Meeting Elvis drinking beer in the Winelands in Franschhoek

Life is for the stout of heart...

It’s tough having my life. A couple of weeks ago, I had to spend a couple of nights in a brewery.

Actually, I didn’t have to do it and I didn’t while away the hours of darkness in the brewery itself but cracking the nod for a two-night sleepover on the premises while sampling the Franschhoek Beer Company’s wares must be nearly every man’s dream.

I confess I am no stranger to the place and quaffed my first craft ale there not long after it opened its taps to the public eight years ago.

Since then, vehicles in which I have travelled to and through Franschhoek inexplicably develop overheating problems when I come within sight of the Saltire and “Stars and Bars” (Scottish and US flags respectively) alongside the R45, forcing me to pull off the road.

The problem resolves itself quite quickly and I’m generally on my way within two hours.

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Franschhoek’s high street

I was invited to the opening of Frank’s Corner Bar and Grill on Franschhoek’s high street on a sweltering day at the end of summer.

All the other guests were sipping bubbly but I asked if I could rather have a beer. The owner of the restaurant, American Frank Rodriguez, is one of two majority stakeholders in the Franschhoek Beer Company, and the Scottish gentleman to whom I was talking at the time, Alex McCormack, is the other.

Talk about saying the right thing! After much hops-fuelled banter, Alex let slip there was a self-catering guest cottage on the property – and thus were the wheels of a beery visit set in motion.

“Cottage”, however, is a misnomer: what I discovered was a luxurious ultra-modern two-bedroom maison[ complete with a plunge pool, braai facilities, and (almost) its own rescue pot-bellied pig called Elvis.

It was a source of complete bliss to sit with my feet in the admittedly very chilly waters of the pool, watching the sun go down over vineyards and mountains, sipping on an award-winning stout and knowing the brewery in which it was made was less than 20m away should my stash be depleted.

Making stout

Essentially, when brewers make stout, they roast the malt longer than usual to give the beer its dark colour and coffee character.

So good did I feel that I spent almost an hour the first night wallowing in a foam-bath, reading a novel, and – you guessed it – drinking my umpteenth stout. So much good stuff goes into a premium beer like this, I’d learned earlier, that I felt positively virtuous as I sunk into deep, untroubled sleep.

“Our range consists of six beers that include a lager, two ales, stout, weissbierand a spicy 6.8 % Belgian La Saison or beer for the season. We also do a number of small batches throughout the year,” said consulting brew-master Rene du Toit that afternoon.

The stout (6.5% alc/vol) has consistently achieved gold at the SA National Beer Awards. I mention that stout seems to be enjoying a worldwide popularity resurgence and, as an aside, that historically women were encouraged to drink it during pregnancy.

“Stout is one of the oldest English beer types,” said Du Toit. ”Made traditionally, it is often described as a meal in a glass.”

The nutritional value of stout is high and in medieval England, it was often prescribed to pregnant women who could not afford a healthy diet in order to promote lactation.

Old-style preservative-free beers such as stout and porter contain hops, malt, barley and oats, and are rich in vitamins and minerals.

Irish brewer Guinness, noted Du Toit, makes a wholesome alcohol-free stout.

Visitors to the tasting room – and during my stay I heard South African, British, Antipodean, European and American accents – can sample the beers in tooth mug-sized glasses to determine their preferences.

The stylish all-in-one brewery, tasting centre and bistro-pub is open from 11am till 5pm and offers largely “pub grub”.

Prices for a “pint” (500ml) are naturally higher than mass-produced draught beers but on par with imported and other premium brands.

‘It all started in 2015’

As with most craft breweries, the Franschhoek Beer Company ( rose from humble beginnings according to a plaque outside the tasting centre. “It started right here in early 2015.

This container is our original test brewery, which is still in use today. It is where we began our quest to make the best craft beer in South Africa.

“We travelled the globe sampling only the best craft beers known to Man. Using the finest ingredients and the purest Franschhoek mountain spring water, we brewed then tested and retested recipes… “Not until we knew we had something special did we fill our first bottles in May of 2016.”

That’s the prosaic version but it is only after a couple of on-site pints with Frank and Alex – the third stakeholder, incidentally, is renowned restaurateur and Franschhoek local Reuben Riffel – during my two-day stay that the story gets the expected fizz.

It starts with me quoting what sounds like the opening line of a joke: three okes walk into a bar… The two men laugh and McCormack picks up the tale. “An American, Scotsman, and South African walk into a bar after a round of golf and couldn’t find a single beer they liked.

So they decided to start a brewery. “There is a double meaning, though, because the brewery is situated between three old oak trees that symbolise our partnership.”

Initial production capacity eight years ago, says Rodriguez, was a mere 50 litres and the original brewmaster experimented with many styles.

“The first beer we produced here was the most delicious I’d ever had… and not only because it was 10% alcohol by volume!”

Capacity has increased to 22 000 litres – bottling takes place on the premises – but Rodriguez insists that craft brewing is “much like making wine, more a hobby than a profitable business”.

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Distribution costs

More than anything, profitability is constrained by the ever-escalating costs of quality ingredients such as hops and malt – all of which are imported.

Margins are small and brewers can become victims to their own popularity.

Distribution costs increase, further whittling away the profits, and the only way to avoid making a loss is to compromise on critical ingredients and ultimately on taste.

“It’s always been about the product,” continues McCormack. “Quality is a source of pride for both of us,” he says, adding that “Frank and I have never made a thing in our lives; he was in sales and I was in human resources.

“It’s a wonderful feeling being able to put our names to what has become a strong brand.”

Rodriguez has the final word: “Franschhoek is the culinary capital of South Africa and extraordinary wines are made here. “We want our brewery to be what Franschhoek is all about.”.

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