Food & Wine, Interview of the Day, Interviews, Lifestyle|October 14, 2011 10:20 am

Meet a Beer Blogger

Beer Blogger: Nick Mulgrew

For a more personal perspective on craft beer culture we sought out beer blogger and general ale enthusiast Nick Mulgrew.
Born in Durbs but currently based in Cape Town, Nick is a fairly new but passionate member of the beer blogging community. His blog Suip, includes reviews of locally and internationally brewed beers, as well as beer-related recipes, products, news and events.

Q: What do you love about beer?
A: Oh, just about everything! I love beer’s innumerable styles, colours and flavours; its ability to be either a R6 can in a cooler box at a braai or a R60 bottled testament to craftsmanship; its versatility with food; its effects as a social lubricant – I could go on for ages. I guess the two main things are that, one, it tastes great and, two, it requires a great amount of practical skill and patience to correctly make it. I think those are two things that a lot of us lack in the Information Age, and I like the way they’re embodied in the ethos of brewing beer.

Q: When did you realise that you wanted to experience more than the mass-produced local beers?
A: I’ve always liked trying new beers. When I used to go to Splashy Fen Music Festival as a young(er) adult, I enjoyed the craft beers on sale there. I always wanted to try something new when I saw it. I suppose what really got me into craft beer was a good buddy of mine who emigrated to South Africa from Texas, and he started getting me into properly understanding craft brewing and different beer styles. It was then that I started to get excited about craft beer in South Africa.

Q: On a journey of beer enlightenment, where does one begin?
A: Just like anything else, I suppose: trying new things. There is such a wealth of microbreweries and beer events in South Africa (even away from the major cities) that something new to explore is always within reach. Find what you like and go from there: read blogs, visit different pubs and speak to people. Beer people love talking about beer, so never be shy to strike up a conversation with an enthusiast.

Q: What elements are important when tasting a craft beer?
A: There are a few main things. Your basics are; tasting for maltiness, bitterness and different flavor notes. It’s a lot like tasting wine, except typically beer’s flavor notes are a lot easier for a novice to pick out than wines. Obviously things like honey ale will actually taste of honey and a kriek or a framboise will taste like cherries or raspberries. Everything worth drinking will taste like something else in addition to malt and hops.

Q: How does someone uneducated tell the difference between a lager and a pilsener for instance?
A: For someone who isn’t very interested in beer, it’d be a hard stretch to tell the difference between a lager and a pilsner, especially because South Africa’s biggest lager brand and biggest pilsner brand taste pretty similar! Perhaps the easiest way to tell beer styles apart is the colour: pale ales are bronze, pilsners are golden, and stouts are almost black, and so on. Strength is also taken into consideration, so you can say that bocks are stronger than porters, which are stronger than brown ales. You can also get into differences between top-fermented and bottom-fermented beers, different roasts of malt and different hops, but that generally comes along with understanding the different styles and how they are brewed relatively well.

Q: Why do you think SA is experiencing an upsurge in the growth of micro-breweries?
A: South Africa has always had a big beer brewing culture. People have been brewing beer here commercially for hundreds of years, and people in rural areas have been brewing things like umqombothi and utwala for, well, nobody really knows how long. As far as microbrewing goes, though, I think it’s a knock-on effect of a surge in microbreweries and beer culture in places like the United States and New Zealand. More people are going overseas and spending more time on the Internet, and they get turned onto the fact that beer is a complex and rewarding interest. Another interesting thing is that artisans and foodies are realising that South Africa has characteristics that makes it exciting to brew beer here, so you’ll find people here who make beer with marula fruit or honey, or trying out new techniques adopted from different cultures. South Africa is known for its wine; beer offers us something different.

Q: What are the main differences between mass produced beer and craft beer?
A: Mass-produced beer, like the ones you see being sold by SAB and Namibian Breweries, (Castle, Hansa, Windhoek, etc.) are scientifically brewed on a colossal scale. The biggest breweries in South Africa produce upwards of 20 million litres of beer a day. It’s beyond imagination. Their products are the result of studies on profitability, production efficiency and market research. As such, they’re cheap and consistent, but the beers aren’t as exciting as they should be, and generally they don’t come in a great amount of styles.

Craft beer is usually brewed by smaller breweries, (I say “usually” because SAB also do craft beers from time to time) and are made in innumerable styles, from bocks to pilsners, from porters to Indian Pale Ales. They’re localised, which means they have a sense of place and are only available in certain parts of the country, or even only from the brewery in which they’re brewed. Their quality ranges from extraordinary to extraordinarily poor. As the name implies, it’s a craft, so it requires experience, patience and a great amount of skill, and results vary from brewer to brewer.
People sometimes demonise mass-produced beers. I think that’s silly: mass-produced beers have a huge part to play, especially in this country where most people can’t afford craft beer. The amount of time, effort and money that goes into the technology and science behind a beer like Castle Lager is unreal. SAB, for better or worse, is part of South Africa’s history, and to malign its existence would be misguided.

Q: What made you decide to start writing about beer?
A: Simply because I’d like more people to know how great beer is. Humans brewed beer before they had organized religion, competitive sports or written literature. It’s something ancient and complex and, above all, incredibly fun. If I can convince people of that, I’d be very pleased with myself.

Q: On your beer journey so far, which beverages have impressed you most?
A: There’s this brewery in Port Alfred called The Little Brewery on the River that I wrote a piece about a while back. It’s not the biggest place, and their beer, while very good, isn’t mind-blowing. The spirit behind it, however, is. They brew in the old Port Alfred harbourmaster’s office and warehouse and have a beautiful brewpub next door. Their master brewer is a 72-year-old former SAB chief brewer who smokes fat cigars at 9 a.m. History oozes from every crack in its old stone walls. It’s a very special place. If you’re ever in Grahamstown, Bathurst, Port Alfred or Kenton-on-Sea, you must try their Coin Ale or Kowie Gold Pilsner. You can only get them in those four towns and, to me, they represent what craft beer is all about.
As far as individual beers go the ones that stand out are Robson’s West Coast Ale, Darling’s Bone Crusher and Hook Norton’s Double Stout.

Q: Is it acceptable to get drunk on craft beer or is it considered bad form?
A: It’s not bad form at all, but only as long as it’s a by-product of enjoying beer! I think beer gets a bad rap because people generally drink it to get drunk, and not to enjoy it. Without enjoyment behind it, alcohol is just something that damages your body. But the thing that sets alcohol apart from other substances is that its main concern is to be tasty. Without that, it has little to give you other than a headache and a belly.

Q: Craft beers are generally more expensive than average beers. How does a real beer aficionado afford to drink the good stuff? Do you budget for good beer?
A: Generally, you need less craft beer to feel completely satisfied than you do with mass-produced beers. Also, craft beer is decidedly a middle-class pursuit in this country, so most people who are very enthusiastic about it generally have little problems affording it. That said, prices from SAB have been going up substantially in some bars, so sometimes you’re just as well paying those few extra bucks for something different.

Q: Of the major beers in SA, which do you consider to be the tastiest?
A: My go-to beer is Hansa Pilsener, just because it’s readily available, relatively tasty and very easy to drink. Castle Milk Stout is probably the tastiest of major South African beers, though. It’s deep and complex, and it has a lot of flavour notes that appeal to the mass market, like coffee, cacao and caramel.

Q: If you were to create a signature beer, what kind would it be and what would you call it?
A: I would like to say that I would like to attempt something interesting like a rauchbier or a fruit lambic, but I’d probably just go for a malty, malty stout that I could call The Dude and enjoy at home with my mates while watching films starring Jeff Bridges. I have simple tastes, really.

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