100Eric Van Heerden/breweries-3/item/100-triggerfish
Eric van Heerden, pioneer, master brewer, versatile entrepreneur
by Craig Claassen
To any force of momentum, there is a start, whether it be subtle or explosive. In that moment an idea can become neglected and wither away or it can be nurtured, allowed to grow and can become bigger and reaching far beyond the original intention of the humble pioneer. For craft brew guru Eric van Heerden of Triggerfish, there was no Eureka! moment where his views about beer suddenly made sense.
“I was introduced to good beer during international travel for work in the IT industry. The emergence of craft beer in the USA and real ales in the UK were so far removed from the bland light lager offerings at home that our beer was disappointing to say the least,” says Eric, sitting on a warm, late summer day in the converted redbrick munitions factory building of AECI in Strand-Somerset West. It now hosts one of South Africa’s leading craft breweries, the industrial-style architecture in unison with and complementing the subtle art of beer-brewing that has personalised Eric’s identity-rich beers.
During his prolonged stay in the US, Eric fulfilled his notable character trait as a man of ideas, a drive to educate and a believer in localised upliftment.
“Andre de Beer, now owner and brewmaster at Cockpit Brewhouse and an old friend, was an avid brewer brewing excellent, interesting beers, akin to international craft beer that I got to drink overseas, at home,” says Eric. “Andre infected Stephan and Natalie Meyer, very dear friends and founders of Clarens Brewery, with the home brewing bug and Stephan in turn got me brewing.”
For those who know craft beer, of course his name is well known, for those who are new to the world of craft beer exploration, you will easily see the man’s values when visiting his Taproom at Triggerfish. From the kind faces of the long-term employees, happily serving beers and engaged with the patrons, itself suggesting loyal clients, to the patrons themselves; never bringing down the overall tone of this establishment with irresponsible rapid drinking one might find in establishments merely interested in shifting alcohol as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Triggerfish is situated in the Paardevlei area of rapidly growing Strand and Somerset West in the Helderberg Basin, nestling under the nearly 1 600 meter (5 200 feet) Hottentots-Holland mountains, 45 kilometres from Cape Town. The brewery lies unobtrusively close to the protected dunes bordering the False Bay coastline, at this stage far from the hustle and bustle of developers’ cranes and cement mixers – a haven of quiet where a good meal and Eric’s excellent variety of beers has assimilated seamlessly into the surrounding environment where the smell of fynbos and dune grass fill the air around the rough red-brown bricks of the brewery.
Sitting down with Eric in the rustic interior of the old factory, you soon get the feeling that this man has come from a background that has uniquely shaped the way that he thinks about people and the world that surrounds him. Professionally, he comes from an IT background, with a deep knowledge of product development, be it software or his relatively “new” venture (compared with his experience) of making craft beer.
Born and raised in Pretoria, his father, Willie, was a professional photographer, well known for his prolific work as a culinary photographer, a time Eric recollects with a surprising knowledge of photographic technology. Willie’s photos appear in 260 books on food, recipes, cooking and other fields of culinary art. Willie and Eric’s mother, Madeleine, also administered the South African roller-skating association – perhaps it is no accident that he got involved with a few fellow brewers to found the Craft Beer Association of South Africa. “I grew up in the art of books about the culinary art and my dad’s studio was in our house.”
This combination of artistic self-endeavour and design can today be seen in the interior of Triggerfish.
No ideas happen in isolation, and in Eric’s case, through travelling in his IT capacity, he was exposed to the real ales from the UK and craft beers at the start of the craft beer revolution in the USA. He simply refers to the beers overseas with an understated politeness, as “good” compared to the “bland” light lagers South Africans were used to drinking at the time. Perhaps these exposures caused the small brook that eventually grew into the flood of varieties of different craft beers that inundated the boring lagers to which South Africa was for so long exposed.
In 2007, Eric joined the SouthYeasters, a homebrew club. “My goal to build a ‘mini’-home brewery proved quite challenging and with work pressure the project took till somewhere in 2008 when I actually started brewing. The beers were good, or at least that’s what friends told me,” laughs Eric.
Soon after he had to relocate to the USA for work, and he sold the small system and started building an upgraded version in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was here that another small step was made, joining the Carolina Brew Masters Home Brew Club, which suddenly put him in the company of other brewers who were willing to give an honest assessment of his beer.
“I was introduced to a group of brewers who had decades of experience and were open to share their knowledge, teach and help a rookie home brewer from Africa. I learned so much from them and am forever grateful for the opportunity.”
This influence proved vital in improving the consistency of his beer and styles that would be another reason for the success of Triggerfish.
While Eric was overseas, Stephan and Natalie Meyer converted their hobby into a small business, further fuelling the fire that would lead Eric to pursue the incorporation of a craft brewery in South Africa. Upon his family’s return, with a third design of his craft brewery system, now up to 250 litres, Eric took a road trip collecting fermenters in Pretoria and visiting Stephan in Clarence who gave him some additional fermenters that matched the system he was designing.
“Arriving in Somerset West after a year in the USA, I was ready to get brewing and introduced locals to the beers I loved and learned to brew as a home brewer. I could hardly wait for our container to arrive from the US,” he relates. “I designed my third brewery, with a 250 litre capacity and set off on a road trip to Pretoria to fetch some personal effects stored with family and buy my first food grade plastic tanks for the planned larger brewery.”
In Pretoria he was so enthusiastic that his sister’s neighbour Jannie, a plumber, gave him two 250 litre copper geysers to incorporate into the design. “I set off for Cape town via Clarens, to visit Stephan and Natalie, armed with 6 tanks and 2 geysers. Stephan showed me around his brewery and gave me a small fermenter he had outgrown that matched the geysers in capacity.”
Back in Somerset West evenings and weekends was brewery only. “For five years I ate, drank and slept beer,” Eric emphasises. “For me beer-making is similar to Sisyphus, a never-ending process of learning and updating to try and get perfection.” This stubborn striving towards the pinnacle, he partly learned from his parents but also while developing IT systems for companies like The Foschini Group and later a division of Marks & Spencer and other high street shops internationally. “The premises problem did not go away but the focus was beer, beer, beer. I brewed our first larger brews and set off to test it on unsuspecting family, friends and acquaintances at every opportunity. Almost everyone loved the beer and I decided to see if people would be willing to part with cash for my brews. I took a table at the Lourensford Market in November 2010 and people actually paid for my beer.”
But Eric did not brew in isolation. “Brewing was a family affair; we brewed in the cellar of the home we were renting and everyone pitched in with carrying, cleaning, brewing, shovelling grain and babysitting fermentation. I was still holding a full time job and my wife, Wilna, had to run our lives as I was either working, brewing, talking beer at events, markets or at home, building the larger brewery and looking for that illusive perfect premises.”
Then people started discovering his beer. “Early 2011 Magda, one of the traders at the Slow Market in Stellenbosch, asked to sell my beer at the market. I started talking beer at SlowMarket on Saturday mornings,” he reminiscesis.
The beer was an immediate success. “The patrons at the market loved the beer. The new taste profiles in Ocean Potion American Pale Ale, styled on my Charlotte home brewer friend, Stephen Gilbert’s 2010 CBM US Open APA winner, and my own CBM US Open winning Roman Red American Amber Ale, were the first beers in the styles released to Cape beer lovers. Those styles have become staples in most craft brewery line-ups.”
Where did the name “Triggerfish” originate? “We had to name the brewery and hundreds of names usually revolving around cats (we have six) geography and our love of the ocean, were considered and rejected. Eventually Wilna came up with Triggerfish, based on our scuba experience – we both were instructors and owned a dive shop – the clown Triggerfish was the one fish that all divers who saw it remembered. “Fish” in the name also fit in with my idea to pay homage to Dogfish Head Brewing, one of the US breweries that hugely influenced me and also hosted me in their brewery to see how craft beer can still be brewed true to the word on a massive scale.”
Serendipity often plays an important role in new ventures, inventions and discoveries. Louis Pasteur could have had Eric in mind when observing that “Chance favours the prepared mind,” because Eric’s research of and love for the craft of brewing, came with years of reading and researching beer, and grasping every opportunity to enter the art of the master craftsman.
“My employer went through a consolidation of multiple acquisitions and in the re-structuring offered voluntary severance packages to employees at all levels with the disguised threat that retrenchments with far less rosy packages would follow should there not be enough volunteers.
“I applied and got a package which provided the desperately needed cash injection to get Triggerfish off the ground. They also hired me back on a contracting basis for three days a week providing time to brew and security of not having to rely on Triggerfish for our family basic needs,” Eric relates.
And then came the search for a suitable venue to establish his brewery – and the discovery of Paardevlei. The long tale of regulatory red-tape and obstacles to get the authorities’s green light, will fill a whole book as thick as Tolstoy’s War and Peace. And it often was similar to war to finally get their license.
Paardevlei gave Eric permission to renovate a then derelict portion of the building they occupied and they got started. “We cleaned, glazed, installed water and electricity and fitted a counter and fridge for take away beers and furnished the new taproom,” he says.
“We added a kitchen to the taproom and shifted our entire focus to sell our beer on site. Triggerfish got more popular and we had to build more tables when we had time.
But there were distractions. “Around the same time there were further changes at my employer and I lost my contracting work. I did however start consulting with an old IT client in Botswana and was spending 3 to 5 days a month with them to keep the pot boiling as Triggerfish could still not sustain the family.”
They completed the now named “Taproom” and more people started frequenting
Triggerfish. Fridays got quite busy and Saturdays were laid back with lots of out of towners visiting from Cape Town and further afield.
Eric summarises the immense popularity and success of Triggerfish in 17 points:
Cell phone reception is notoriously bad
People talk to each other they don’t text, whatsapp, tweet or Facebook unless they’re outside standing on a chair or table holding up the phone and that’s entertainment in itself
We never had money for fancy shop-fitting so we left the building features as they were
We teach people about beer
We don’t sell hard liquor
Patrons participate, depending on wether they shift tables around to get into or out of the sun
They bring their kids, parents, pets and friends
We’ve never advertised, patrons have to “discover” Triggerfish
We don’t play themed music, when it’s quiet we tune into a local radio station or someone will plug in their phone. The focus is on interaction.
We don’t have a “play area” kids have to figure out how to just play and amuse themselves with lots and lots of open space, a gum tree and our pile of uncut logs. Somehow they’re never bored.
We have a great view of the mountains and enough open space
We don’t have waiters urging people to spend more money or turn around tables
On busy days, when the line at the counter backs up, patrons eat and drink slowly to avoid having to get back in line for their next order
Patrons are from all walks of life, we’ll have a table of suits from one of the accounting or legal firms next to students or construction workers popping in for a plate of chips for lunch
We’ve not had a single unpleasant experience with a patron since we started
It’s about enjoying beer
Eric talks about:
Distribution: Currently more than 90% of our beer is sold on site with over 80% of that sold on-tap in glasses. We are unique in that respect and the whole business relies on taproom sales for its survival. To reduce carbon footprint.
We’ve always maintained that shipping beer is like shipping water with some flavour and alcohol. It’s much more environmentally friendly to buy your beer from your local brewery.
With our focus on the taproom and brewery door sales we reduced our distribution to less than 10 other businesses who, over the years, have become friends and who will always stock Triggerfish.
Training of production brewers:
Back in the cellar days and early days at Paardevlei, Wilna and I did everything from cleaning the bathrooms to brewing, serving, cooking and all the cleaning that goes with it.
I was introduced to James Beyile by a good friend and fellow home brewer soon after starting Triggerfish. James was working as a gardener and worked for Christo one day a week and was looking for something more sustainable as he didn’t work on rainy days.
James started at Triggerfish in August 2011 as my assistant in the brewery. We worked side by side and I tried to transfer my brewing knowledge. James is meticulous in detail, serious about his job, focussed and the most dedicated person I have met. He has moved from gardener, with schooling to grade 4 to managing the Triggerfish Brewery in four years. He manages all aspects of production brewing form planning to finished product. As Brew master I only get involved when there are recipe changes, new or special beers involved.
James has subsequently trained three other production brewers for Triggerfish.
The core values and principles of Triggerfish: This was not dreamed up at some retreat or meeting but are the actual values and principles that we apply every day. We don’t advertise or publish it but simply apply it to everything we do at Triggerfish. These values are:
Triggerfish is about beer, not about over indulgence: Recognising that we were pioneers in craft beer in the Cape and crazy enough to brew styles that the average beer drinker was not familiar with, we decided that we would always brew our beers to the prescribed style guidelines. This would help in educating the public on beer and teach them that it was more than fizzy yellow swill to be guzzled in large quantities at sports events or stag parties.
Our beers were different in every way. Appearance, aroma, taste, texture and price were all different to what the local and international mass producers and even the other craft brands were doing. We did not care if we sold a lot of beer but wanted to share our passion and get people to appreciate beer. At the time, my contract work allowed us the luxury of not relying on beer sales to make a living and Triggerfish soon became a respected name in craft beer.
To date we have brewed 39 different beers. We regularly bottle 13 beers and always have more than 12 beers to taste in the taproom, sometimes up to 20 and even 22. We brew the widest range of beers in the country and have always had the most expensive beers both per unit and by volume. In only four years the number of craft breweries in the Western Cape has jumped from 2 to over 40 with a bunch of others in planning. It has become socially acceptable to drink beer with a meal in even the fanciest restaurants. There are numerous craft beer themed events and although the overall volume of beer that’s being consumed in SA on an annual basis is falling craft beer is doing well. This is creating jobs and boosting the economy and we like to think that Triggerfish played a role in this emerging industry.
Beer festivals – and hard liquor: In keeping with our ethos you will never see Triggerfish at events that promote drinking. We don’t attend any craft beer events where the focus is on drinking and selling beer rather than appreciation and educating the beer lover. In keeping to our non “bar” attitude, we decided not to stock generic hard liquor. When asked to provide whiskey or brandy at the odd private function, we propose expensive craft spirits which usually do not go ahead and people don’t want to spend R50 on a drink and we don’t want to sell it. However, we recently started producing Floating Dutchman Craft Rum and are now at the start of the emerging craft rum movement. This is now available for tasting and in cocktails at the taproom.
It’s about people: Triggerfish will always employ as many people as required to do the job. We’ve always believed that employment is what will make or break South Africa and actively practice what we preach. We’ve employed 21 people to date and with the new addition more positions should be created. Triggerfish probably employ more people per litre brewed than most other breweries around. We will not buy a machine if we can employ someone to do the job. Bottling is a prime example. We could buy a faster cheaper 4 head filling machine but opted to go with the two head machine and hire another person. If we run out of capacity we’ll get another two head machine and hire another person because that’s how we roll. We always choose the best unemployed person for an open position. When faced with multiple good candidates for a position we’ve always chosen an unemployed person over one holding a steady job. This may be more risky but have created a very loyal group of people working with us. We’ve grown from 0 to 21 staff and 8 casuals since 2011. We pay above average wages throughout, we believe that a good salary is the key to improving your situation, and we employ and train unskilled people.
Doing business with other small businesses: We only supply beer to owner managed establishments and buy from small businesses where possible.
Supporting the local community: We do not import anything that we can buy or have made in South Africa; We buy in the Helderberg area if we can; We influence other start-up breweries that we advise on doing the same.
Respecting the environment: We re-use everything – it’s cheaper and it’s sustainable; We don’t waste, and we innovate to be eco-friendly.
Doing the best with what we have: Triggerfish is not state of the art or automated. We’ve used recycled and “invented” equipment and materials throughout the business. We can’t pre-order large quantities of the ideal ingredients for our product. We thrive on these perceived challenges. It keeps us innovative and we have to be super sharp to keep our product consistent. Triggerfish is one of the most respected brands in the craft beer fraternity in South Africa.
Eric’s thoughts on a the Craft Beer Industry:
Q. What is craft beer? Is it purely independent?
A. “Craft is beer made with the correct ingredients for the style, which isn’t thinned out after the boiling process is complete and doesn’t use cheaper sources of fermentable sugar than malts, like corn sugar. Independent is less than one third corporate ownership.”
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 it is the craft lager producer in general that will go out of business. You can’t compete with mega-breweries with a more expensive and slightly better product. The whacky styles you are seeing, is really just because there are few people in the industry that understand the nuances of business. There are more than 100 identified styles, all of which that has at least 10 successful commercial style examples. If you brew something to style guidelines, chances are that there are lots of people somewhere in the world that will buy and drink a lot of it, as long as it is drinkable. If you experiment, you must accept that there will be many failed attempts, before you discover a recipe that works. When a consumer buys a whacky style, they must also accept that it can be hit-and-miss.”
Q, What is the largest challenge you face and what red-tape can be reduced to enable you to grow more rapidly?
A. “The general hassles on all levels of government. Excise on beer is the easiest administrative process, but costs the most.”
Q.Do you have a favourite beer style?
A. “Good question – I should rather give you some of the beers that have inspired me.