As quintessentially South African as braaivleis and pap, Castle Lager has been an iconic South African brand since 1895. Grab a cold one as we recount the birth of the beer who stood the test of time.
The name ‘Charles Glass’ has become synonymous with beer in South Africa, and images of this mustachioed gentleman holding a glass of golden liquid to the light can be found in bars, taverns and shebeens across the country.
But who was the man who founded South Africa’s first commercial beer, leaving behind a legacy that would be as strong in the 21st century as it was during the dusty days of the Gold Rush?
Originally from Kent in England, Charles Glass was a born traveller whose restless nature brought him to Newcastle, South Africa, where he met a man called H.B. Marshall who first ignited his interest in brewing. Armed with new-found knowledge of the brewing process, Charles joined the Gold Rush migration to the mining town of Johannesburg, and in 1884 he set up the brewing company Glass & Co. with H.B. Marshall and Jim Welsh in Marshall’s Township, Johannesburg.
Glass set to work trying to produce a beer that would sell, but it took a while. Miners in those days were more accustomed to drinking very cheap ‘hard tack’ – a raw potato spirit mixed with tobacco juice and pepper. During these early years, Charles Glass could be seen wheeling a barrow full of beer through the mining villages of Johannesburg, observing reactions to his different brewing recipes.
Eventually the miners developed an appreciation for the brew with its ‘somewhat bitter, somewhat dry, but never sweet’ taste. The beer now grew rapidly in popularity amongst the prospectors of Johannesburg. In 1884 it was christened ‘Castle Beer’ and declared ‘a phenomenal success’ by one of the city’s earliest newspapers – The Digger’s News.
Before the turn of the 20th century, Glass’s Johannesburg-brewed lager competed fiercely with Ohlsson’s Lion Lager which originated in the Cape. These two rival breweries, along with many smaller rivals, fought to secure well located hotels and pubs, and vied for popular support. Merchandising in the form of posters, branded jugs and glasses were freely available.
In 1895, the South African Breweries was founded with 500 000 pounds capital, with its registered office being the Castle Brewery. Charles Glass sold his Castle Beer recipe to SAB and, having made his fortune, was struck by the travel bug once again and returned to England, leaving behind him a legacy that would continue and strengthen long after his death in 1919.
1900 - 1950s: Becoming a South African favourite
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Johannesburg beer now known as Castle Lager expanded across the country, with SAB opening a second brewery in Woodstock, Cape Town in 1900.
This expansion coincided with the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War, meaning South Africa was briefly deprived of Castle Lager as production ground to a halt. However, once the British had seized control, the breweries re-opened, and the now renowned brew began to be consumed by both of the warring sides.
Castle Lager won its first award for quality and taste at the 1907 Rand Show, where it walked away with a gold medal - starting a tradition of award winning which continues to this day.
The remainder of the first half of the 20th century saw both Castle and South Africa continue to develop and expand. Marketing during this period was restricted to newspapers and outdoor hoardings. It was not until 1950 that beer (and all other forms of) advertising underwent a radical change with the introduction of commercial radio in South Africa.
Then, as now, there was fierce competition for consumers’ loyalty, and programmes such as the Castle Lager Playhouse of the Air and the Castle Sports Quiz on Springbok radio, helped keep the brand top of mind in the marketplace. Neon signs also made their appearance, brightening up the exterior of pubs and bottle stores throughout the country.