A revolution is brewing in South Africa. Women are reclaiming their traditional role of making beer.
“Back in the days, brewing was a female thing. Over time it became industrialized and became a male thing. But, in the African culture, beers are still made by women only. In South Africa, more and more females are becoming part of beer brewing. It does make you proud that you are taking the whole thing back to where it started,” says Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela, the brewmaster and part owner at Brewhogs, a microbrewery in Kyalami, north of Johannesburg.
The difference with women brewing beer today is that they are bringing in the money.
“It’s extra nice when you’re making money from doing something that you like,” says Nxusani-Mawela with a chuckle.
Inside the brewery, it’s noisy, humid and the distinct smell of malts hangs in the air. It’s an environment that some might feel uncomfortable in; Nxusani-Mawela seems as if she’s at home.
Becoming one of the most respected brewers in the industry was not initially part of Nxusani-Mawela’s plans. She didn’t even drink beer.
“Growing up in rural Eastern Cape, beer was seen as one of those things people drank to get drunk and start doing crazy stuff. So, for me, when I got into the industry I started to appreciate it. I still don’t drink to get drunk, I’m a beer appreciator,” she says.
Her path to brewing was forged by a love of science.
“For me it was more the science around the fermentation and yeast and that kind of stuff. Also, South African Breweries (SAB) is one of the biggest companies in South Africa and a company I wanted to work for. When I joined the company, I got introduced to brewing. There is no other place to study brewing in South Africa.”
Nxusani-Mawela got a bursary from SAB to do her BSc Honours in Microbiology at the University of Pretoria. She then did her brewing internship with the company for 18 months. Once she was working as a brewer, she obtained her brewing diploma through the Institute of Brewing & Distilling in London.
Along the way, Nxusani-Mawela has become a pioneer. She is the first black female shareholder in a microbrewery in South Africa; the first black South African to be accredited as a training provider by the Institute of Brewing & Distilling; and the first black person to be certified as a beer judge in South Africa through the Beer Judging Certification Program.
Today, Nxusani-Mawela is so passionate about brewing she is trying to get more women involved in the industry as well as spark an interest in children who might become future brewers.
“I’m involved in CBSA (Craft Beer South Africa), I’m a committee member. My biggest focus is around the training. I see myself giving more to the industry and helping it grow.”
To do this, she has started her own company, Brewster’s Craft. Nxusani-Mawela stages science exhibitions at schools and hopes to start South Africa’s first beer academy.
“I realized that little people do not know that there is that branch in science. You don’t have to be stuck in a lab.”
Her talk is followed by action. On March 8, International Women’s Day, Nxusani-Mawela organized the International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day.
“It was actually started by a woman in America and spread around the world. I thought it would be nice and fun for us in South Africa. We had two groups, one up here in Johannesburg and then the Cape Town event. [In Johannesburg] there were probably 15 girls.”
She invited the men from the big commercial breweries to join, but they didn’t.
“Hopefully they’ll join us in the future,” she says.
There’s a sense of community among the craft breweries in South Africa.
“All the ladies brought the beers they make and, while brewing, we talked about our own beers and asked each other questions. It was fun and informative.
“There’s no competition. The industry is still small and young. We’re also such a small group of women, we have to protect each other,” says Nxusani-Mawela.
Happy Sekanka, the brewer at Oakes Brew House, in Modderfontein, east of Johannesburg, was one of the participants at the brew day.
“I was just glad to be there with other ladies and it went so well,” says Sekanka.
She says craft breweries in South Africa share ideas between themselves and give each other advice.
Oakes Brew House, an all-female brewery, was started by Thea Blom, the head chef and owner of the restaurant, 33 High Street. She decided to add a craft brewery to her business and thought Sekanka would be perfect to run it.
“Like her name, she is always happy and beer is a happy drink. It’s a perfect fit,” says Blom.
Sekanka does not have the lofty qualifications of Nxusani-Mawela, but she has the same devotion to brewing craft beer.
“I’m loving every minute of it. This is new to me, I haven’t done it before. So, when Thea asked me to brew here, I didn’t understand anything but they went through the equipment, the recipes, and how to run the brewery. I’m still learning every day and it’s going very well, we just can’t keep up with demand,” says Sekanka.
Although she loves her work, Sekanka admits that it’s not a business she ever pictured herself in.
“Before I started brewing, I hated even the smell of beer. Now, I love beer – especially craft beer,” she says.
She also thinks that the increase in popularity of craft beer in the country will lead to more women drinking ales, stouts and pilsners.
“Women are into healthier stuff now, craft beer is healthier than other beers.”
Sekanka previously worked as a manager at one of Blom’s restaurants in Pretoria. She jumped at the opportunity to become a brewer.
“I didn’t look for this… I thought it sounded like a challenge and wanted to try it,” she says.
“I’ve seen everything, from the building [process] to the installation of the equipment, so this is like a baby to me.”
Although embraced by craft beer lovers in South Africa, Nxusani-Mawela and Sekanka are uncommon in South Africa.
“My current estimate is that there are around 160 breweries in South Africa. There are lots of husband-wife teams but if you’re looking at breweries where the main brewer is a woman, there are currently fewer than half a dozen,” says Lucy Corne, an enthusiast who dedicates a lot of her time to beer through her blog, The Brewmistress, and has written two books on the subject:Beer SafariandAfrican Brew.
Corne says that one advantage women have over men in brewing beer is that women are said to have better palates than men. There are still fewer brewsters – the term for female brewers – than there should be.
This might be because women have the extra responsibility of being mothers.
“Obviously you’re trying to be a mother on the side, and brewing is quite demanding physically and takes too much of your time as well,” says Nxusani-Mawela.
Her six-year-old son loves accompanying his mother at work.
“He understands that mommy makes beer for people. Even though he knows he’s not allowed to drink it, he loves coming, especially when there are lots of people at festivals, because he gets to run around and play. Whenever beer ads are on TV, he relates to it,” she says.
“It’s a bit hard for me because my family is in Pretoria. It was a hard decision for me to come over here. I stay here weekdays and see my family on weekends,” says Sekanka.
She has two daughters. Her firstborn is 13 years old and wants to be a doctor. Her younger daughter is six doesn’t know what she wants to do yet. Maybe she’ll take after her mom and brew beer.
Before that happens, perceptions will have to change.
“People ask me where the brewer is and they don’t believe it’s me. They understand that woman can make coffee but not beer,” says Sekanka.
Despite this, her family think she is a rock star.
“They couldn’t believe it at first… I’ve been on TV and magazines and my family love it now,” says Sekanka.
Nxusani-Mawela and Sekanka are part of a growing group of women staking their place in a world dominated by men in South Africa. It’s also a world that is part of their heritage – a heritage they are proud to carry forward.