Beer Monopoly




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Posted July 2016


Craft beer in South Africa | While over in the US craft brewers are eying the impending merger of AB-InBev and SABMiller warily, craft brewers in South Africa are genuinely worried. Although SABMiller controls nearly 90 percent of the local market, it has proved a friendly competitor, essentially refraining from throwing its weight around. How craft brewers will fare once the Brazilians take over is a much debated topic these days. Will they come in and start buying up breweries as they have in the US, or will they try to nip the local craft beer industry in the bud to ensure it never poses a threat to their business?

There are currently 180 craft breweries, up from only 50 in 2012. All things considered, this is a fair number especially since in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Mauritius, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe) combined there are fewer than ten craft breweries operating. That’s why many wondered if it was plain ignorance or just negligence that the business magazine Forbes in November 2015 published an infographic on the global craft beer boom which left South Africa a white spot – as if no craft breweries could be found there? Incidentally, Australia according to Forbes, also drew a blank, despite its craft brewers’ tally having risen to 375 by March 2016. The omission notwithstanding, craft beer in South Africa has been on a roll since 2010 with the scene getting stronger, the beers getting better and the brewers getting more passionate, says South Africa’s beer personality Lucy Corne and author of Beer Safari.

South Africa may be a country of beer lovers and the major beer market on the African continent with an output of 31 million hl. Yet it came to craft beer late. For nearly two decades, Mitchell’s brewery, founded in 1983 by Lex Mitchell, was the only one around. Craft beer just did not register with beer drinkers. This did not change in the Noughties when there were about a dozen craft breweries up and running, among them the Paulaner Bräuhaus at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. Featuring in every tourist guide as South Africa’s premier beer destination, the Bräuhaus drew a crowd, despite the so-so German food, because the German-born master brewer Wolfgang Koedel produced beers that stuck out from the crowd of SABMiller’s Castles and Carlings. The Bräuhaus closed ignominiously in 2012 when the German owner decided to sell the hotel that housed the brewpub. The kit has since resurfaced at Devil’s Peak brewery in Cape Town and Mr Koedel has moved on to bigger and better things at Cape Brewing Company (CBC).

Nicholas Bush, the owner of the grungy Drifter’s brewery in Cape Town, believes that South Africa is at least one decade behind the US when it comes to experimental beers. But who is to say how craft beer is to evolve? It’s a country–specific movement with local circumstances – mainly consumer preferences, available capital and red tape – dictating its course.


Late to the table

Even after all the hype around craft beer over the past few years, I am not sure that South African consumers would define a craft beer like the Americans do. To them a craft beer is a better beer, not necessarily an altogether different beer. As far as I can see, ‘size’, ‘ownership’ and ‘ingredients’ - the three pillars on which US craft beer rests - are not part of the South African discourse yet. Equally absent is the antagonism between craft brewers and Big Brewers which has forever dominated the US debate. Faced with friendly yet indifferent consumers, who would have bet the farm on craft beer ever becoming a sizeable beer market segment?

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