This route from Joburg into the North West takes you past nine microbreweries where you can slake your thirst, no matter if it’s an ale or a lager you’re after, writes Chris Davies.
When you date a Belgian, there are three things you learn never to dispute. First, French fries are not French. At the very least they make them better in Belgium. Second, Belgian chocolate is the best. Swiss is very good, of course, but Belgian is indisputably superior. Third, and most important: Belgian beer is the finest in the world.
And it’s that last one I have trouble with. Not that Belgium doesn’t make a fine beer, it’s just that while chips are chips and I’m content with a Kit Kat, beer is very dear to me. It was even my first word as a tottering toddler – in that sweltering Grahamstown summer an ice-cold Lion Lager was never far from my father’s hand. Or perhaps it was a Castle. Maybe a Carling… Anyway, it was one of the three. Because that was the 70s in South Africa and the drink of choice was oh-so-simple: lager, lager, or a lager anyone?
No weak lager will cut it for a beer-loving Belgian, but there’s variety in South Africa these days. Craft beer, artisanal breweries – they’ve exploded like a bar tab at a bachelor party – and since Ann and I first met I’ve been on the lookout for a local beer that would impress. Then a few months ago we had some days free in Joburg and it seemed an opportunity too good to miss. Based in the Cape, I knew nothing about craft beer in Gauteng. Maybe up here I’d find my grail. A road trip of discovery was in order.
An impromptu road trip is a tricky thing and frantic Googling followed. We both like pubs that brew on the premises, and while there were a few scattered across Gauteng, an intriguing cluster beckoned from over the North West Province border. We’d drive towards Rustenburg and Brauhaus am Damm, we decided, then follow the Magaliesberg mountains to Hartbeespoort, before a loop through Pretoria and home.
First stop: Copperlake Brewing Co in Broadacres. We bought supplies at the shopping centre, then grabbed an outside table and a beer-tasting tray. They went down fast and, as Ann was driving, I ordered a pint of my favourite, the ‘all-day IPA’ (Indian pale ale). I’ve always liked the story of IPA – it reminds me of the lengths people will go to for a good beer. In pre-refrigeration, colonial days, India proved too hot for brewing so the Brits, undeterred, shipped the stuff all the way from England. Hops are a preservative, so to help the ale last the voyage they added more than usual, giving the distinctive bitter aftertaste that’s the hallmark of IPA. Love it or hate it, it’s a taste of history and a fi ne beer to start a journey.
We had miles to cover so it was one beer only then back in the car and west, through the last of the suburbs and into the rolling hills beyond. Past Magaliesburg we caught our first sight of the eponymous mountains, looming up on our right as we sped north towards Brauhaus am Damm. Over our menus a few minutes later, I snuck a glance at Ann. German beer probably wasn’t going to win the day, no matter how good. Our orders arrived and sure enough they were great, especially the Bavarian dunkel. It was all as authentic as it comes as far as I could tell … but not authentically South African and not quite what I was looking for. The thought lingered as I flipped chops on the braai that night, and surfaced again as we retraced our route south for lunch at the Black Horse Estate’s brewery the next day.
‘That’s Jacques Brel!’ exclaimed Ann as we waited for our tasting tray. French music drifted down from the speakers. I stared back blankly. ‘He was one of Belgium’s most famous singers,’ she explained. I looked up at the painting above our table – a bucolic European village scene – then through the towering French windows to the beautifully manicured lawns outside. The food was excellent and the beer good, but this was no way to convince a Belgian.
‘She’s got beer and Brel back home,’ I thought, as we climbed back into the car. It was time to head to Harties. Perhaps there I’d find it: not just a good beer, but a uniquely South African beer. We sped east, past stud farms and darkening fields, the setting sun a dazzling glow in the rear-view mirror.
Sunday dawned bright and clear and the water flashed and sparkled on Hartbeespoort Dam. We were on our way to Ale House, a last throw of the dice before turning home. Pulling into the car park the omens looked good. Although open barely half an hour, it was packed, the sprawling garden already full of thirsty customers. Beyond the trees an unassuming hut served as the bar and there was a long row of tasty-looking pizzas queued up at the wood-fired oven alongside.
This place was more like it. Kids and dogs played on the grass and a crowd of regulars laughed and chatted with owner Dirk van Tonder as he pulled himself a measuring jug of beer for his table outside. We ordered two pints of the same – a rich, golden buchuinfused brew – and took a long, satisfying sip. Ann smiled. And so did I. It wasn’t quite an IPA and it certainly wasn’t a dunkel, but under the slight hoppy bitterness there was a unique, full flavour that neither of us had tasted before. A moment later we were squeezed up next to Dirk, Ann and he in enthusiastic conversation about how to get buchu beer exported to Belgium.
I sat back and sipped, gazing out onto an unkempt garden that suddenly reminded me of a childhood in Grahamstown. Finally we’d found it, I thought with a grin, as the old jug of beer, an unlikely grail, was passed around the table again.
Did you know?
Current Gauteng licensing regulations place restrictions on brewing and selling at the same premises. As a result, the region’s newest brewpubs are generally found in neighbouring provinces, while Gauteng brewers rely on specialist outlets such as Capital Craft Beer Academy, which stocks over 230 local and international craft beers and ciders.
The Beer Route
Day 1: Joburg to the Magaliesberg
Distance 120km Allow 6 hours Start with lunch and a beer-tasting tray at Copperlake Brewing Co (1) in Broadacres Centre. You can fi ll up at the BP and stock up at Woolies or Spar; Liquor City sells bottled Copperlake beer to take with you. Leave north on the R552. Turn left onto the R114 to Gilroy Brewery (2) and get some beers for the braai tonight. Then it’s west on the N14, right onto the R24 and 45 minutes to Brauhaus am Damm (3) for a pilsner. Thirsty Falls Guest Farm (4) is 16km back down the R24. Time to braai.
Day 2: Magaliesberg to Hartbeespoort Dam
Distance 75km Allow 5 – 7 hours Have a morning dip in Thirsty Falls’ eco pool. Return down the R24 but turn left before Magaliesburg and take the R98 to White Dog Taproom (5) for one of the weekend’s best pints, or Black Horse Estate (6) for lunch under the trees. Continue east on the R98, then left onto the R96. Turn left again onto the R563, right onto the R560 and head north round the dam. Your final stop is Chameleon Brewhouse (7) –right onto the R104 – before check-in at The Art Guesthouse (8), 4km down the road.
Day 3: Hartbeespoort to Pretoria and home
Distance 95km Allow 6 – 8 hours (depending on the patience of your designated driver) Drive back along the R104 and turn left onto the R512, following it south around the dam wall to Lazy Lizard Brewhouse (9). Start the perfect Sunday there with a tasting tray and brunch, and buy some takeaway beers to get you through the week ahead. Then it’s back up the R512 to Ale House (10) for an even lazier afternoon of buchu beer. If your driver permits, head to Capital Craft Beer Academy (11) in Menlo Park, Pretoria, before turning sadly for home.
Directory and map
4. Thirsty Falls Guest Farm.
The three self-catering studios are fully equipped, with patio, braai and beautiful views. Their five self-catering cottages are more secluded but must be booked for two nights over weekends. From R800 per studio (sleeps two). 0824647376, thirstyfalls.co.za
6. White Dog Tap room.
Informal, friendly, with excellent, reasonably-priced beer (R25 a pint) and an unpretentious pub menu of pizza, steak and burgers (from R55 for a burger and chips). 0823300646 or find them on Facebook.
9. Lazy Lizard Brew House.
A brand-new brewpub, just across the North West Province border. You’ll get an excellent IPA (R45 a pint) and full English breakfast (R65). 0825683809, lazylizardbrewhouse.co.za
Beer Route Map
What we’d do differently
Book Black Horse Restaurant in advance to ensure an outside table, or go to the nearby White Dog Taproom instead. We’d also make Thirsty Falls Guest House our base for the entire trip and book one of their larger cottages that are only available for two or more nights over weekends.