James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Having a Beer at the Highest Brewery in Africa

Having a Beer at the Highest Brewery in Africa

Porter in Mpumalanga Province

We’re sitting in a cosy pub inside the highest brewery in Africa. I am in love with Colin the brew master, who is a handsome, cricket-loving Zulu. He recommends his Mac’s Porter, a beer which he formulated with women in mind. He says it has a “malty creamy fullness, smooth as silk.” My boyfriend is in love with the Bull’s Bitter, which he says reminds him of his native Wales.

Colin is in charge of the brewery at Hops Hollow, which is at the very top of the Long Tom Pass in Mpumalanga province, South Africa. Part of a fabulous and fast-growing trend in regional craft beers in South Africa, this organic microbrewery’s claim to fame is that it’s the highest in Africa. At more than 7000 feet above sea level, its location is as much its signature as its delicious home-brewed draughts and ales.

The Long Tom Pass is 35 miles long and reaches 7198 feet at its summit. This devilishly steep and winding road claws it way up the mountain from the small forestry town of Sabie (where there is another brewery) to the historic town of Lydenberg, an ancient outpost.

In the 1800s, the Long Tom Pass was the wagon route from the port of Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) and the Lowveld wilderness to the town of Lydenberg and the Transvaal interior. It took several days and a whole lot of pioneering spirit to ascend the pass, and you can still see the wagon tracks, like claw marks, scoured in the rocks. These days it takes under an hour and at the summit, like a prize, sits Hops Hollow.

It’s all about homegrown organic beer and an easygoing atmosphere, says Jannie the barman and manager, who joins us for a round. The business of craft beer has boomed in South Africa, with most breweries in the Western Cape and Gauteng, but increasing numbers opening their taps in small towns. He is an Afrikaner from Voortrekker stock and looks about his rustic wooden bar with satisfaction. Hops Hollow was started in 2001, he tells us, and many travelers stop here for the views-and-beer combo.

He also tells us that the Long Tom Pass was named after the Boer-operated field gun that fired a 85-pound shell for six miles and was the bane of British generals and their brigades during the Anglo-Boer War. The Boers lugged this metal monster to the most amazing places, constantly surprising their enemy. We raise a toast to peace and cars.

Behind the bar with its paraphernalia, a glass wall looks onto the microbrewery. My boyfriend orders another bitter ale and gets misty eyed. I have another Mac’s Porter and sit purring as Colin explains how each batch of beer is handcrafted and absolutely nothing unnatural is used in the brewing process, and that the most important ingredient is the clear water that is drawn from these ancient mountains.

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