We Go to a Pub in a Township, and Try the Local Brew

Posted on
Apr 18, 2013
Posted in: Attractions, Food

Taking a discerning sip from a flight of beer in Cape Town.

My husband is a beer snob.

It’s something I find quite endearing. The guy rarely touches wine, and ignores most liquors (with the exception of scotch because it’s scotch. It’s basically like drinking a campfire, i.e., amazing), but he’s somewhat of a fanatic for beer.

I don’t really understand any of it (except the scotch part, especially when it’s preceded with the word “butter”), but damn if I don’t love this tendency of his. And whenever we travel, he insists on trying something local. It is not unlike my non-stop consumption of treats:

“What’s that, you say? This pastry is a regional delicacy? I’ll take four, please … No, I don’t need a box. I’m going to eat them right here, actually. Just … just hand them over and I’ll eat them while you run my card. Yes, I do see that my hands are shaking and DAMN IT JUST HAND ME THE CAKES.”

I suppose Rand has more willpower than that when it comes to beer, which is a good thing, because it would be sad and alarming if he did not.

And in South Africa, we had the opportunity to try one very interesting style of beer. It was during our township tour.

After we’d spent much of the morning walking around the townships, our guide, Lu, led us into a small shack. It had a single window (a rough square cut into the front facade) and a doorway with no actual door. The walls were a mix of wooden boards and a bit of corrugated metal, and the roof was mainly composed of black garbage bags.

We’d seen a few structures like this throughout the townships …

A hair salon, adjacent to a convenience store.

One of several dozen places of worship.

… but this was the first and only one we’d walk into. It was one of the more humble ones we’d seen. Other buildings had corrugated metal roofs, panes on the windows, front doors.

This had none of those things. The inside was dark, save for the light that came in through the window and doorway, and it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. The air smelled of dirt and wood and humanity. It was slightly stuffy and packed with people, many of them sitting on benches that lined the walls of the small structure, and a few sitting on overturned buckets or crates.

“Sit down,” Lu implored, and the group of gathered locals politely scooted aside on the benches to make room for us. It was obvious to most of us where we were, even before Lu announced it.

“You are sitting in our local pub,” he said.

There were a few nods and murmurs of understanding. Yes. Of course. It was a bar.

The faces on the people there were not unwelcoming, but it was obvious that we had just interrupted a conversation. Lu explained that it was here that people met to discuss the social and economic problems plaguing the townships. This was the town hall, the PTA meeting, the round table, the city council.

A woman stood up from across the room – it seemed like she might have been the owner – and walked over to us, reaching underneath the bench to pull out a large stainless steel canister. She popped off the lid, revealing a foamy substance inside, and placed the canister down in front of us.

“This,” Lu explained, “is our local beer.”

Here’s where it gets really fun. Before we could even ask about glasses, the answer became obvious. The canister is passed around, and everyone takes a sip. On and on until the beer is gone.

Needless to say, the two sisters from Leeds who were on our tour with us were suitably scandalized, in a delightfully English way.

“Oh, good heavens, that’s not very sanitary, is it?”

Their husbands, though, were perfectly game. As was mine. I mean, really game.

Swallowing the initial sip. He looks a little wary.

But he soon got over it and went back for more.

When I said Rand was a beer snob, I wasn’t kidding: he is very particular and discerning. He knows what he likes, and what he doesn’t. But he also realizes that good beer can come from anywhere. And he’s not going to miss out on the opportunity to try something that might be awesome, just because it’s being served out of a communal metal canister on the floor of a shack in a township in South Africa.

He’s a snob without being snobbish.

Man, I love him. And the locals did, too, especially after he declared it “not bad” and went back for another sip.

The folks in the bar got a huge kick out of Rand’s enthusiasm. Take a gander at the smile on the face of the guy at left.

Rand handed the canister to me. I’m not a drinker – in particular not a beer drinker (sugar, as you probably well know, is my vice) – but not to be outdone by my fellow tourists, I took a small sip. It was mostly foam (the practice is to blow it away, and then sip, but I forgot to do that) and slightly herbaceous in flavor. There was something, too, I couldn’t quite identify – an aftertaste that reminded me of cooked cornmeal.

And like Rand said, it wasn’t bad. Heck, even the sisters from Leeds had a swig. But when we left, it was Rand who got the most handshakes, the most affectionate slaps on the back.

Rand and one of the delightfully cultured and well-traveled Englishmen on our tour.

Later, we had dinner at a Belgian restaurant in Cape Town. Rand ordered a beer sampler.

I asked him how it compared to the local brew in the townships.

“These are colder. And they’re served in glasses.”

And, I’m sure he’d agree, far less memorable.

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