There is an awful lot of beer out there in the world and some people want to drink all of it. As a 20-year-old backpacker, my eyes popped when I came across café De Dulle Griet in Ghent, Belgium, with over 250 beers, many made by monks and particular to a monastery.
Back then, it was unthinkable that South Africa would one day have a place selling anything other than corporate monopoly swill, never mind 99 bottled beers and 16 beers on tap. But such a place opened in August – the Beerhouse in the heart of Cape Town, and owner Randolf Jorberg is currently looking for premises of at least 400m2 to expand to Johannesburg.
Big and beer go together. Beer is simply a moreish beverage, and there is something gluttonous about beer drinkers. Last Oktoberfest in Bavaria, I found myself in a tent with 3?000 German men in lederhosen with H-shaped braces and gingham shirts singing along to an oompah band and lustily swaying in synchronised motion as they gulped down litre-sized tankards of festival beer.
Three thousand Germans doing exactly the same thing in unison is unnerving. Fortunately, they were all gay, though I did think this was taking cultural assimilation a little too far. Afterwards, rather jolly police were on hand to help the paralytic revellers into waiting trains and guide them (which often meant picking them up off the tarmac) into their carriages without injuring themselves.
The changing face of beer society is also evident at the Beerhouse. This is not your usual jock bar crowd, but a good mix of class and subcultures, men and women, young and old, suits and hipsters, locals and tourists. On special occasions, you might find a hostess in a dirndl. The music leans towards the hard core and it is a loud, noisy place, but this is after all a beer hall and not a wine bar. As a beer lover who hates bars, Beerhouse strikes the right chord.
By promoting many independent, local microbreweries as well as craft ales and ciders, the Beerhouse is part of the worldwide beer revolution under way. As Gaëtan Schmid in his delicious comedy The Incredible Beer Show puts it, “the need for intoxicating liquor is one of the first civilising influences on mankind”.
Schmid encouraged everyone a decade ago to join the revolution by trying a new beer; it may taste “a bit bizarre on the first sip … don’t judge too quickly … have a second sip and who knows”.
A good way to get to grips with this new time for beer is by ordering a “beer o’clock”, a palate taster of 12 100ml glasses for R120. (Note, though, it is not available after 6pm on Fridays and Saturdays or after 7pm on other days.)
Sitting at the main bar counter with its 6?000 beer bottle caps, we worked our way through this beer primer. It started light and pale, with CBC (Cape Brewing Company) Pilsner, leaving a hint of lychee on the tongue.
The Beerhouse was out of Stellenbrau Craven and Alumni so a Windhoek Lager and a Van Hunks Pumpkin Ale with a slight molasses feel and a longer finish substituted.
After a quaffable, pleasantly bitter Devil’s Peak First Light golden ale, the samplers became more complex. I’m not a cider fan but the Windermere apple cider made with Elgin apples has depth to make me seriously reconsider cider.
Then there was the Lakeside Beer Works American Pale Ale with its surprising and delectable papaya character.
I least liked the Devil’s Peak Blockhouse, billed as “perhaps SA’s finest beer”, an Indian Pale Ale “masterpiece”. Perhaps I’m not a hophead after all, for I found it astringent and vaguely reminiscent of vomit.
Next up was Mitchell’s 90 Shilling Scottish-style ale, a bit flat for my palate, followed by an unfiltered wheat beer – small-batch Lakeside Beerworks Hefeweizen, the beer equivalent of a garagiste wine.
Nearing the end, a German-style CBC Amberweiss, slightly rouge in colour, very sparkly, with cloves and a smooth cinnamon finish.
Keeping the taste buds lively was a once-off, hopsy Santa Paws porter (a black beer but not a stout) brewed for the season.
Dessert at midnight (or noon depending on how you wish to view the beer clock) was a sweet Belgian Liefmans Fruitesse in raspberry syrup colour.
To accompany all this drinking is a selection of excellent beer-fancying food, much improved since my first Beerhouse visit, thanks to Scottish chef Roy MacAskill.
For nibbles, I highly recommend the giant onion rings floating freely in an airy case of golden batter and accompanied by a potent mixed-chilli sauce, and the bitterballen, a sort of croquette, a breaded ball of beef stew, as good as you’ll find in Amsterdam and thankfully without the ultra-traditional inclusion of kidneys.
The Berlin-style currywurst, a pork bratwurst with a traditional curry ketchup and hand-cut chips, is fail-safe.
The flammkuchen are excellent, and I suggest the biltong, oyster mushroom and blue cheese version.
For something even more substantial, the slow-roasted, beer-marinated pork belly on a roll served with chips will do the trick.
In its bright yellow livery, the Beerhouse is set to become a landmark on the Long Street scene.
The Beerhouse, 223 Long Street, Cape Town. Phone: 021 424 3370
This article first appeared in the Mail and Guardian in January 2014.