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Lift off for Africa’s first airport brewery

Airport Craft Brewers barman Oscar Sentane prepares to serve one of Marali’s blonde lagers at the O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo: Darren Taylor (VOA)

There is a new addition to Africa’s busiest air transport hub, O.R. Tambo International Airport near Johannesburg: the continent’s first airport-based brewery. Airport Craft Brewers is a reflection of South Africa’s burgeoning independent beer sector, with growing numbers of beer drinkers not satisfied with industrial, mass-produced beverages.

The hectic international arrivals terminal at the O.R. Tambo airport. Not far from here, businessmen in smart suits lean on a marble bar counter, sipping black and copper-coloured beers.

A tall man in his 40s, in a white lab coat, zips between big, shiny, silver tanks, monitoring the temperature of his latest brew.

Phumelelo Marali learned to make beer from one of South Africa’s master brewers, Lex Mitchell.

“He always said to me that, ‘Phumi, it will take you two years to be exact, to learn how to brew beer,’ which is now in a [proper] brew house. It took me six months. But it took me about four years to understand the technicality behind it,” said Marali.

Chief brewer Phumelelo Marali (left) and his trainee Sibusiso Khumalo check the quality of some of their beer inside Africa’s first airport-based brewery at O.R. Tambo International, near Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo: Darren Taylor (VOA)

Marali prefers brewing, and drinking, sweeter beers, like his dark malt porter.

“Roasted kind of toffee notes, that is what you get from a porter; chocolaty, and some people in their nose, they pick up coffee,” he said.

He also makes blonde lager, German-style wheat beer, and Irish red ale.

The brewery owners decided to make all the beer at the airport so customers could see the process firsthand and to ensure a “fresher” taste. The brewery turns out about 20,000 litres a week.

Marali says it is great to be one of South Africa’s few black beer brewers, and to be at the forefront of the country’s craft beer revolution.

A decade ago, there were six craft beer makers in South Africa. Now, there are about 200, with the artisanal sector having captured almost 1% of the nation’s massive beer market.

The sector remains dominated by South African Breweries, one of the world’s biggest brewers and part of the multinational beer behemoth, Anheuser-Busch InBev. But economic analysts say craft brewers like Marali are successfully carving out a niche in the local South African market.

The airport supplies a constant flow of customers.

Most of his clients though, are South Africans, like James Nkuma, holding a golden beverage in the bar area.

“It is a blonde [lager]. I love, I love it; I enjoy each and every second of it. It is an easy to drink beer. It is light, not hard like I need to drink and drink and get drunk; no,” he said.

Marali’s also training the next generation of young brewers, like Sibusiso Khumalo.

“Calculations, what you have to put in, the right recipe; the temperatures. The whole process takes one month,” said Khumalo.

But as Marali says “good things come to those who wait”. – VOA

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