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JJohannesburg - Where in the world would five tonnes of apples be processed every day to make beer? Clarens, a town three and a half hours from Johannesburg, at the foothills of the Maluti Mountains, is doing just that.
On the outskirts of Clarens, down an alley near the local petrol station, a hum can be heard as the machine does its work. Methodically, it lifts its cargo on its small shelves, rising and rising till suddenly it vanishes into the machine's inner workings, never to be seen again. A few seconds later, this process repeats itself, again and again.
Two pipes can be seen slinking their way to a metal container on the sandstone - coloured floor, with one pipe releasing the greenish remains of the machine's victims. A gruesome end it may be, but if you ask those who see the ultimate end, they would likely tell you such an end is rather delicious.
“It's quite an impressive little machine,” says Stephan Meyer, 52, chief brewer and co-owner of Clarens Brewery. He's sitting at a wooden table near the bar in the brewery with fellow co-owner and wife Natalie. Around 15 people sit outside, sipping the golden elixir in the late summer morning sunshine, looking onto a green town square sparsely occupied by a fawning young couple, and a jolly golden retriever pacing around its edge.
“The press is at the bottom end of the town. The apple press we moved from the farm last year into town...We press currently 3 000 litres of juice per day with the press. To give you an idea, it's five tons of apples that goes through that press per day,” he says.
Prior to what Stephan refers to as “a change of career 15 years ago”, the Meyers lived in Pretoria where Stephan operated a business and Natalie worked in the IT industry. They have been married for 24 years, and dated for a further 10, having met at university.
Stephan, who was born in nearby Bethlehem and grew up in Kestell, sold his business and they bought a farm just outside Clarens where they started producing apples and cherries in 2000.
“We realised there was a big market...we couldn't do anything with the very small apples in the orchard, and in the area there is no apple press, there's nothing. So we decided to start making cider,” says Stephan.
Clarens: A brewery with a town around it
“We went through three years of researching and trying, we went to Normandy in France to see how they are doing their cider... We did a lot of experiments on that. Everything started with the cider, with the apples. We joined the beer clubs to see if they could help us make cider.” Their first acceptable product arose in 2005, however, Natalie and Stephan realised that just a cidery in the village would not do.
“People won't just come in and have a cider. We needed to attach a brewery to it. By then Stephan had been brewing for about three years, just for ourselves, for friends' weddings, etc,” says Natalie. In 2006, they took up their first premises in Clarens, with the town being a guinea pig for their beer. It proved a worthwhile experiment, with residents and tourists appreciative of the product.
“We took a sublease for six months to just see what the appreciation for the beer would be because craft beer wasn't that well known at that stage,” Natalie says. “It wasn't an ideal location. It was in a little bottom end of the village but it just gave us sort of an idea of what could happen.”
Fast forward to 2015, the Meyers are now on their fourth premises in town, and produce a constellation of beers, from red amber ale; English ale; and stout to Indian pale ale; Weiss and American pale ale - all unique in taste as their raw materials are imported from elsewhere. These are accompanied by seasonal beers, and their pineapple and cheery cider, all produced at the brewery.
Clarens Beer Fest
The development of the brewery laid the seeds for the now popular Clarens Beer Fest, started in 2011 by the Meyers. As South Africa's first specialist craft beer festival, it has become an economic boom for the town and the region. Natalie says the Clarens festival also served as the prototype upon which the SA on Tap Craft Beer Festival, and Jozi Craft Beer Fest, have based themselves.
“Natalie is actually the organiser of the Clarens Beer Festival. It's been running for five years now, and this year we had 5 000 people,” Stephan says. This is a large number for a town with only about 6 400 permanent residents. This year saw 20 other craft brewers attend the festival, held on the entire expanse of the town square under a 1 000 sq/m marquee.
“It was a bit of a 'Well, let's see what happens' and the businesses we asked to participate in terms of providing food and that type of thing, they were fine but they were sort of viewing it from the outside,” Natalie says. “Now... the beer fest weekend is the biggest commercial weekend in Clarens. You'll find businesses over here saying that they generate the same amount of income in two days than they do over an Easter weekend, and it's not just for Clarens itself, it's for the whole region. All the accommodation and all the neighbouring towns are booked out.”
Clarens has about 2 500 beds available for accommodation, with the shortfall picked up by neighbouring towns, resorts, and lodges. Stephan says shuttles run from nearby Fouriesburg, the Golden Gate National Park and Bethlehem for the whole day over the course of the festival.
However, while the festival has become a success, without the town itself it would have been impossible. “This brewery wouldn't work in other towns because there's no accommodation, there's no art galleries, no restaurants, there's nothing else for people to do, so it's a kind of reciprocal relationship,” Natalie says.
“We can have this brewery here because the town has so much to offer. It's a case of 'Oh well, we bring something to the village for that weekend', and so we all see it that way.”
The morning winds down into the afternoon, with the number of patrons outside having swelled, munching on German sausage and immersed in the stillness of the village and their drink. Just before the Meyers get up from the wooden table, Stephan says a work colleague of theirs recently referred to Clarens as a brewery with a town around it.“That's the way we see it,” Stephan says, with smiles stretched upon his and Natalie's faces.
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