Beer. It’s what puts a smile on the bearded face of Lethu Tshabangu, so it’s perhaps fitting that the most exciting of his new range of craft beers is dubbed, simply, ‘The Pursuit of Hoppyness’.

While it’s a clever play on this crucial ingredient that brings both flavour and bitterness to beer, it’s also a neat conclusion to a journey that has taken Tshabangu from home-brewing “in my wife’s pots on the kitchen stove” to the proud owner of Cape Town’s first black-owned craft brewery.

Lethu Tshabangu [Photo by Dariyal Photography, www.dariyal.com]
After working in the events industry, this Johannesburg local found himself pulling pints at one of Cape Town’s craft beer bars. “But I didn’t know anything about craft beer, it was my first encounter with it”, recalls Tshabangu with a smile. “People would ask me: what’s an IPA? What are the IBUs? What hops are they using? But I didn’t know anything about it, so I went out of my way to educate myself, researching on the internet and trying different craft beers. I quickly fell in love with craft beer, so one day decided to try my hand at home-brewing.”

That was back in 2012, and from home brewing to working in a local brewer’s co-operative, Tshabangu quickly made a name for himself. “From the start people loved my beer. My first brew was blonde ale with a bit of fynbos honey, so it smelled really great. But it was very over-carbonated”, laughs Tshabangu.

He’s refined his skills considerably along the way, and July 2017 saw Tshabangu open his gleaming new craft brewery in The Palms Lifestyle Centre in the trendy suburb of Woodstock. While the stainless steel tanks and fermenters are capable of producing 5,000 litres a month, there’s a homely feel to the new brewery and taproom. Pull in for a tasting and you’ll likely find Lethu at work in the glassed-off brewery, or pouring draughts behind the bar.

That warm welcome is a clear link back to the name of the brewery: in traditional African culture, an ukhamba is the traditional clay pot from which umgqombothi sorghum beer would be shared amongst friends. While you’ll get your own glass at the Ukhamba Beerworx, that link to the traditional is reflected in Tshabangu’s delicious Utywala beer, which uses a blend of sorghum malt and Belgian Saison yeast to offer a modern craft twist on this traditional brew.

The Pursuit of Hoppyness is also causing a stir, for this unusual Black IPA (India Pale Ale) uses roasted malts and requires a deft touch in the brewery. “It’s a difficult beer to make, and a beer that has earned me a lot of respect from other brewers”, says Tshabangu. “You have a lot of pronounced flavours – especially coffee and caramel – from the roasted malts, against the hops that are fruity and add bitterness. You have to find a marriage where the one doesn’t overpower the other.”

The final part of the trilogy that has launched Ukhamba is an IPA that captures the zeitgeist of South Africa in 2017. Cheekily dubbed ‘State Capture’, this citrus-tinged ale with delicious hoppy bitterness “is the darling of the people at the moment”, laughs Tshabangu, who has plans to expand the range into barrel-aged beers and other brews.

For now though, he’s hard at work in his shiny new brewery. No doubt with a smile on his face.

Ukhamba Beerworx is open for tastings on Fridays (afternoon to late) and Saturdays (10am to late).

Palms Lifestyle Centre, 145 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock, Cape Town.

John Segar

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