I am overdressed. This was the first thing that crossed my mind as I waited at the bar of the The Grand Café and Beach in Granger Bay for Dougal Sharp of Innis & Gunn. The Scotsman clearly knew more about how to conduct afternoon ‘business meetings’ in Cape Town than I did, as he arrived comfortably dressed in flip flops and shorts while I was sweating it out in my normal office attire. Despite what his promo images attached to this post might suggest, I was the one who was overdressed.
All seemed right with the world, however, once we ordered our first round of Innis & Gunn Original – the company’s flagship beer that I first tasted at Bascule Bar at the end of last year. For a man celebrated as the most awarded brewer in Scotland, and with more than three decades of beer-making experience, I found Dougal possessed an underlying passion for beer you won’t easily find, even amongst Cape Town’s growing craft beer scene.
JM: Innis & Gunn has, over the last 13 years, proven itself to be a craft beer worth noticing in Scotland and Europe, and you’ve also become the top craft beer in Canada. But why South Africa; what brings you here?
DS: South Africa’s craft beer culture is really still in its infancy. What we’re seeing here, with the rise in popularity of beer and street food festivals, is exactly what we saw in Canada several years ago. South African beer drinkers are still refining their collective taste – we have hundreds of thousands of people (of all ages) looking to try beers that are different from the status quo. Just because your father drank a particular brand over the weekend for years while you were growing up doesn’t mean you have to do the same (or even want to). In 2016, South African beer drinkers have shown themselves eager to experiment with new tastes and flavours. And as your local beer culture matures, we’d like to be part of it.
JM: How have South African beer drinkers responded to Innis & Gunn?
DH: Very positively! There are already a number of ‘big names’ in the South African craft beer market, Jack Black and CBC immediately come to mind, but there’s plenty of room for new players, too – each of us offering something a little different. Innis & Gunn sales are on the rise all over the country, but especially in places like Soweto, Pretoria and Cape Town – hell, even Port Elizabeth and Rustenberg are showing growth. It’s in these places that you’ll find up-and-coming, young black professionals, who enjoy and understand the refined taste of whiskey, but want something similar with their beer as well. This is the type of person we’re looking to appeal to. Innis & Gunn is beer with a story, and that’s our main drawcard to South Africans.
JM: What challenges have you seen entering the South African beer market?
DS: Distribution will always be a challenge in South Africa – as it is in most places around the world. Not to mention the ever-dwindling strength of the rand. Every bottle of Innis & Gunn is shipped in from Scotland after a meticulous brewing process, and this obviously adds to the price consumers will pay over the counter at the end of the day. But South Africa is a whiskey- and beer-drinking nation and our main focus now is to simply on building up our brand and getting you guys to give our beers a try. We want to be the beer that people at a bar in the V&A Waterfront, or the Maboneng Precinct in Joburg, will ask for after a long day in the office.
JM: What next for Innis & Gunn in South Africa, and in Africa as a whole?
DS: We signed up with Pick n’ Pay at the end of last year and are already appearing in the supermarket’s bottle stores around SA. We’re locking down similar deals with other nationwide retailers, and of course increasing direct distribution to select bars and restaurants in the major centres. The Grand Café, for example, ordered their first shipment of Innis & Gunn earlier this month. So the beers we’re drinking now are probably some of the first bottles they’ve ever sold across this bar counter. In terms of Africa, we’re looking at emerging markets like Angola, Nigeria, and strangely Kenya. East Africa has a booming beer culture at the moment, and we’re putting serious thought into how to convince Nairobi’s bars and clubs to stock our Scottish wares.
I’m an avid beer-drinker, as I’ve said on numerous occasion, but I really do enjoy every flavour of Innis & Gunn I’ve tried thus far. The only problem is, I haven’t yet been able to find it at my local bottle store. After meeting with Dougal, however, it’s plain to see that he is as passionate about South Africa, as he is about about bringing Scottish beer to our shores. And to that I say, ‘Sláinte‘.
Photography courtesy The Beer Kitchen by Innis & Gunn (Scotland)