A Spring Runs Through It

Celebrating their 5-year anniversary this month, the co-founder of proudly Hout Bay craft beer business Urban Brewing Co looks back on half a decade of making memories. And damn fine beer.
Geoff (far left) with customers.

Beer aficionados will know that beer’s primary ingredient is plain ol’ water. But Geoffrey Roeloffze doesn’t use just any H20 at his Hout Bay-based Urban Brewing Co. When you sip one of his beers, you’ll taste the soft spring water that flows through Hout Bay Vineyards, owned by his father, Peter Roeloffze.

Family. It’s clear that this is the glue that holds this craft brewery together – even its very walls. Geoff, 29, wearing a baseball cap and broad smile, tells me how he built the feature wall himself using stones from his father’s vineyard. “I just chucked them in my bakkie,” he says.

He built this brewery, stone by stone, five years ago, and has the callouses to prove it. Although it looked vastly different then from the vibey, slightly grunge spot where we’re sitting, with its naked copper piping and man-sized posters depicting the urban legends behind Geoff’s award-winning beers.

Origins of a legend

“And then I met Helena,” Geoff says of how it all started. Helena Fagan is one of the artists here at 31 Harbour Road, which as you drive through Hout Bay Harbour is a breath of salty air with its graffiti and striking sculptures. Five years ago, Geoff was here scouting for a venue for his brewery.  Helena showed him an area upstairs.

“I thought hmmm… I don’t know. Will this floor hold 8000 litres of beer?” They went to look at the space downstairs, then an art studio. “There was nothing here. Paint all over floor. No cold room or bar. I was like jiiina… I want this spot.” He cracks another wicked smile.

Urban Brewing Co looks far different from what it did when it opened five years ago.

He could see the potential in its bones. And its location: the combination of art and craft beer, for one, is a perfect marriage. It’s as unpretentious as the harbour with its stripped-to-the-bones boatyard and Hangberg residents gutting fish freshly hauled for sale to the public.

“I thought hmmm… I don’t know. Will this floor hold 8000 litres of beer?”

“We came in and built everything,” Geoff says. Including the brewhouse just a few steps from the bar, with its stainless-steel tanks and pipes and heady smell of hops. As a customer, you can see exactly where the beer in your hand was made.  Tomorrow at 5am, Geoff will be here brewing a specialty beer, taking out spent grain from the tap to masher, steam clouding the air. It’s a beer you’ll only taste once a year…  

If you’re hoppy and you know it

Any of the diehard customers of the craft brewery will know that they make seasonal beers throughout the year, including their uber-popular pilsner, which, in summer goes down like a Chapman’s Peak sunset.

“We wanted to make something different,” says Geoff of the specialty lager, which will be unveiled at the upcoming Heritage Weekend 31 Harbour Road festival from 26 to28 March, an arts and culture funfest coinciding with Urban Brewing Co’s five-year anniversary.

A blend of imported hops from Germany and Yakima Valley in Washington in the US, Geoff says you’ll be tasting a flavour-packed lager with added aromas of peach, grapefruit, and a splash of berry for good measure. “It’s a weird way to put it but it’s super hoppy. It’s a really special brew.”

Urban Brewing Co’s brewhouse: where the magic happens.

Geoff may be an expert brewer now (not to mention customer liaison, spokesperson, and and and) at Urban Brewing Co, which he runs with his father and another partner, but he never imagined doing this for a living. “I knew nothing about brewing,” he says. But the gods of old and ale were with him when, serendipitously, he was asked to “come help out” at Mitchell’s Brewery in Knysna, South Africa’s oldest microbrewery.

“I walked into their old brewery and saw the pitted concrete floor, eaten away by sugar water. The copper piping was turning green and blue from oxidation. It was beautiful.”

He was hooked, sacrificing his weekends to do his core duties so he could learn the brewing process alongside the Brew Master in the week. Luckily, he already had a solid understanding of “pumps and pipes” from his days as a project manager on a major engineering project for Coca-Cola building water purification plants in the Eastern Cape.

Of masters and apprentices

Mitchell’s folded under the weight of all the brewers trying to cash in on the trend of craft brewing, which trickled down from the US where it was well-established. (As Geoff quips, one of their relatively middling-sized craft breweries produces as much as SAB Newlands, which raises the question of what constitutes a craft beer, but that’s a story told over another beer).

“I walked into their old brewery and saw the pitted concrete floor, eaten away by sugar water. The copper piping was turning green and blue from oxidation. It was beautiful.”

So, of course there was nothing left to do but build his own. “Five years ago, people didn’t know what craft beer was. There were a lot of terrible craft breweries. So, we built our own brewhouse knowing we wanted the best standards and to source the best ingredients.”

So that takes us to the part of the story where Geoff, after a stint of homebrewing, was standing in the middle of an art studio in Hout Bay, seagulls probably squawking outside the window as they are now. He was all of 24.

Miss Universe’s Ex

Enter Jörg Finkeldey. A German chemical engineering graduate who earned his Brewmaster stripes at Bavarian Weihenstephan (and apparently dated former Miss Universe, Michelle McLean). And he was living where else but in Hout Bay. Geoff snatched him up. Under Jörg’s mentorship, his expertise grew. Together they cooked up the recipes for the brewery’s bespoke range.

The décor may have changed but some things haven’t. “From day one we said we’re going to use mountain spring water from Hout Bay. Water makes up to 93% of beer, so it’s the most important ingredient.”

The relative vastness of the US may befuddle questions of what constitutes a craft beer. But quality is one key differentiator. “I don’t filter or pasteurise my beer, as you’d find with commercial breweries.”  These processes strip a lot of flavour. And for Geoff, it’s all about flavour. The brewery, which produces roughly 4000 litres of liquid gold a month (compared with a larger brewery which might do 140,000), sells through its own taps and to the Hout Bay market.

It’s not just its water soucred from local mountain springs and its clientele that make this a proudly Hout Bay brand. Or its location in the bowels of Hout Bay harbour. Or the Hangberg residents who work here. It’s the stories behind the beers. Part legend. Part Cape history. “The Monkey’s Paw Pilsner is our flagship. It’s named after a “monkey’s paw”, which is a sailing knot,” says Geoff, showing me one hanging behind the bar.

Happy birthday to a legendary brand.

http://urbanbrewery.co.za/

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