When I was in South Africa for the World Cup in 2010, I remember waltzing in to a liquor store with my friends before our first match at Soccer City in Johannesburg. We wanted a six-pack for the tailgate before the match. In the beer section, there were stacks of Castle Lager and Castle Lite, South Africa’s answers to Budweiser and Bud Light, and not much else. That was fine. We were 21, and I would end up drinking some of that beer out of a vuvuzela anyway (sorry, parents), like these New Zealanders we met at Royal Bafokeng stadium.
In the five years that have passed, South Africans have taken up the American and now world-wide craze of craft beer, which has been a pleasant surprise for me. There’s so many local options, I’m actually working on a map of breweries in Gauteng in my spare time, with 30-odd breweries located in the province alone. Cici and I have been able to sample local brews at restaurants, breweries, and even nearby liquor stores, something that was very rare five years ago. To further sample all that South Africa has to offer in the beer arena, we picked up tickets to the SA on Tap Craft Beer Festival held at Montecasino in northern Johannesburg. We were treated to a smorgasbord of beer and food from over 30 breweries hailing from all corners of the country.
I had an orienteering competition that evening, so my strategy was to hit the festival early when crowds were low, and then have the afternoon to rest and recover before running around in the dark for an hour. To my surprise, this plan actually worked! We arrived just after opening at 10 am and got straight to tasting.
Agar’s Brewery made a great saison, and Smack! Brewing served up my favorite IPA of the day, called the Braamfontein Brawler. Garagista Beer Company’s “Tear of the Hipster” unfortunately didn’t live up to its excellent name, but Shongweni Brewery’s “Upright Iron Monkey” ale certainly did. The best beer names of the day though went to Nottingham Road Brewing, with the Tiddly Toad Lager and Pickled Pig Porter, because I’m a sucker for alliteration. Top pick for Cici was the Stranded Coconut Lager by Drifter Brewing Company, poured for us by a South African who learned his brewing skills in Portland, Oregon. My best-in-show beer had to be the delicious Dunkel brewed by Brauhaus Am Damm, located in Rustenburg just northwest of Joburg. For a moment, we were transported to Bavaria.
To pace ourselves with all the tasting, we enjoyed plenty of local food during the day, including a chocolate-covered Belgian waffle, a German Bratwurst, a Mexican breakfast taco, and the super-spicy Balkan burger, a delectable street-food sandwich that was featured on one of Anthony Bourdain’s food travel shows. With all the beer drinking, we inevitably had to use the facilities a few times, which featured hilarious gender signs and fantastically luxurious urinal blocks for the men. Just before 2 pm, we had seen, eaten, and drunk enough, and decided to head back to the taxi rank of the casino and catch an Uber home.
Of course, casino’s don’t want that to happen. They are designed so you have to wind your way through every square foot of the gargantuan maze of slot machines, fake Italian buildings, and dizzying neon lights before you find the poorly marked exit. Their strategy worked on tipsy Spencer, and I found myself at the blackjack table looking to win back the 250 rand we spent on food tokens at the festival. Luckily for me, I doubled my money in about 10 minutes, tipped the dealer, and we left the place actually ahead. The Uber dropped us off around 2:30, I napped hard, and went on to run well in the orienteering race. A near perfect Saturday.