Brus before brews…this is a great beer story, a great people story, a great entrepreneurial story…. but first, a few words. I often feel the need to start much of what I write about South Africa with this: “If you don’t live here, you won’t understand why this story is such a huge deal.” It gets old, I know. What I’m talking about is the ultra light sprinkling of black entrepreneurial success stories in the South African food and drinks industry, particularly stories of those who started with nothing. Twenty-three years after apartheid’s demise, the road to success is still fraught with obstacles — if you are black — the biggest being lack of access to capital.
Which is why when 35-year-old Lethu Tshabangu opened the doors of Ukhamba Beerworx, just over a month ago, in Woodstock’s The Palms Lifestyle Centre – a place of designer couches, architects and expensive lighting options — it was worthy of fireworks and cannon blasts. And, many rounds of craft beer.
Ukhamba Beerworx is Cape Town’s first and only black-owned craft brewery, and Lethu is the city’s only black brewer. A year ago, he was struggling to pay for milk and nappies (diapers) for his baby. Today, he brews two delicious IPA’s and a Saison (a modern pale ale with an African sorghum twist) under his own label. His brewery is in a vibey urban space, in semi-gentrified Woodstock, adjacent to Cape Town’s CBD. This, in a country where craft beer is still very much “a white thing” (his words, and mine): something Lethu wants to change. “We hope to be the place, where Xhosas, whites, Africans, Coloureds will mix, over good beer.”
Lethu grew up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and moved to Johannesburg with his family when he was 21. So far, a familiar migrant story. The rest is not.
In Jo’burg, he worked for an events company, which introduced him to the world of beverages. At 31, he came to Cape Town on his own, seeking something new, better, and potentially his own. Upon arrival, he bought a cheap Nokia phone and slept on the pavement outside the bus station. Then the hustle began. It hasn’t stopped since.
He got a job at Shimmy Beach Club, and trained as a cocktail bartender. “It’s where I learned about flavours.” Drinks have always been what he loves, and how he’s earned a living. But while he’d grown up with umqombothi (traditional African beer made primarily from maize and sorghum, shared between friends, family and community), he’d never tasted craft beer until he began working as a bartender at the Waterfront Food Market. In Cape Town, it was a time when craft beer was still in its toddler stage, and there were just 12 craft beers on offer.
This is when Lethu’s love affair with craft beer began, and he also got a lucky break. His boss didn’t drink beer, and was happy as long as the numbers were good. He trusted Lethu and let him handle the beer selection. By the time Lethu left, the bar stocked 140 craft beers. Credit to Lethu’s enthusiasm alongside the rapid rise of craft beer in South Africa.
Before Lethu left this job though, he’d started messing around with home brewing. He immersed himself in the culture of craft beer, and tried to learn everything he could about the process and industry. His first beer was a Black IPA. He bought a share in the Brewers Coop in Woodstock so he could produce beer to sell. He introduced his IPA at the Waterfront bar, and began marketing it elsewhere.
Eventually it was time to take the plunge. He needed more production time and his own space. An opportunity arose to buy an existing brewery in a retail development. He still doesn’t know how he pulled it off. With nothing saved, he hustled, cajoled, crowd-funded and eventually raised enough to take over the space. His partner is his wife, Noluyamda Roxwama. “She’s the one who handles the money,” he says.
Lethu currently makes three beers, with attention grabbing names and cool labels. I liked them all:
- Utywala (Xhosa for beer) gets the prize for most unusual craft beer: it is a Sorghum Saison. It grew out of an encounter with an Australian brewer. After Lethu had given him a taste of umqombothi, he asked if the traditional beer had evolved at all. This got Lethu to begin playing around with it. The result was Utywala: tart, easy drinking, modern…yet still African. European beer writers who have tasted it, he tells me, like it because it is uniquely African and cannot be made anywhere else. It is what happens when you cross tradition with modernity.
- State Capture IPA is Lethu’s attempt “to make a beer that will win everyone.” It’s low on bitterness, high on flavour and aroma, and has a kick-ass name. Again, if you’re not from South Africa, State Capture is “a type of systemic political corruption in which private interests significantly influence a state’s decision-making processes to their own advantage” …thank you Wikipedia. Suffice it to say that in South Africa, it’s top of mind.
- Pursuit of Hoppiness is a black IPA. It is dark and hoppy: “Everything I love in a beer,” says Lethu. It was his first baby, and he’s been tweaking it ever since its creation in 2014.
Beer is Lethu’s passion. It’s also been a lifeline: “I’ve always wanted to own my life. Beer was the passport. I feel free when I’m making beer.”
Great product, great person. Cheers to Lethu’s success.
Ukhamba Beerworx is open to the public with beer on tap and tastings on Fridays, 4:00 pm til late, and Saturdays, 10:30 am til late. Check Ukhamba’s Facebook page for all kinds of special events. Bottled beer is available at select retailers.
Featured photo by Dariyal Photography www.dariyal.com