To be completely honest, I was a bit on the cynical side when I received the invitation to attend the Newlands Beer Experience. I have long since converted from the good ol’ SAB favourites to the beer of the green bottle variety. Someone once mentioned (years ago) that SAB beers were full of chemicals and it is something that has stuck with me ever since. You know how rumours are, you hear it once in a pub, never doubt it’s authenticity because a really dashing looking, “cool” guy told you and never bother to check out the facts from there.
So heading off on my trusty Suzuki steed in the early hours of the morning, I remembered why I love the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, Newlands is breathtaking! I was met at the door by our tour guide, Lauren. She informed me that my negative ideas of SAB would be forever changed once she was through with me. Obviously, I was intrigued. After donning my super sexy safety apparel, and hearing the safety speech (which included important points like “Don’t press the big red buttons” and “Please no sticking tongues on any of the pipes or faucets as they are hot and the liquid coming out might not necessarily be beer”), we head off to begin the tour.
The first part of our tour really deals with the history of Newlands Brewery and beer in Cape Town. Being a history addict and nerd in general, this was fantastic! As all of us are taught in school, Jan van Riebeek arrived in the Cape in 1652 (gold star for all of you who knew that). Only 6 years later there was a fully functioning Brewery in operation- you can see where Jan’s priorities lay! Besides being a bunch of Dutch sailors with beer addiction, beer actually provided a lot of the dietary requirements needed by sailors while they were at sea for extended periods of time. Not rum, as Captain Jack Sparrow would have us believe!
FAST FACT: First Friday of every month, the Newlands Brewery horse cart delivers draught kegs to Barristers pub and the Foresters Arms. If you’re around you get a free pint! Diarise Immediately!
1657 Pieter Visagie acquired the license for the brewery & chose Newlands as it’s home-ground partly because of it’s fresh spring water. Newlands is the only brewery in the SAB Ltd group which uses fresh spring water. The rest use Municipal water and there is a long and tedious process required to remove the chemicals.
In the early 1800’s, Maria Becker Kiefer Dreyer inherited the land from her 2nd husband. She was a double widower and as Lauren noted, a “cougar” at heart because she married the 26 year old Jacob Letterstedt when she was 44. He built Mariendahl & Josephine Mill (which he named after the crown princess of Sweden). Eventually the brewery sold to Anders Ohlsson and Mariendahl became Ohlssons Cape Breweries (OCB). Mariendahl was famous for Lion Beer which eventually was taken out of production in SA in 2001. It is however, still sold in Botswana and Zimbabwe and doing really well. It is a pity as I was an avid Lion drinker in my day.
Enter Mr Charles Glass. While many people think him to be a myth, he was an amazing man. He was a master brewer and the founder of Castle beer. Initially he wanted to make his fortune in Gold but instead found that “liquid gold” was way more lucrative and in all honesty, who doesn’t enjoy an ice-cold beer after a hard day’s graft. In 1895- Castle and Union Beer in Natal merged to become SAB. In 1956- Ohlsson’s OCB joined this merger and SAB became the biggest brewery in Africa and is currently the second largest brewer by volume in the world. There are 7 SAB breweries & Newlands is the 4th biggest in size and has capacity of 435million litres of beer per year.
FAST FACT:While Newlands were doing excavations they discovered an old, underground distillery. This was a working brewery and the old furnace used to heat the water is clearly visible. There is also a water tunnel which will take you to the Josephine Mill.
The tour then moved on to the actual brewery to see how it really works once our heads were swimming from the amazing history lesson. One of the first things you notice as you enter is the pungent smell of fermenting beer. It hits you like a wave but oddly, it grows on you, and you kind of miss it when you leave the building. Walking through the different areas of the brewery, and listening to the complex processes that are strictly adhered to, I started to get a real appreciation for the art and science of brewing. Did you know that Newlands can produce an average of 66000 litres of beer per brew and does 10-15 brews a day?
The Secret Stuff:
The main ingredients needed for beer are (I hope you’re paying attention, there will be a quiz later):
- Water- Obviously
- Malted Barley- we got a chance to taste the Dark and Pale malt which was delicious
- Maize- This is to add to the smoothness and “drinkability”. This is also to provide some of the sugars required for fermentation. They only use proudly South African products
- Hops- Some interesting facts about the Hops:
- #Hops that are used are female flower of the Hops vine
- #Hops give beer its bitterness and aroma
- #Hops used are grown in George because of the climate, except for the Saaz Hop which is imported from the Czech Republic
- #The hops vine has an awesome genetic anomaly- the vines must be wound around a support structure clockwise. If they are wound anti-clockwise they will die. (this is the same in the Northern or Southern hemisphere)
- #Hops closest genetic relative is actually cannibis…hmmm
- #Newlands uses hop pellets or concentrate
- #The other offcuts e.g. petals are re-used in fertilisers
The Fermentation Tanks
This was amazing to see as the tanks are huge and reach the top of the building (which is at least about 4 storeys high). A really amazing bit to me was learning about Yeast which is the catalyst for the fermenting process. It’s a single celled fungus which multiplies and spreads in the right environment. Yeast converts the sugar to alcohol and C02. These tanks are left to ferment for up to 2 weeks at about 14 degrees. Once the yeast has done it’s job, it is removed and sent to the management facility where it rests and is babysat by the white coats. One batch can only be used up to 5 times. When it’s done it’s sold to companies like Marmite & Brewers Yeast Tablets (high in vitamin B) this is definitely on my shopping list!
The final testing of this process happens with labs and with tasters
There are 118 tanks 72 of them hold 142000L of beer & 46 do 264000L
Interesting fact- If you had to have 2 beers a day from 1 tank it would take 365 years to finish it! Although the shelf life would be past it’s expiry date, it’s an awesome thought…Challenge accepted!
FAST FACT: DId you know that there are only 2 kinds of Beer:
- Lagers- Spend a longer time at colder temperatures in the maturation process. They use bottom flocculating yeast
- Ales- Spend a shorter time at higher temps. This is why craft beers usually favour Ale due to fewer temperature control requirements. This process uses top flocculating yeast
- Multipack- Returnable bottles process up to 42000 per hour
- Dedicated quart- 1 million per day. 82% of all beers sold are quarts and of those they get 92% back. #Environment win
- Canning line- 1000 cans per minute
- Dedicated non-returnables- 36000 per hour
- Draft plant- one 50litre keg is filled every 60 seconds
My favourite machine of the whole plant is the Empty Bottle Investigator (EBI). This was actually developed by NASA. It takes multiple photos of every bottle and makes sure they are clean & undamaged. If dirty, they are returned to the washer. If damaged, they get pushed off the line & sent to the crusher for recycling.
The warehouse is HUGE. It’s filled with a buzz of trucks coming & going and enormous pallets of beer stacked everywhere. The warehouse is where the empty bottles come in and the full ones leave to reach their final destination of my belly. There are 1.98million bottles that move in and out every 21 hours. Each truck has capacity for 28 pallets, they can take 9 in the front section and 19 in the rear. Each pallet can hold 77 crates. Each truck is only in the loading bay for 16-20 minutes. This is a busy and dangerous job.
Taste Testing 101:
- Clarity- hold it up to the light
- Drive By- this is a quick sniff test under the nose
- Cover Up- place your hand over the glass and swirl. When you smell the beer, the flavours are stronger
- Sip- unlike wine tasting, you are supposed to swallow beer as it has a lot of bitter profiles which are picked up at the back of your tongue, so….bottoms up
We tasted: Castle Lite (is not low in alcohol, it’s 4% but low in KJ’s. Lite stands for “Low in total energy”), Black Label, Pilsner Urquell, Flying Fish, Castle Milk Stout. I really enjoyed the Flying Fish which was fresh, fruity and I could pick out lemon flavours.
Quick Fire Newlands Brewery Facts of Economic Epicosity:
- The water used in the brewing process is recycled onsite in the plant and sent back to the local Municipality
- This water can’t be re-used for brewing but they can re-use it for heating etc.
- The methane is also reprocessed for energy which has saved them 10% annually & in the last 10 years they have reduced their energy footprint by a whopping 30%! Good thing too as Eskom isn’t exactly reliable #Justsaying
- Newlands is really waterwise and are looking to reduce their global footprint. At the moment it takes the average SABMiller brewery 3.7 liters of water to create 1 litre of beer. Newlands are sitting on 3.5L & are planning to make that 3.1L by 2015
- The main building has been painted with vertical shades of grey stripes (no ladies, not 50 shades of Gray) to create an optical illusion. If you look at this building from a distance, it appears cylindrical and almost like a silo. This unit is completely enclosed in this “disguise” to conserve energy
FAST FACT: Interesting facts from SAB- Black Label is the biggest Seller Nationally, Hansa in Durban and the Eastern Cape and Castle in the Western Cape. Capetonians are also infamous for replacing the crowns on their bottles before returning them, it must be the hippy vibes from the mountain!
So in conclusion, this experience completely changed my opinion of SAB. Their beers are completely preservative and chemical free (as the famous TV show would say- Myth Busted!) and after picking apart the flavours in the tasting and discovering how they get there through the brewing process…really inspiring!
More importantly, the Newlands Brewery itself is a well oiled machine with every cog from the mad scientists, the master brewers, the packing staff, the truck drivers to the customer facing people all giving their all in aid of getting me a crisp, cold, refreshing beer in my belly at the end of a hard day!
As Uncle Ben from Spiderman said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. The Newlands Brewery has definitely proved this to be true with the power and water conservation, recycling policies and respect for their surroundings. I mean, they even allow the public to come and fill bottles/barrels/drums with fresh spring water…at no cost!
Special mention to our amazing tour-guide Lauren Iliffe. Her professionalism, “walking encyclopaedic” type knowledge and quirky sense of humour really completed the experience for me. The 2 hours we were on the tour felt like 5 minutes because when someone is delivering with passion you hold on to every fact and time just flies by!
I hope I’ve given you some interesting points to wow your friends at the local pub with, but if you are ever looking for something to do, give the Newlands Brewery a call and book a tour. You won’t be disappointed!
For more tour information contact:
+27 (0)21 658 7440