Meet the Brewer: Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela

We catch up with South African brewing star Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela

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A zoom call with Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela is precisely what I need on a Friday afternoon, after a frustrating week of scuppered plans and difficult conversations. Apiwe, who lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children, is one of the country’s most respected brewers, a highly qualified microbiologist and, it turns out, an inexhaustible font of positivity and good humour. Fortunately for both of us, it’s infectious.

Apiwe spent the first part of her childhood in a village in the Eastern Cape. Both her parents were teachers, which put the family in a relatively privileged position and, when apartheid ended in 1994, they moved into a larger town where Apiwe could attend a previously white-only school.

“I recently read the book Outliers, by Martin Gladwell, and he talks about the few key decisions that change the direction of a person’s life,” Apiwe tells me. “Looking back, I think that move was one of those Outliers moments. It meant I was more exposed in terms of the schooling, and particularly in maths and sciences, which I loved. Even there though, if you were good at biology and sciences, the only career that anyone thought of for you was a doctor.”

Fortunately for the beer world (though perhaps unfortunately for medicine), Apiwe had an aunt living in Johannesburg, who persuaded her father to send her to a boarding high school there. Again, this move drastically broadened her horizons.

“I was in a house with kids from all these different backgrounds, and we had universities coming to tell us about different careers; things that probably would never have happened if I was still back in the villages. I attended an open day at one of the universities, because I knew I enjoyed sciences and that I was going to probably do something in that space. There was one display, showcasing biotechnology and microbiology, and the guy had yoghurt, cheese, wine and beer. I was instantly curious, because my perception of science was still people in a lab with white coats.”

Even before she’d submitted her application, Apiwe had her path planned out (partly because she correctly guessed her father’s first question would be whether there was a job at the end of her degree) and the large South African drinks group SAB was at the top of her employment wish list. After completing her graduate degree in Microbiology, she successfully applied to SAB’s bursary programme, and the company funded her honours degree at the prestigious University of Pretoria. As luck would have it, hers was the first year that the university partnered with the international Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD), making Apiwe’s cohort the first specifically qualified professional brewers in the country.


Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela

“I tell people that sometimes things happen that you have no control over; they just happen. And whether you believe in God or fate or the universe, it sometimes feels like those things are just meant to happen. That’s definitely what this felt like to me.”

When she completed her honours degree in 2008, Apiwe joined SAB as planned, starting out in one of its smaller breweries, which she says was the best education possible.

“Everything was very hands-on, unlike these big commercial breweries where so much is automated and everyone has their role,” she says. “I could get inside a lauter tun, if there was a breakdown in packaging I knew about it. This meant I learned very quickly and had great mentors right at my shoulder, so I really couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”

In 2012, just as craft was really beginning to take off, SAB decided to recommission a tiny 80 hectolitre brewery that had been mothballed years earlier, and put rising star Apiwe in charge, with total creative freedom and a remit to experiment.

“That’s where I got to understand the importance of creativity within the brewing space. I got to read more about the industry, I became part of the home brewing community, attended festivals, interacted with established craft breweries; people were asking me why I didn’t set up a brewery of my own, but I was having so much fun. But then I got what was technically a promotion managing a much larger plant, and found I was in very much a corporate setting. Life was not so great anymore.”

This was all the impetus that Apiwe needed to finally strike out with a small group of friends, and form a new craft brewery called Brewhogs Microbrewery, supplying directly into the connected pub. From the word go though, she made it clear to the group that, after it was up and running, her involvement would be limited. “I had other plans,” she says.

“They were okay with that, and allowed me to set up my own company while I was part of the group, so in 2015 I started Brewsters’ Craft. That was initially all about consultancy and training; I'm quite passionate about skill development, because I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for some of the opportunities that were afforded to me. So through that I helped develop recipes for a few other breweries that launched in 2015 and 2016.”

As these small-batch startups began to grow, they went back to Apiwe for advice on how and where they could scale up. The answer: In 2017 she decided to build her own brewery, as Brewsters’ Craft, to contract brew for South Africa’s new batch of craft beer entrepreneurs that she’d helped create. At the time, a lot of her clients were young, Black entrepreneurs from the townships, so she even received some government funding. 

Nonetheless, Brewster’s Craft still had to go through the laborious process of applying for the necessary permissions and licenses, so the equipment didn’t arrive on-site until April 2019, and brewing didn’t begin until October. And then, as we all know, things started going badly wrong with the world.

“We’d been going for around six months, and in the final days of 2019 I started taking people on for growth in 2020,” she says sadly. “The business model was contract brewing and taking in learners from university for internships and mentorships; creating the place where we develop the next generation. I’d also been persuaded to start my own beer brand, so was working on that to launch in Easter 2020.

“In March, we had our first case of COVID-19, and the country was placed under a total shutdown for 21 days. At the time I had eight staff members, so we packaged and sent out as much beer as we could before the shutdown started, and I said ‘guys, I’ll see you in three weeks’.”

As was the case all over the world, this quick initial lockdown proved to be just the start of a long and protracted series of restrictions, accompanied by ebbing and flowing infection rates. Apiwe tried everything to keep the business afloat, from brewing non-alcoholic drinks to turning production over to hand sanitiser. It wasn’t enough though and creditors who initially gave leeway in the spirit of togetherness hardened their positions as the months rolled on and, tragically, Apiwe was eventually forced to close the brewery and sell her hard-earned equipment. It seemed the dream was dead.

Apiwe is nothing if not tenacious though, and knew she still had one arrow in her quiver: her own beer brand, Tolokazi.

“We’d only just started, but it seemed to be doing well, so I’ve channelled all my energies into that. For me, one of the learnings from the COVID-19 was that, if I’d had a strong brand presence, I probably would have been able to carry through. But because it was still a very young brand... So I’m going back, building from the ground up, and then hopefully when the time is right I will be able to knock on those doors again. We’re definitely gaining attention, at home and now abroad thanks to Beer52, which will all help.”

Although it was brutal, the experience seems to have refined Apiwe’s vision, and – considering her career to date has revolved around enabling others – the Tolokazi brand feels like something that’s finally very personal to her.

“Tolokazi is my clan name,” she explains. “When the brewery closed and I was going through the most emotional state of my life, I had an interview with someone, which led to this revelation that the brewery is just this piece of equipment. The core of it, that passion for what I do, no one can take that from me. I am a brewer. I’m also a brewer who happens to be female and who happens to be black. I don't want that to define who I am, but I am obviously mindful of the fact that I'm a minority of a minority, and in a position to influence change. So I’m making losing the brewery part of my journey, and moving on to the next step with determination.”

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