrewing industry in South Africa was growing mostly in white suburbs but if you look the fanbase of beer is mostly in the townships,” Ndumiso Madlala, the brewery’s co-founder, told AFP.
“It actually wouldn’t make sense to put the brewery anywhere else — we wanted to be genuine and wanted the brand to have the look and feel of Soweto.”
South Africa has seen a rapid rise in craft beers as drinkers look for alternatives to the well-established big names such as Castle and Carling Black Label.
uBuntu Kraal (“Togetherness Ranch”), which opened last July, is the only majority black owned and run brewery in the country.
It promotes Soweto Gold as “the first regional township-branded clear craft beer targeting the aspiring black middle class”.
The brewery’s metal-sheet walls are decorated with photographs of South African sportsmen and heroes of the long fight to topple the apartheid regime that finally fell two decades ago.
Outside, at the adjoining beer garden, locals and visitors to Soweto can savour the beer’s hoppy fruitiness and smooth caramel finish for themselves.
But Madlala, 34, admits he is aiming at the luxury market and that his beer is currently only stocked by bars and restaurants in the affluent mostly white northern suburbs of Johannesburg.
“Because of small volumes, we rely on big margins, so our products are priced far higher than mainstream beers,” he said.
“To play in the mainstream field is not our business model — we’re just playing in that niche, craft market.”
– The hipster factor –
A pint of Soweto Gold is sold for about 40 rand ($3.40) while other commercially produced lagers like Black Label sell for about $2.40.
Madlala, who has a background in chemical engineering, was trained as a brewmaster at drinks giant SABMiller and started brewing five-litre batches of beer out of his kitchen just two years ago.
Now he says his brewery is already breaking even and is stocked in 60 outlets. Next he plans a German-style “Soweto Weiss” beer.
Lucy Corne, a writer on craft beer, said the market was ripe for unusual, authentic drinks.
“At farmers’ markets people were getting to meet the baker who had made the bread… It just made sense that people would also want to source beer from a small, local producer,” she said.
“The other factor was, essentially, hipsters. It is expensive and cool.
“First you have to teach people that craft beer can be good beer. Once they trust the brand, you can start pushing boundaries,” she added.
SABMiller, the world’s second biggest brewer, responded to the craft boom late last year by trying to muscle into the market with their own product — No 3 Fransen Street.
“We have been brewing small batches of speciality beers which offer variety, drinkability and styles beyond lagers,” said communications head Robyn Chalmers.
“Experimenting with different beer flavours and styles, food pairings and generally being part of the beer renaissance is currently a massive trend in South Africa.”
For Soweto Gold, the threat posed by the big brewers is serious.
Madlala admits his brewery uses malt supplied by SABMiller — and that he relied on $300,000 funding from a governmental subsidiary that gives loans to entrepreneurial ventures.
But he says that he is determined to grow and to make some small contribution to tackling Soweto’s chronic unemployment by increasing his current workforce of 13 to 50 by the end of the year.
He also plans to open a bottling and canning facility on site.
“We are in no way competition for the likes of SABMiller — where we gauge our competition is other fellow microbrewers,” he said, vowing to expand next into the Cape Town region.