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Six beers with a brewmaster

Beer is as synonymous with rugby as whisky in the Long Room at Lords. The most popular drink amongst South Africans, SAB Miller sells an average of 100 000 pints every minute of every day of the year. SA Breweries brewing legend Ben Lamaletie has lived with the smell of beer for the past 37 years, so a more knowledgeable guy on the golden stuff one would hardly find. Chris Schoeman, editor of Rugby News/Rugby Nuus magazines, spoke to spoke to him about the wonderful qualities of beer, the legendary Charles Glass and South Africa’s great thirst…

Inspired by the example set by some of rugby's finest players, our editor has decided to publish a warts-and-all account of life in the Planet Rugby offices.

We publish it here with kind permission of the magazines. (The magazines are available at major new agencies [CNA, PNA, etc.] and supermarkets.)

Question: Ben, can you give us some background on you becoming a brew master?
Answers: Well, I was born and grew up in Curepipe in Mauritius where I qualified as an agronomist and worked on a sugar cane estate. When, in 1968, my mother emigrated to Durban where all her family were, I also came over and got my first job with SA Breweries. I worked in the lab for two years and then as trainee brewer for another three before I qualified as a brewer. I was a senior brewer with the Umbilo brewery for ten years and then in the early 80s the brewing manager at Intercontinental Breweries. From there I went to the Prospecton brewery and have been the brew master for 17 years. Since I have started there, over a period of eight years we have increased the capacity for Natal from 2 million litres per week to 12 million. In 1998 I was asked to implement SAB’s new initiative, "Trade Brewing", something that’s never before being done anywhere in the world, and I was very excited about the concept. It involves taking the art and craft of brewing to consumers to educate the market place. The role of the trade brewer is to provide technical expertise and education to bridge the gap in the knowledge of the consumer. He acts as an ambassador and diplomat and an agent to change people’s wrong perceptions about beer.

Q: Can you briefly describe the process of making beer and what would be the perfect pint?
A: Most people want a drink with a flavour but that also quenches your thirst. Our beer contains only malted barley, hops, maize and water but no preservatives or additives. Our barley comes from the Overberg/Caledon region and our hops from the Outeniqua/George region. Because of our climate the standard of our maize is very good and as far as pure water is concerned, ours ranks amongst the top three in the world. From barley to beer, it takes on average seven weeks to produce a bottle of standard lager. The brewing process is natural and cannot be speeded up. Beer should ideally be served at about 4 degrees Celsius and consumed as freshly as possible. After three months the taste of most beers begin to deteriorate.

Q: One often reads in magazines and papers that beer can be healthy for one. How true is that?
A: Well, more and more evidence is gained on the benefits of moderate beer drinking in contrast to heavy drinking or abstention. Health benefits associated with moderate beer consumption include the heart, osteoporosis, stomach ulcers, Alzheimer’s disease and kidney stones. Beer contains ferulic acid which is a good anti-oxidant, is high in potassium (but low in sodium) and magnesium, and also contains significant amounts of calcium, phosphate and silicon which are important for healthy bones. Beer is ideal for moderate alcohol consumption because of its relatively high water content and low alcohol levels. A 340ml can of Castle Lite contains only 408 kJ and the regular Castle 465 kJ. By compONG> Our per capita consumption is 56 litres per year. In the Czech Republic it’s 157 litres, which is the highest in the world. But we are conscious of the dangers of drinking alcohol and at all times promote drinking in moderation. We have adopted the philosophy that we want "more people drinking less and less people drinking more." SAB spends millions of rands on advertising campaigns warning on the dangers of drinking and driving.

Q: How long ago was the first beer brewed?
A: The first beer is believed to have been brewed between 6 000 and 9 000 years ago in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates, which today is Iraq. In Egypt children were baptised in beer and workers often paid in beer. Even taxes could be paid in beer. In the middle ages monks brewed beer and they are believed to have been the first to add hops. Here in South Africa a brewing industry was established in the time of Jan van Riebeeck to provide sailors with beer to combat scurvy.

Q: What was beer like in the old days?
A: All beers were gritty and dark and were drunk from pewter mugs. The first clear beer was brewed in 1842 by Josef Groll in Pilsen in Bohemia. It had a bright, golden colour as we know our lagers today and was bitter, aromatic and full-bodied. This gave rise to a new glass-making industry. Others copied Groll’s process and named it Pilsner after the town. To distinguish themselves from the rest, Pilsner added the word Urquell, which means "from the original source." It still remains as the beer against which all other beers are measured.

Q: Our rugby folk hear a lot about Charles Glass. Was he a real person or fictitious?
A: No, he was very real. He was the founder brewer of Castle Lager. He came from the UK to Ladysmith and then went off to the Johannesburg mining village where he saw a gap and started brewing beer. He would push his brews in a wheelbarrow for the miners to taste and in 1884 hit on the right recipe that he then called Castle Beer. SAB was born in 1895 and two years later was the first industrial company to be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. SAB now operates seven breweries in South Africa brewing 3.1 billion litres annually.

Q: A man like yourself must have many special achievements behind your name?
A: In my time we have produced three grand champions and five gold medals in international competitions, like the Black Label grand champion award in 1996. In 2000 I was named as a Brewing Legend, which was a big honour for me, and last year I received the Charles Glass Award for outstanding support to the SAB.

Some advice:

CHECK THAT YOUR BEER IS FRESH: Look either on the neck of a bottle or the underside of a can where you will find the Julien Calender code. If for example you see a code 027 5 A 10 14 38, the number 27 indicates the day of the year: January 27. Number 5 indicates the year, 2005. The letter A and other numbers relate to the brewery, packaging line and time of day of packaging.

PICK A BEER TO SUIT YOUR TASTE: Brand profiles differ according to sweetness, bitterness and body. Looking at Castle Lager, for example, you'll see a ratio of 2: 5: 5. The 2 stands for sweetness, 5 for bitterness and the other 5 for body. In other words, it’s low in sweetness, and fairly high in bitterness and body.

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