Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela, synonymous with South Africa’s beer scene, is a craft beer rockstar. As a huge groupie, CraftBru stole backstage to meet her…
Conceivably there are the beer-curious among us who are in the dark about our featured brewer this month, so I ask Apiwe to bring us up to speed with her elevator pitch.
Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela in 45 seconds
“Apiwe is a 32 years young lady from the Eastern Cape in Butterworth.” she says as the elevator door closes. “I’ve been in the brewing industry for 10 years. My career started at SABMiller in 2006, through their graduate recruitment program, after I finished my BSc Honours degree in Microbiology.”
Apiwe has a string of brewing specific qualifications under her belt, having completed a Diploma in Brewing and a Master Brewer Diploma, both through the Institute of Brewing and Distilling.
“I was certified as a brewer through SAB and then held different positions within the company. Brand Brewer, Brewing Area Manager and Craft Brewer.” As the door opens Apiwe ads “I left SAB beginning of 2014 to join Brewhogs Microbrewery as Shareholder and Brew Master.”
I wonder out loud if Apiwe is officially South Africa’s most qualified craft brewer. “I’m not sure about the most qualified,” Apiwe replies humbly, “but I do believe I am one of the most qualified.” she ads with confidence.
Is it like being an executive chef, less kitchen, more office?
“It’s actually not like that,” she laughs. “As a brewer you always have to get down and dirty to produce good beer. It’s an industry where you have the opportunity to learn. Learn about a new hops variety, brew a new style. Its more fun on the ground.”
You often see Apiwe’s name at seminars, training workshops or talking beer science, so I ask, “Professionally, do you see yourself more as a brewer or an educator?”
“I will always be a brewer,” Apiwe answers without hesitation, “but of late I see myself more as an educator. My future plans are to move more into education, about which I’m very passionate, and help develop our industry’s skills pool.”
A Passion for Education
Apiwe’s training company, Brewster’s Craft, offers a range of introductory and intermediate brewing courses with international accreditation. She also runs exhibitions to make science appealing to young students, and oversees a National Science Week project in her home province of the Eastern Cape.
“One project I run is sponsored by SABMiller.” she says. “Through demonstrations, brewery tours, and discussions about the dangers of underage drinking and alcohol abuse, the project exposes over 500 learners from Joburg to brewing science at the SAB World of Learning.”
The Craft Bug Bites
With seemingly strong ties to Big Beer, I can’t help but wonder what made her decide to give up SAB and embrace craft brewing instead.
“The Craft Bug first bit me in 2011” she answers “I was SAB’s Craft Brewer, and attended the Cape Town Festival of Beer, where I was amazed by the variety of beer flavours and aromas.”
But Apiwe says it wasn’t just the pull of craft beer, there was some pushing too.
“I got tired of the corporate life and politics that go with it and decided to take a leap of faith and try it out within the micro brewing industry . I still believe that was one of the best decision I’ve made in my life.”
“I’ve stalked you on Instagram,” I admit sheepishly, “and see beautiful pics of a fun family. How do your family feel about mom being a brewer?”
“I’m married to a wonderful husband who fully supports me and all that I do,” she says, smiling at the thought. “He was actually the first person to taste my beers when I first designed the recipes, and remains my in-house product evaluator.”
“He loves my beers, Pilsner-No1 being his favourite, and has developed a pallet, enjoying a wide range of other craft beers.” At festivals and other events she’s often accompanied by her 15-year old younger sister, and her 6-year-old son. Apiwe claims her 6-year-old son doesn’t really understand what exactly her job entails.
“According to him, mommy gives people beer.” I think he’s on to something.
What Beer does the Brewster prefer?
“That question isn’t fair,” she scowls. “I enjoy so many!”
Apiwe waxes lyrical about having a favourite at almost every brewery, and pledges that if I sent her a list, she’ll tick off which ones. “But,” she says narrowing the focus, “out of the Brewhogs range, I am currently enjoying the Black IPL, and Loxton Lager.”
Revealing her soft spot for her former employers, Apiwe admits “I’m always biased towards SAB brands. I’m currently enjoying Pilsner Urquel and Peroni. And also Stella actually, when its available.”
Big Beer Cometh
On the topic of Big Beer, I poke at Apiwe’s knowledge about SAB, and whether the impending merger will have a big impact on SA craft brewing. CraftBru views Big Beer’s cozying up to Craft Beer as suspicious, almost like giving a hug to the craft industry, while hiding a knife.
“Does this merger mean SAB is likely to use that knife soon, so to speak?” I ask.
“Having worked for SAB, I was on the other side of that hug,” she admits candidly. “I honestly believe there are many people within the company who genuinely do care. People like Jessica, Kate, Anton, Danie, Denise, to name a few.”
Apiwe feels the ones who care, go out of their way to positively contribute to the industry. “Having said that, there are people currently within SAB that are not supportive, and go out of their way to try to kill the industry.”
Ultimately, she says, nobody knows what will happen when the merger is finalised, even the people within SAB. “What we have to go on though is how AB InBev is towards craft/micro brewers in other markets.” That sends a shiver up my spine.
“They don’t have any emotional connection to South Africa as a country, not the way SAB has.”
Apiwe feels Big Beer will play nice for the first 5 years, as stipulated by the competition commissioner’s documents, but after that all hell will break loose. “Sadly,” she says, “they wont even pretend to like us.”
Beer for the people by the people
We turn from the corporate to the grass roots as I remark that more black craft brewers are entering the market. The numbers, however, are nowhere near representative of SA’s beer drinking population. “What steps,” I ask, “are needed to open up more opportunities and make the industry more inclusive for all races, and genders?”
“Interestingly, the number of black craft brewers is slowly picking up,” Apiwe’s opines, ” but as you rightly put it, these are nowhere near to what they should be. In my opinion, the biggest factor to this is lack of finances.”
Apiwe reveals yet another initiative she’s involved in. “We started the Black Brewers Forum to address such issues. As a collective, we get together to sort out all the issues hindering transformation.”
She says the idea with the forum is to get direction from relevant stakeholders, but also for black brewers to help and guide one another.
“As women,” she says, talking about gender misconceptions, “we recently did a #SheLovesBeer campaign for Women’s Day on 9 August.”
“The campaign, sponsored and led by Beerhouse, aims to break down the stereotype associated with women and beer. Over 80 women involved in SA’s beer industry took part in this campaign.” she says.
South Africa’s Beer Direction
Clearly Apiwe has her finger on several pulses within South Africa’s beer industry, which is as multifaceted as the people who drink its products. “What course adjustments would you make to SA’s craft beer industry?” I fire off as a parting shot.
Apiwe surfaces what appears to be a latent issue cropping up more often in craft beer chats. “The biggest monster we are currently facing, bigger than AB InBev coming here, is the poor quality beers being served to customers.”
She explains that some bad quality beer is already off when leaving the brewery, whilst others go off in trade, either in transit or at an outlet. “We need to educate ourselves as brewers, and educate everyone who handles our products – from distributors, to outlet managers, to waiters & waitresses. We also need to educate our consumers.”
And, after a whirlwind subject tour with Apiwe to just about every corner of SA’s beer industry, I solicit some advice for those of us with stars in our eyes, wanting to start out own breweries.
“It is not as easy or as glamorous as it looks.” she says unsurprisingly. “You find a lot of people wanting to open a brewery, because they saw the price of a 440ml at a bottle store retailing for R50, and they immediately think there’s lots of money to be made.”
“Be prepared to work hard, longer hours and not even make a quarter of the money you had hoped to make.” Apiwe says, knowing all about the hours it takes to make it in the industry.
If Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela isn’t brewing up her own storm at Brewhogs, she’s probably at Brewster’s Craft, teaching others how to do it instead. Catch up with Apiwe on Twitter or see what Brewster’s Craft is up to on Facebook.