The bounty of Africa

Tolokazi Brewing is shaping South Africa’s nascent craft beer industry, and we should all be excited by its promise, writes Richard Croasdale


Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela has long been considered a rising star of South African brewing, having gravitated early toward a degree in microbiology, with a particular fascination for fermented food and drink. After graduating, she cut her teeth (and proved her talent) with the large South African drinks group SAB, which funded her honours degree in brewing and distilling, making her in 2008 one of the country’s first professionally trained brewers.

Her journey with SAB gave her a wealth of practical, hands-on experience of the brewing process itself, the importance of creativity, and of what it takes to run a successful commercial brewery. By 2015 though she was ready to strike out on her own, initially by launching a consultancy business, Brewsters’ Craft, training and advising the exciting crop of small craft breweries that had started to spring up.

Naturally enough, this led in 2017 to Apiwe starting work on her own brewery, with the intention of providing contract brewing services to the companies she was advising. Timing was not on her side though; no sooner had she got through the laborious process of seeking funding and buying kit, than Covid struck, decimating her business along with those of many of her clients. It seemed like the end of the road.

Apiwe is nothing if not tenacious though, and knew she still had one arrow in her quiver: her own beer brand, Tolokazi. Since emerging from lockdown, Tolokazi has roared back into life, through a combination of great brewing and sheer determination, and is now something of a standard bearer for the South African craft movement internationally.

This project though – and I use that word deliberately – has always been about more than the beer. What makes it truly exciting is Apiwe’s ability to tell a wider story through her brewing; Tolokazi’s motto, ‘celebrating Africa through beer’ isn’t just a neat marketing sentiment, but an ethos that drives every decision.

This has meant tying the brand in more closely with like-minded businesses and organisations involved in regional tourism – in Apiwe’s words “how does our beer complete the South African experience?”.

“When tourists visit our country, we show them all this beautiful scenery, take them up into the mountains, take them to Kruger National Park, we show them the animals, we have our cuisines – African meals that we really showcase our unique ingredients – and we share our culture, we dance, we have fun. And when it comes to the end of that experience, what do we give them to drink? Stella, from Belgium. What a waste.”

Using her brewing and her business to collaborate with and elevate local communities has proven to be a highly successful formula, but it genuinely stems from Apiwe’s own passion.

“That's aligned to my values as a person, which I carry through to the brand. Every beer for me, it has to have that element, it has to tell part of that story,” she says. “It has to celebrate and promote that pride in what we have locally, but also speak to the international beer community to say ‘hey, we’re here, we're doing all these amazing things, you should come experience South Africa, and appreciate our uniqueness and our ingredients’.”

This means brewing with the tricky but utterly distinctive native sorghum grain, and working with academics and other brewers to perfect its use (see Melissa Cole’s story on page 42 for more on this). It has also meant bringing other native flavours and techniques to international beer drinkers, notably the Marula fruit, whose perfumed, pulpy flesh has traditionally been brewed into a kind of wild cider across southern and central Africa, where it is abundant in the wild.

Every part of the tangerine-sized fruit of the Marula tree is used for something, from its fermented and distilled flesh, which is used to make the popular Amarula cream liqueur, to its seeds, whose oil is widely used in hair and skin products. It is harvested in February or March, when the fruit ripen and fall to the ground, where they often split and begin to ferment naturally. Interestingly, this is where association between Marula and elephants comes from – legend has it that opportunistic pachyderms can get a decent buzz from the windfall fruit.

Since it was already known globally as a South African product, it made sense to Apiwe to harness the fruit in the nation’s beers. 

“Most people have been exposed to a certain level of Marula, if only from the liqueur,” she says. “The challenge is around how then to continue telling that story to the rest of the world? Get them asking what is that flavour, where does it come from, what is the story behind it? Beer is a great platform for getting that conversation out in the world. 

“That has to start at a local level. I was involved with starting a Marula brewing competition recently. This was very much a community project; I’m sure you’ve read that it’s actually the female Marula plant that bears fruit, and in our tradition it is still the women that do the brewing. So we started this competition to celebrate the ingredient and the tradition, and also to encourage people to look at the opportunities of going commercial with their brewing.”

Tolokazi’s own Marula beer is an excellent showcase for the character of this peculiar fruit, which it uses as an adjunct, alongside grains. Apiwe has paired the Maruba’s earthy, perfumed notes with a dry saison base, whose estery fruit aromas and slight farmhouse funkiness provide the perfect backdrop.

Like all of Tolokazi’s brews, which almost always make use of South African hops, grains or adjuncts, the Marula beer offers the kind of true regional character and provenance that modern beer drinkers prize. Far better than competing with a thousand international breweries trying to replicate the hazy pale ales of Vermont.

“The support at home has been incredible too, I think because these are modern styles made with ingredients that we've always seen as traditional, brewed for people to enjoy in the villages rather than being useable commercially,” she says.

For Apiwe, this is also about African brewing showing its abundance and self-sufficiency, that it can withstand the currents and eddies of global trade.

“If you look at what's happening globally, the Russia-Ukraine War and energy shortages, we are now struggling to get imported malted barley,” she says. “So as a matter of fermentable calories, we can now start using more sorghum, because it's a cereal that's readily available, affordable and – thanks to the research that’s been done – we can brew with it. So from a place of necessity, there's nothing stopping us from getting creative, developing a wider range of uniquely African styles and pushing the amount of local grains, hops, fruit and anything else we can use.”

As much as it's still about putting beer in the can or keg, Tolokazi as a project clearly has much wider goals. It is about pride and empowerment, about working together and recognising the uniqueness and variety available to African brewers. If it succeeds, the continent could bring something genuinely new to a global movement that still takes most of its cues from North America, and we will all be richer for it.

Share this article