Sipping a chilled glass of chenin blanc at a whitewashed winery backed by rolling mountains – it’s a quintessential South African travel experience. But in recent years, beer has started to give wine a run for its money.

Pints of local ale don’t always come paired with an idyllic view, but they do come with something more befitting craft beer’s cool image – the chance to explore up-and-coming neighbourhoods in the most bustling cities of South Africa.

Microbreweries are shooting up around the country, with numbers doubling year-on-year since 2013, and while many of them are found on farms or in offbeat towns, there is a growing trend for South African brewers to set up shop up in gritty inner city neighbourhoods. That’s not to say that these tap rooms and brew pubs are in no-go zones though. In fact, beer is playing its part in gentrifying South African cities, helping to draw people into parts of town they might previously have avoided.

Pints Woodstock, Cape Town

Cape Town

Nowhere is the craft beer scene as exciting as in Cape Town. In 2013 there were just five breweries operating in the city. Two years later, numbers had swelled to 26, with many more waiting in the wings. These small-scale breweries are scattered around the city and its suburbs, but it is the cutting edge neighbourhood of Woodstock that is the cradle of the Mother City’s beer revolution. Once a place to avoid after dark, Woodstock today is home to half a dozen uber-cool breweries – along with some world-class restaurants – that entice people to brave the largely industrial district both day and night. The fact that breweries are opening en masse in Woodstock is no coincidence. In South Africa, brewing licences will only be issued in certain areas, explaining why industrial zones have become popular beer hubs.

One of the newest additions, the Brewers’ Co-op, is among South Africa’s most interesting brewing ventures: a cooperative of 16 beer lovers who share equipment and premises. The premises in question are in a former fruit ‘n’ veg store, now painted in psychedelic style and shared with shops and restaurants. Nearby, the Woodstock Brewery (woodstockbrewery.co.za) also renovated a down-at-heel building, transforming a disused factory that was once reputed to have gangland ties into a sleek steak house and brewery serving a superlative IPA and a crisp, refreshing Belgian-style witbier, among others.

Devil's Peak microbrewery

Not far away is one of South Africa’s best-known and most revered microbreweries, Devil’s Peak Brewing Company. The team found premises near the landmark mountain that their brewery is named for and set about converting this clothing factory in a run-down corner of Cape Town into one of the city’s hippest hangouts. Two years later, the beer company shares its building with a micro coffee roastery, an artisanal ice cream shop and a collection of advertising agencies. Head brewer JC Steyn has no doubt that the brewery helped draw other businesses to the area, for craft beer tends to attract a young, affluent and often open-minded audience. And of course, what business wouldn’t want an award-winning brewery serving much-lauded IPAs, innovative barrel aged beers and superb upscale bar food right on their doorstep for company lunches or after-work drinks?

Johannesburg

The Western Cape might boast the bulk of the breweries but South Africa’s largest city is quickly catching up. Here the mash tuns and kettles are spread far and wide, with many of the smaller breweries found in industrial complexes skirting the city. Central Johannesburg, long avoided by many locals, is seeing the makings of its own mini beer revolution though. First there was SMACK! Republic (smackrepublic.com), a small setup within the flourishing Arts on Main centre in Maboneng. The brewery currently opens only on Sundays, when the dilapidated warehouse-turned vibrant arts hub stages a hugely popular food and craft market. With beers named for Jozi neighbourhoods, SMACK! is all about embracing the inner city and in Maboneng the three young brewers found what they call the “perfect combination of history, beauty and grit”.

Craft brewery

At the other side of the Central Business District (CBD), hop-forward beer brand Mad Giant (madgiant.co.za) is about to set up shop in another one-time warehouse. Owner Eben Uys raves about the history and architecture of the area, and the strides local government has taken to clean up the neighbourhood, though admits some people are still wary of the CBD’s reputation and knows that a visible security presence is going to be just as important as the beer labels when his tasting room opens in 2016.

Durban

Once upon a time KwaZulu-Natal – the province in which Durban is found – had a darling little brew route mapped out across the region. Sadly, many of those early trailblazers disappeared before ales truly took off in South Africa, though they’re now gradually being replaced with new brewpubs and tasting rooms. The KZN ale trail now leads you to almost every corner of the mountain-meets-ocean province, yet there is currently just one microbrewery operating in Durban itself.

Artwork in That Brewing Company

The wonderfully-named That Brewing Company (thatbrewingco.co.za) recently moved to spectacularly revamped premises behind the city’s train tracks – not a part of town known for its beauty or post-dusk strolling potential. But the brewpub-restaurant is surrounded by other young creatives – you’ll find a micro-distillery, a coffee roastery and a host of artists without walking more than a few metres. The wider area isn’t somewhere you’d want to wander at night just yet, but there’s really not much need to leave the brewpub, named S43 for its location at 43 Station Drive. There are four superb ales on tap, including an excellent American pale ale (That APA) and weiss (That Good AdWeiss), plus a menu of gourmet burgers and upscale street food to soak everything up.

Port Elizabeth

South Africa’s fifth largest city is lagging behind a little in the brewery census, but beer is trickling into PE and it’s helping to revive formerly forgotten parts of town. Bridge Street Brewery (facebook.com/bridgestreetbrewerype) opened back in 2012, transforming a derelict fibreglass factory into one of the most happening spots in the city – a vast brewpub and restaurant with an attached coffee shop. Revellers spill out on to the deck overlooking the Baakens River to sip on English-inspired ales and ciders. Over on the other bank, a second brewery has recently launched in an area earmarked for massive regeneration. Dockside Brewery (docksidebrewery.co.za) currently sits in a somewhat run-down industrial zone near the port, an area that its owners admit is still a little sketchy. But brewers Karl and Jane Schlaphoff aren’t concerned. Once the municipality carries out its plan to transform the area into a park edged with shops, eateries and apartments, the beer fans will arrive in droves to sample Dockside’s African IPA and Belgian-style strong ale.

Bridge Street Brewer
Bridge Street Brewery transformed a derelict fibreglass factory into one of Port Elizabeth's most happening spots © Lucy Corne / Lonely Planet

Of course, South Africa’s breweries aren’t limited to converted warehouses and one-time sweatshops. With 150 breweries and counting scattered across all nine of the country’s provinces, there’s a perfect pint out there for everyone – and the perfect place in which to sip it.

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Photo taken in Johannesburg, South Africa
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