On the crest of a wave

Richard Croasdale talks to Lance Kabot of St Francis brewing about travel, pub culture and near-death experiences.
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When avid surfer Lance Kabot came off his board a few years back, it could easily have been the end for him; instead, it proved to be a new beginning. With five months in hospital to recuperate from a broken neck and a host of other serious injuries, Lance had the chance to really ask what he wanted from life, question what was important, and hatch a plan to combine everything he loved.

In the 90s, Lance and his girlfriend (now his wife) did what so many young South Africans seem to do, and travelled the world, taking casual jobs, exploring, surfing and generally having an awesome care-free time. Lance found he loved working in breweries, and – having previously only experienced cold but bland lagers at home – was inspired by the amazing beers he tasted working for the likes of La Jolla Brewing Company in San Diego, California. Their travels also took them to Edinburgh, where a stint at Caledonian brewery taught Lance the delights of traditional British ale, and to London, where he developed a taste for cask.

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Not only did he love the beers and the craft of brewing, Lance was also fascinated by the unique pub and bar cultures he found in each of the places he visited, and in particular the phenomenon of the brewpub.

“I loved the fact that you could walk into a pub and smell the beer brewing, get the freshest pint you’ll find anywhere and generally be able to get some good food with your family,” he says. “We just didn’t have anything close to that in South Africa at the time. You had some great places to eat, and some good bars, but they were separate – we just weren’t pairing beer with food in any way.”

Laying in his hospital bed over a decade later, feeling lucky to be alive, Lance brought back all these happy memories, and a plan began to galvanise around them. A mere six months after the accident, Lance had a board back under his feet and a vision to bring home everything he’d learned on his travels, creating his own US-style brewpub in the South African surf town of St Francis.

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St Francis Brewing Company opened its doors in December 2014, with a range of easy-drinking, flavoursome, sessionable beers straight out of the California playbook, with juicy North American hops perfect for the sun-loving surf crowd which converges on the town each summer. It was certainly a gamble, for the formula went down a storm.

“It was a new thing, untested here,” admits Lance. “A lot of people had never been around a batch of beer brewing – they could smell the malt and hops and they were fascinated. So at first they came because they were curious, they wanted to find out what we did. There was a lot of excitement. But then they stayed for the beers – it turns out that everything I loved about these styles really worked well with other people here too.”

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But Lance hasn’t stopped at his brewpub. St Francis is a big holiday town, and crowds from the neighbouring metropolises also developed a taste for the brewery’s somewhat unfamiliar style.

“We’ve gone from a brewpub to having beers that people want to buy when they’re returning from holiday all around the country. The tipping point was when we won a national trophy for our beach blonde ale. That’s when we approached Devil’s Peak and worked out a contract brewing arrangement. It’s been so exciting working with those guys – it’s a very high-tech brewery and the beers they’re making for us are coming out really well.”

While St Francis has been a hit with the classics, Lance says he is ready to start experimenting with different styles, and believes his customers are ready to go with him.

“We’ve always used mostly American hops, but I’d love to do some small batches with South African hops, particularly if we can get them fresh at harvest time. Devil’s Peak have also been showing us some stuff around sour beers, so that’s definitely something I’d like to try. We’ve got Fierce Beer’s tangerine tart on tap at the moment, and that’s amazing.

“It’s great to see South Africa coming round to the beers that really inspired me all those years ago, and great to be part of that movement and that community. It’s all worked out pretty nicely, I’d say.”

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