On a balmy Saturday mid-April this year at Knysna's East Head Cafe, I was lucky enough to be enjoying my first beer of a three-week holiday. It turned out that the beer was one lovingly brewed in Knysna itself.
I've always had a soft spot for local and artisanal product, so it's no surprise that I was fairly enamoured with the idea that Knysna - the same spot that produced our beloved Mitchell's - was the birth place of another delicious and unique brew.
As Heritage Day draws around on September 24, I thought it was time we got to know a little more about this new kid on the block. In an email interview, brewer Darren Berry who is one half of the team that make up Red Bridge Brewing Company, answered a few questions I've had about the company since that awe-inspiring first sip.
Make no mistake - this is no fly-by-nighter. Darren and business partner Chris Marsicano hope to become known for consistently brewing great beer with passion. Better still, they want to celebrate Knysna's own brewing heritage.
"We'd like to stake our claim to piece of South Africa's craft brewing pie and become a respected member of the local craft brewing fraternity," wrote Darren.
With their artisanal approach to the brewing process, it's easy to see how they might do that. They brew everything by hand, respecting that it all takes time.
"Our beers are also all bottle conditioned, which means that the carbonation occurs naturally in the bottle. Our beers are completely natural, being unfiltered and 100 percent preservative free."
They've done well to introduce the ale as their first product to the market. It's a fresh and fruity beer with a gentle hint of the bitterness of fresh hops sourced from farms on the nearby Outeniqua mountains. Overberg is where they get their pale malt from too. Darren adds that all of this is also blended with small amounts of imported roasted malts and noble hops to offer depth and character.
Their proudly local stance filters through into their name too. The name "Red Bridge" is one that crosses the Knysna River below Phantom Pass.
"It used to provide the primary western access to Knysna before the existing N2 Road Bridge was built. I grew up in Knysna and as kids we would venture out to the Red Bridge to jump into the Knysna River," Darren says.
"The bridge is an iconic Knysna landmark for many locals. When choosing a name for the brewery we were determined to find something that was grounded in Knysna's heritage and had a sense of place. We also wanted something that provided some mystery and that would draw out a question from those who are not familiar with the bridge and its history."
Starting on a very tight budget meant that Darren and Chris had to find creative ways to make things happen - which wasn't hard, given that, as Darren puts it, "Knysna's pioneering, bootstrapping heritage is in our blood." So, they manufactured most of their brewing equipment - no small feat!
"Our brewing rig has been fashioned from old copper tanks sourced from local scrap dealers."
Since its launch late 2013, the little brewing company has grown its beer selection from the Golden Ale No 17 to include a Belgian-style ale that's been spiced with coriander and orange, and a good old India Pale Ale that Darren describes as "a robust, hoppy ale with a velvety smooth malt backbone."
Asking about plans for the future, Darren adds that they hope to expand their brewery to include tasting facilities and brewing tours. They also plan to start distributing their beer more widely (it's currently only available in restaurants in Knysna, Plett and PE), as well as create a few speciality beers.
This small local business is a great example of a burgeoning industry in South African - one that many in the mainstream brewing industry thought would never survive. How wrong they were.
Visit www.redbridgebrewing.co.za for more.