Whether South Africans want to celebrate freedom from oppression, sporting glory or a job well done, beer is their drink of choice. While champagne is for the elite, wine for the cognoscenti and whisky for the wealthy, a great beer is within reach of anyone with a thirst. And with only 5% of alcohol on average, it’s a drink of moderation to boot!
In keeping with our blend of diverse cultures, the history of beer in South Africa is unique, with two diverse and distinct brewing influences in evidence.
The first important influence in our national brewing past is African sorghum beer, or Umqombothi, which was already well-established among isiXhosa, IsiZulu, seSotho and San people long before European settlers ever set foot on African soil.
Umqombothi is a product steeped in history and the cultures of the people of Africa. It was - and still is - used to celebrate the home-coming of young men in Xhosa culture, after initiation and ritual circumcision. The beer is also important when someone is intending to contact their ancestors (known as amadlozi). It is often used during customary weddings, funerals, and imbizos.
Umqombothi is made from maize, malt, sorghum, yeast and water. It’s a thick, yoghurty and nourishing beverage rich in Vitamin B and, at around 3%, it generally has a lower alcohol content than commercial beers.
In keeping with the female dominance of cultural brewing traditions all over the world, the making of Umqombothi is still for the most part controlled by women.
Umqombothi has been immortalised in the Yvonne Chaka-Chaka song of the same name
English and Dutch beer
The second influence in the history of South African beer is the colonial brewing legacy of Dutch and British settlers.
In 1652, a replenishment station for ships on their journeys between Europe and the east was established at the Cape of Good Hope, which soon earned the title, the “Tavern of the Seas”. Naturally, a tavern without beer is unthinkable, so in 1696 the first brewery was established at Newlands, where the crystal clear spring water was found to be perfect for brewing. And so a fledgling brewing industry was established that would later make its mark on a global scale.
Beer brewing predated the first wine production in the Cape by a good few months - in fact, whereas nowadays the wealthy tend to buy wine farms, in the early years of the Cape the rich preferred to set up breweries. Noted brewers of the time included Cloete at the Newlands Brewery; Ohlsson at the Anneberg Brewery; Letterstedt at Mariendahl Brewery, also in Newlands; Hiddingh at Cannon Brewery; Martienssen at the Salt River Brewery, and a second Cloete in Kloof Street.
Swede Anders Ohlsson sailed for Africa in 1864 at the age of 23, and started life in the country by importing goods and timber. Soon, he turned to brewing and became one of the key figures at the Newlands brewery (making and distributing Lion Lager) and beer manufacturing throughout South Africa.
In the nineteenth century, beer spilled northwards to the diamond diggings of Kimberley and the goldfields of the Witwatersrand. Breweries were established in Kimberley, Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg and pioneers such as Anders Ohlsson, Frederick Mead and the immortal Charles Glass became household names. Glass sold his brewery in Johannesburg to Mead, the pioneer from Natal, who convinced magnates Sammy Marks and Barney Barnato of the lucrative opportunities offered by brewing. The result was the registration of South African Breweries (SAB) Limited in London in 1895, heralding the birth of an organization that grew from humble roots to become the second biggest brewer in the world with a brand portfolio spanning six continents.
Shebeens: A Toast to Freedom
Shebeens originally sprang up as a reaction to the apartheid era, when black South Africans could not enter a pub or bar reserved for whites. They played an important part in the liberation of South Africa: because Africans were banned from drinking “white” liquor in “white bars”, shebeens were a handy and relatively safe spot to foment discussion and dissent, plot revolution… or just enjoy the right to have a beer in peace.
In the centuries-old tradition of women and beer, shebeens were often run out of the front rooms of township houses by Shebeen Queens. Each shebeen took on the personality of the Shebeen Queen, many of whom were single mothers who were supporting large families, and were portrayed as formidable characters capable of packing a mean punch.