When Obakeng Malope began to tell me about the vision behind her project Beer is Art, the first word that came to mind was “expansive.” We know that beer is social, but Obakeng envisions beer as an agent of social transformation, and there’s seemingly no better place to realize that vision than South Africa, her home country.+
Beer is Art is a project that engages South African youth in the booming craft beer industry in the country. The project is expansive in that it addresses several social issues: youth unemployment, youth alcoholism, and putting a new generation of South African brewers in conversation with other brewers around the globe.
As I spoke with Obakeng, her pride and enthusiasm for the South African craft beer industry were contagious. In fact, she is a professional storyteller, and her ability to connect people and spaces through beer has been the life force of Beer is Art’s success so far.
Obakeng is both a documentary filmmaker and a brewer. She has worked extensively throughout South Africa at film festivals and national film associations and has traveled to ten countries for her work in the industry. On the beer side, Obakeng participated in Eugenia Brown’s “Road to 100” program, where she was one of 100 women of color chosen to receive funding to work towards Cicerone certification. But Obakeng’s connection to beer goes even deeper. “Beer is part of our DNA,” she tells me. It’s ancestral for her, and she grew up watching her grandparents make and drink sorghum beer.
Obakeng explained that South Africa’s history around beer is rich, spanning centuries, and historically using local materials, notably sorghum, to produce a characteristically thick and cloudy beer. Sorghum beer, she told me, is spiritual, consumed during ancestral ceremonies as well as during funerals and weddings. Importantly, only women produce sorghum beer.
She told me that traditions around making sorghum beer are being lost. Whereas in the past, everyone knew a family who could make sorghum beer, now people prefer to buy it. Younger generations have mostly lost the knowledge it takes to produce the beer.
Meanwhile, the beer industry as a whole is thriving in South Africa, albeit in a centralized way. Beer is the most consumed alcoholic beverage in South Africa, and South Africa is the 12th largest consumer of beer in the world. However, as of 2020 AB InBev held 88% of the market share of beer in the country, with craft breweries holding around 1%.
“[I] wanted to change the landscape of beer,” Obakeng told me. Today, Obakeng says, “South Africa is known as a beer-drinking country, and now we’re beginning to be a beer-loving country”.
Obakeng is drawing attention to the creativity and breadth of expertise of South African brewers. Specifically, Obakeng hopes to reach those who may not be able to access formal training to find their place in the industry.
“[It’s] not just about drinking and getting drunk… [I] wanted people to get the same experience of the cicerone”. Her focus is youth. In South Africa, around two-thirds of youth are unemployed, and she sees an opportunity for youth over the age of 21 to become active in the growing craft beer industry.
So far, Beer is Art has collaborated with nine breweries that will train youth selected to participate in the program. The training program will teach youth practical skills within a brewery so that they can move into various roles.
But Obakeng’s expansive vision for Beer is Art doesn’t stop there. Obakeng has collaborated with Indian podcaster, Chatty Girija, host of Cheers Chatty Beer Podcast (the first beer podcast in India), to provide training on how to brew beer using Indian ingredients and techniques. “India is very notorious for its spices [and one might wonder] how their beer is like. What spices and infusions they use,” Obakeng told me. “I would like for the youth to have all the influences around the world”.
More recently, Obakeng partnered with New Jersey-based Montclair Brewery to rebrand their Baobiere Golden Ale, which is made with baobab fruit. A portion of proceeds will go towards helping Obakeng produce a documentary geared towards young, budding brewers.
Obakeng is undoubtedly the connecting force that will change the course of South African youth’s lives through beer, and her vision will change how the world looks at South African beer. Read about Obakeng in her own words in my interview with her below.
If you are interested in supporting Beer is Art in any way, you can reach out to Obakeng by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Full Interview with Obakeng
Can you tell us about your experience in the Road to 100 program? How did your experience shape your current goals?
The Road to 100 was a wonderful experience for me. The program was made up of women of color who are involved in the beer industry. The fact that we were there as women was inspirational enough as beer is white male-dominated. I got to learn things that I never knew existed. Going there I thought that I was going to learn about beer brewing, then I got to be exposed to beer judging, beer tasting beer, and food and beer pairing. I remember an instance whereby the mentors will be speaking and will be holding a beer or drinking a beer, and some of the learners will be drinking beer as well but also explaining the beer to us: the flavor notes that they are picking up from that beer and the aromas. They understood the processes, the ingredients of those beers, and how the finished product should be. They even encouraged us to come with beers and do a show and tell. After the first lesson, I started following most of them on Instagram and I saw their work in the beer industry. Some of them were brewers, some of them were working at a bar and others were award-winning home brewers. My Instagram had filmmaking stuff only. I wanted to be where they are. I wanted to catch up. We had multiple choice questions every week. I wanted to catch up. I would study harder because I wanted to show that I know something and I deserve to be here. The time difference from South Africa was huge for me. The lessons were at 6:30 pm in their time and the time for me was 2 am. I would set up an alarm and as sleepy as I was I would sit through the lessons.
This process was happening during COVID lockdown. You would get lonely during the lockdown. We were separated and not allowed to go certain places, so they were something to look forward to, being around people and not just being alone.
America is way advanced in the beer sector. You have all these festivals and beer events. You have a beer queer festival. I just learned about this not so long ago. I wanted to get inspiration from that and invent things here so that we can get where you are now. A friend of mine, after learning that I have been on the Road to 100, asked me what I am going to do with that education here (in South Africa). There is nothing here. I kept quiet and I invented Beer is Art.
Tell us a bit about your experience as a filmmaker. How have you combined filmmaking with brewing and social projects?
I am a filmmaker. I am a documentary filmmaker, and I am a storyteller. I traveled to Sheffield Film Festival in the United Kingdom twice, Sunnyside of the Docs in France, Hotdocs Film Festival in Canada, Independent Film Festival in Rotterdam, Visions du Reel in Switzerland, and Mipp Com in France. I also went to Namibia for a film shoot. I have experienced different food and different cultures. I wanted to bring those different cultures to the beer industry. I am always carrying a camera. I sit people down and get the story out of them. I cover the stories of their hardship in brewing and what got them in the brewing industry, and I have a trailer for those stories. In my research, I found out that the beer clubs or bars in the affluent Sandton Mall suffered the most as the mall protocol made them close business during COVID, early when business starts to pick up. Meanwhile, the taverns in the ghetto can get away with it sometimes.
Why do you think craft beer can be a transformative industry for South African youth to become involved in?
When you go to communities where there is a lot of poverty, beer is something else there. It is used for escapism of problems; it is used to alleviate depression and mental issues. It has got a bad reputation due to the fact that people abuse it. They say substance abuse is a cover for mental illness. I want beer to go to those same communities and emancipate them. Beer is a tool to get an African child out of the ghetto. We are showing that the same substance can be used for good or for bad. People must be financially empowered due to beer. In this multibillion-dollar industry, the youth must want to get a piece of the pie. Beer is entrepreneurship.
What do you think South African brewers have to offer the craft beer world?
Beer here in South Africa can be divided: mainstream beer and craft beer.
South Africa is experiencing a massive wave of craft beer in the country. Why, a person may ask himself? Human beings have a need or desire to create. You cannot always expect people to cook for you. Sometimes you want to do it for yourself.
I compare it to pizza. You can buy mass-produced pizza from big organizations. [But,] once you taste real quality pizza, you will know that you have eaten pizza. Craft beer is like that.
Many people taste craft beer and say, “Wow I have never tasted something like this. I have been robbed all my life.” We are now introducing ales, wheat beer, [and] blondes; and, they say I have never had this all my life. The taste, the aroma.
South Africa has always had a beer-drinking culture. The sales of beer out weights the sales of wine. With the inception of craft beer we now have a beer society. You can go to a restaurant and expect a range of craft beer on their menu and beer pairing menus.
Craft beer is not a cheap industry to get into. I have seen people building humble breweries and others advanced breweries. Starting a brewery here you need love, you need to love what you are doing because it takes 10-16 hours of your day. Without love, your passion will disappear quickly, and it will show in your product. South Africa is bringing hard work and passion in the beers that are made from locally sourced ingredients.
Traditional beer differs from every culture. They use malted sorghum, maize meal (milled corn), and water. You mix the ingredients to be a paste and leave it to ferment. When you taste it, it will be sour. You cook it in boiling water to make it porridge. After it cools you mix it with water to make it runny. You leave it to ferment for 4 to 5 days. You sieve out the liquid to leave the brown grain out.
I am from a rural village in the Northwest Province in a place called Jericho. I grew up seeing my grandmother making “Bojalwa ba Setswana,” meaning our Setswana traditional beer. Some cultures call it Mqombothi. Every language, every culture has a name for it.
We used to make our beers for funerals, ancestral rituals, and wedding parties. This beer used to be the beer of choice when communicating with the ancestors. When men used to be in the cow kraal [discussing] village matters and village disputes, they used to be doing that while drinking this traditional beer.
Women are in the forefront of making that. Men are not even permitted to be in the process of the making of that. Our culture in that is getting eroded. Once our grandmothers pass on we have no one to carry that tradition or pass on the tradition to. That is another reason I got interested in beer. Now on YouTube, you can see men doing it.
Tell us a bit about the Beer is Art project. When did the idea come about? How did you choose the partner breweries? Why did you choose to partner with the countries that you have?
Beer is Art came about after the Road to 100 program. In the morning you see people chilling in the streets not having jobs. They are well educated, most of them. I had an opportunity to be empowered and I want to share that. Not everyone would want to be a brewer, but people need a kick start and they need to be inspired. Choosing the partners was not hard. I am sending emails to beer associations around the world. Those who agreed are the ones you see. We want more. We chose partners who are overseas as they can come with their influences, experiences, and networks.
How can we support Beer is Art?
I have launched a campaign called Beer is Art. The youth are sitting at home unemployed here in South Africa. The campaign teaches about beer, that beer is not something that you drink and get drunk off. Just like wine where they have sommeliers. Here we have cicerone. We teach beer and food pairing. Brewing and licensing. We show them that they can turn beer into a career.
They don’t have funds to pay for the education of beer. How we are going to sustain this is through having beer documentaries and reality shows that will sustain and maintain this project. I have personally been sending emails to craft brewers in the USA and UK doing a fundraising campaign. The trailers, marketing, and proposal writing of this project have been from self-financing. It is hard to start teaching whereby you don’t have finances. I have been requesting that they brew a beer, upcharge it, and donate an upcharge to us. We have a few promises. We understand that people come from COVID so understanding is needed. We need funding.
I am inspired by the Black Lives Matter distributed leadership model. Black Lives Matter is everywhere. I saw Black Lives Matter in Japan. If a movement is all over the world it cannot fail. This is the reason we partnered with India, Japan, and soon Turkey. We want more brewers all over the world to come on board as partners and/or board members of this. We want more structures, more branches in every country. We cannot exist only in South Africa. It can be known that we are the founders, but this thing has to be everywhere otherwise it is going to die.
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