From Blue Feather Bedouins via the Hoenderhok to stellar beers – an adventure in chemistry
by Craig Claassen
We hear it a lot; we see it in movies, the wonders of the world somehow explained with one word. Awesome song writers who work in pairs, two politicians who complement one another to change the world for better or worse. There is magic in it, there is science in it, there is something quite remarkable about the way that it makes us feel when we meet somebody who shares in it. In beer, your hops can shine or get hidden, because of it. The word of course is chemistry.
Carl Gustav Jung said, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” In the story of the Stellenbosch Brewing Company, there is a greater depth to that observation. Bruce and Karen Collins sit peacefully, warmly, outwardly relaxed about who they are and what they stand for. Their two sons, Charley and Xavier, play soccer on the large green lawn of the Stellenbosch Brewing Company, while we sip a coffee. From the brewery, a smell of mashing grains fills the air, like baked bread still letting off steam. Bruce and his assistant brewer, Jaco Coetzee, are making a variation of the Born Free Pale Ale, a beer synonymous with the brand. (I am curious how one could improve this beer even more.)
The word “chemistry” applies in a different way to their roots: Bruce grew up on the West Rand as the son of a gold mine engineer (more specifically an electrical and chemical engineer), exposed from a young age to the intricate chemistry of the mining industry. Any brewer will be aware of the importance of water chemistry when attempting to extract sugars from malted grains. It doesn’t just happen: it was no accident that these two people ended up owning not only a craft brewery in South Africa, but also a very high-quality tap room in the heart of the winelands. Karen grew up in the Midwest of the United States of America, daughter of a qualified baker, also exposed from the beginning to the chemistry of what it means to be part of the craft of intricate baking. She studied Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Minnesota, before changing to Environmental Studies. After two more years she swapped back and completed her degree in Spanish and Portuguese. Karen travelled the US extensively to nearly all the states, even exposed to the chemistry of coffee when she worked at Starbucks in Florida. Bruce studied economics and statistics at the then Rand Afrikaans University, now the University of Johannesburg – and then an extensive career in corporate business implementing complex and multi-faceted projects all over the world followed. He later founded Ataraxis Advisory, a boutique advisory services firm, providing turnaround strategy advice, sales excellence, supply chain improvement, project management expertise, and implementation programme management to large multinational companies and small start-ups. The list of clients is impressive, including Pick n Pay, FMCG (Diageo, Distell, Bevcan, Coca-Cola, Nestlé), and Mediclinic.
Bruce explored the nature of himself, as well as to build a career with a certain freedom that comes with youth. He travelled extensively in the Middle-East for work and ascended the ranks swiftly. It was on an impromptu solo long weekend at the Vatican over Easter, that he received a call from his friend Gazza, who managed to convince him to join him on a long weekend trip to New York. Gazza was practicing medicine in the United Kingdom at the time and the plan was to meet Bruce and another friend who had a girlfriend in the USA. In turn this girlfriend was reconnecting with an old friend who was working in New York city at the time; enter Karen Reece. Karen became their spontaneous tour guide of New York City.
“We met on the 18th floor of a Time’s Square hotel,” Bruce says. “We shook hands.” From small beginnings the evening brought with it adventures through New York City, chemistry kicked in and two people were transformed forever. What followed were a lot of letters and a half-way rendezvous in Madrid, which was the start of something much deeper. It would form the foundation of Bruce and Karen’s future. Here were two people, very adventurous, ambitious, held together across large bodies of water by chemistry from a chance encounter.
Were it not for Karen’s sense of adventure, it would be hard to imagine a woman out of the Midwest to move to Algeria without a visa, obtaining instead a “certificat de concubinage,” as the only way for an unmarried couple to live together legally. The story evolved and if you ever get the pleasure to sit with this couple, ask them to recall their adventures in more detail over one of Bruce’s fine beers. For the sake of moving forward in a concise manner, allow me to poetically jump through some key points.
They got engaged in Turkey, got married in South Africa (not far from their tap room) in 2007 and in 2009, they set off on an adventure, where they would see six continents in six months.
“We were a little bored and uninspired with all the negative talk in the world of the global recession, economic crisis and ‘crrredit crrrunchhh’; so it just seemed like the perfect time to unplug and disconnect from all those immaterial, material things in the world and to reconnect with ourselves, each other, the simple things in life and our wonderful planet,” Bruce recollects.
“Our plan was to travel the world, meet interesting people, connect with different cultures, try new foods and drinks and get inspiration from all the places we stayed and visited for our future business idea.”
It was on this trip that they accidentally discovered beer as a surprisingly alluring industry throughout Europe. It planted a seed perhaps and when they arrived in the USA, beer was now on their minds, but not necessarily as a business idea. They drove from New York to the Midwest, camping along the way. Something you find all over the bottle labels and branding of the Stellenbosch Brewing Company is the reference to nature and the great outdoors.
When in a basement in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visiting a lifelong friend of Karen’s, they got their first, or certainly one of the early exposures to homebrewing. Bruce recalls thinking, “You can do that?” as he helped bottle a homebrew batch of beer. He recalls the clean environment and the banter between brewing partners centred around keeping sanitised items sanitised. It was on this trip that they delved deep into the beers of the USA, heading west, where hops take on a whole new meaning. “The beer got awesome for us the more we travelled west,” Bruce recalls.
The West Coast (loosely defined as the states of California, Oregon and Washington) is synonymous for not just hoppy beers, but big hoppy beers. (Hops are used for bittering beer, which adds some preservative effect.) But these beers weren’t unpleasantly bitter, they were balanced and flavoured and unlike any of the commercial light lagers in South Africa or even the USA. It planted another seed, or to keep with Jung’s description of chemistry: it altered Bruce’s vision of beer.
Their adventure eventually led them to South Africa in 2010, right in time for the World Cup Soccer and more importantly, for Bruce’s grandfather’s ninetieth birthday celebrations. Five soccer games further, a decision was reached, the self-dubbed Blue Feather Bedouins were staying in South Africa. (The Blue Feather Bedouins was inspired by the Richard Bach novel, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.)
Bruce picked up his consultancy work again, and it was when he was away in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that Karen first brought up the idea of opening a craft brewery. Bruce reflects, “I was sipping on a Primus [pale lager] in Kinshasa, DRC watching wild African Greys flying overhead. We also found out Karen was pregnant with Charley while on that project in the Congo.”
A new adventure beckoned for a couple (soon to be a triple), who had been adventuring together virtually since day one. Bruce got certified through the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD): “Although we trusted our brewing skills and knowledge, when we decided to turn our hobby into a livelihood we felt we needed to convert the passion for brewing into a solid knowledge of brewing and felt the certification would support us in brewing to a better quality standard.” They set about getting quotes for custom-built brewing systems from South African companies and nearly gave up on the dream, because of the high costs proposed by the South African merchants. It seemed too expensive to get it off the ground, but then Karen found a second-hand system for sale from a brewpub in South Korea, while searching brewing forums online. The system was actually originally made in Prague with its beautiful copper mash tun and boil kettle, and they “met” via “Skype” with the agent in the USA, before deciding that this was the system for them. “It was near the top of, but somewhere within range of what we had considered realistic and possible.”
From outside where we sit, relaxing customers settling under the trees in front of the taproom, I look across to the beautiful copper twins visible from the taproom through large glass windows, the copper complemented by a bar counter of similar look. (This seemed to be a well thought-out detail.) When the system arrived, the building had not been built yet, so the farm allowed them to move into the “Hoenderhok”, which was a disused chicken coup barely tall enough to house the system. This was where they made their first beer, their most successful and critically acclaimed Hoenderhok Bock, referencing the origin of both the Bock style and the brewing system, combined with their brewing location. The building of their tap room took longer than expected, they looked sure to miss the season. Yet Bruce brewed to get ahead. (This is a common problem in South Africa with red-tape often reducing the ability of small businesses to get started effectively.)
The building was completed in November 2015 and the birth of a Stellenbosch and beer industry treasure was complete. It had taken six years of reading, studying, perfecting recipes and licensing to get to the point of opening the Stellenbosch Brewing Company.
The humble beginnings of five “tap lines” or variety of beers has grown to ten and counting. The original beers, Hoenderhok Bock, Born Free Pale Ale, Bosch Weiss, Eike Stout and The Avenue Lager each with a story behind the name, still stand proudly at the centre. Bruce brings us some beers, I drink a Squirrel Nut Juice (a coffee nut brown ale), masterfully crafted with roasty undertones and a balanced malt-forward mouthfeel and aroma. He indulges in the Mass Hoppiness, a double dry-hopped IPA, balanced to perfection with the bright flavours and aromas of fresh hops. There is something to be said of the water chemistry, the unsung hero of these beers.
The Beer Business, much like life and love, is a collaborative effort. “I have always said, I make the beer and Karen does everything else,” Bruce states comically. Karen adds a very important dynamic, her environmental background kicking in. The Brewery tries to get and stay away from the use of plastic, apart from where essential – the sustainable packaging of their “four-pack” is further evidence of this. Her attention to detail is precise, evident in the presence of a “tilde” over the “n” in their collaboration beer, Aloha Piña Colada Scream IPA, the influence of the Iberian connection of her years studying Spanish. And these little details take effort, and like the ingredients themselves and the water chemistry that make hops sing above strong balancing grain bills – they also make the difference. The beer industry is well known for the concept of collaboration, which is when two or more breweries brew and market a beer together in their individual distribution and sales networks. It’s a comradeship of sorts, born of a mutual respect. (The Beer Route is a collaboration between breweries to help reach a wider audience, and Bruce was instrumental in getting brewers in one place for this to take place.)
But at the Stellenbosch Brewing Company, the collaboration that made it all possible, through chance, chemistry and a sense of willingness to explore themselves and the unknown, was the collaboration between Bruce and Karen Collins. Their playful nature beautifully backed up by some seriously good beer.
Bruce’s thoughts on the Craft Beer industry:
Q. What is Craft Beer? Is it purely independent?
A. “Craft in my opinion is a mind-set, a value-system that guides our heads and hearts in how we work in this wonderful industry. It guides our recipe innovation and the extent to which we push the boundaries for flavour and choice of natural and quality ingredients, it influences the way we collaborate with other brewers in the industry locally and globally. If you are a tiny home-brewer or a small or medium-sized brewery or even a large successful brewery with big dollar investors and you don’t lose this ethos then you are true to the craft of brewing – That is CRAFT!”
Q. Where is craft beer heading in South Africa? People refer to “fatigue” with weird and not so wonderful beers hitting the taprooms. Will all craft breweries have to make a lager to survive?
A. “I would say if anything there could be “fatigue” or “boredom” of limited offerings in the South African beer landscape. This is what craft beer brings to the party! A wide and diverse range of quality traditional and innovative beer concepts – widening the spectrum of beer! There is nothing wrong with a good, quality ingredient lager style beer and lager does not have to be boring. If we as craft brewers continue to produce new, interesting and high-quality beers, that in my opinion is what the South African beer community needs to keep evolving and bringing more South Africans into the circle of craft beer as has happened internationally in the USA, Europe, Australia, etc.”
Q. What is the largest challenge you face and what red-tape can be reduced to enable you to grow more rapidly?
A. “Collectively, as a craft brewing industry we contribute a disproportionately higher level of job creation and ancillary support industry services (e.g. the new craft malting plant, label printers, graphic designers, packaging suppliers, etc.) yet we are painted with the same brush as a large monopoly international/global company i.e. ABInbev (an international monolith) when it comes to regulations and taxes.” B.
Q. Do you have a favourite beer style? Perhaps you have some beers that have inspired you along the way and why?
A. “There are so many beer styles that get us excited. I typically enjoy anything with a solid hit of hops flavour and aroma but have also been known to enjoy an imperial stout on the one end of the spectrum and a slightly tart, spicy and saline Gose on the other end! There is a beer for every occasion and moment that’s why we brew inspired beers for inspired moments.”