Malcolm Gladwell defines an outlier in his book Outliers (published 2008) as “people who do not fit into our normal understanding of achievement.” When you speak to Ryan Behnken, you gauge a few things very quickly; this is a bright young man oozing confidence with a subtle hint of vulnerability that comes from intelligent introvertive reflection.
“I did not really do well with academics,” he comments. Perhaps this was because he had been wandering, trying to find something that he felt passionate about.
Drinking an Amber ale with Ryan – the head brewer at Red Sky – one gets a sense of this calmness. We discuss the story that led a very young man to be the head brewer at an established brewery. The brewery of course, is Red Sky, one of the early establishments in the craft beer revolution. As a child Ryan and his family moved around a lot. His mother, Samantha, was an avid cook when he was younger influencing the way that Ryan sees and applies flavours in his beer-crafting. A particularly key move in his childhood was when they moved to Kenya for two years when he was in his teens. The sights, scents and buzz of Kenyan cooking – a fusion of British colonial cooking with traditional Kenyan food with a whole heap of Indian spice magic – led to a spark igniting in his mother, which led to her taking up cooking more professionally. She competed in Master Chef South Africa and placed 10th in the series, which is no mean feat.
This family home, where flavours and presentation were such an experience, had an effect on the way that Ryan approaches flavour combinations when brewing. It was Ryan’s mum, Samantha Nolan, that first flirted with homebrewing. It came after first trying her hand at wine, which was good, but took too much aging to get to the point of testing the final product. Beer was a natural alternative, because it does not generally require large periods of aging and offers many varieties and little rules. This is where Ryan’s interest in beer started – in his family home in Table View.
Ryan took a gap year after what he calls “underwhelming” results at university. Instead of wasting the year, he took his interest to another level. “I felt gutted. I was angry at myself and felt like I had let my whole family down,” he recalls. With no prospects of studying for the rest of the year, Ryan turned to making beer during the day and waitering at night. He found some rhythm with beer making. It’s a familiar feeling for many homebrewers; a sense of achievement that comes from a clean fermentation, devoid of off-flavours, while being keenly aware that the recipe might need tweaking. The beer was good enough to lead his girlfriend Kasha Ryll to encourage him to send his CV to many craft breweries to see if he could get a dream job as a full-time brewer. She even sent some on his behalf.
Red Sky had been going through difficulty due to a slowing down Craft Beer market, or perhaps by the rapid expansion of craft breweries, creating a very competitive market locally. Mark Goldsworthy, who founded the company, sold the business to Clint Steyn and then stayed on as master brewer. Ryan learnt from Mark about taking homebrew to commercial brewing and how to craft a beer on a larger scale than the 25 litres homebrew system he had been using. When Mark left, Ryan was ready to take the next step.
It is not an easy thing to step into somebody else’s shoes. It is a juggle to fulfil the order books that are in place, while finding the time to expand the offering enough to draw much needed new clients. Ryan has a keen understanding of these challenges – he thrives on it and runs a tight brewing schedule to produce high quality beer consistently. On the 7th of September 2019 he launched Red Sky’s first NEIPA (New England IPA), which is a testament to this great young brewer and gives a glimpse of what is to come.
Q. What is Craft Beer? Is it purely independent?
A: "Craft beer, for me, is the hands on or the non-automated. It is the essence of care and effort taken to produce the beer. From grain to glass. Craft beer doesn’t have to be independent, but it needs to be passionate and for the beer not the money."
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 think craft beer in South Africa still has a lot of room to grow and develop. We are in the infancy stage of the industry. With bigger breweries showing face and taking over business from smaller breweries, it is difficult for the small guys to make a dent or let alone make profit. Beer has, and I think will, always be about volume. But if a brewery is run to be a success at “home,” with a taproom which offers food, it needs a simple beer. Whether it be a simple ale or a lager, it is something the South African market looks for."
Q. What is the largest challenge you face and what red-tape can be reduced to enable you to grow more rapidly?
A: "The biggest challenge for us is exposure and the misperception of the public that beer is just beer or like the bigger commercial non-craft breweries."
Q. Do you have a favourite beer style? Perhaps you have some beers that have inspired you along the way and why?
A: "I don’t like to choose a favourite child, but I think the IPA is where my heart lies. It’s probably the most popular answer but it has always been something that can be wildly different from one to the other. Not to mention going into hazy IPA’s and Double IPA’s. I feel like you could do plenty of IPA varieties and they will all be noticeably different. The use of hops in different ways have always been something that fascinates me."