27 November 2007

Storming-up a Brew

For a while, now, I've been planning to start brewing beer again, as I did until some years ago.  Remember that one of our self-sufficiency goals is Pizza dinner made completely from self-produced ingredients, baked in a self-built oven.  And a critical part of any self-respecting Pizza dinner has to be the beer!

As ever, the challenge is in getting all the ingredients and equipment needed.  Despite homebrewing being quite popular in SA, it is not like more civilized parts of the world where there are plenty of homebrew shops that can supply the necessary. The tiny handful of suppliers that exist are hard-to-find, carry very limited ranges of ingredients, and are generally not very useful.

grain fields
grain fields
grain fields
Last weekThe week before last I drove down to Gansbaai to rescue pick up J from a visit to her parents. The drive down takes about 5 hours, and the route takes one through the country's breadbasket.  Vast tracts, kilometre upon kilometre of rolling grainlands, as far as the eye can see for hour upon hour upon hour whilst traveling at 120km/h.

It is the harvest season. The road was fraught with grain trucks carting the harvest to silos.  Wheat, barley, wheat, oats, wheat, canola rapeseed, wheat, rye.  And, of course, wheat.

I made a stop in Swellendam, to buy some stone-ground whole flour for breadmaking; there is an old watermill at the local museum where they mill a small quantity of wheat every week.  Swellendam is also in the very heart of Grain Country, and sports a very large grain-storage facility.  As I drove out of town, at least 3-dozen grain trucks were lined up at the silos to offload their precious harvest.  It's been a nerve-wracking time for the farmers.  Millions of Rands tied up in getting the seed into the ground.  Less than perfect rainfall during the growing season, and too much rain a mere fortnight before the harvest.  But at last the harvest is in, safely stored in a silo.  The nation eats.

I detoured off the usual route to Gansbaai, travelling via Caledon -- another major grain-handling town about an hour-and-a-half from Cape Town.  The town is dominated by massive grain silos and the railway tracks that run through them, ready to transport the grain to Gauteng.  My reason for the detour is that Caledon is also home to a very large maltings: SAB Maltings.  The same SAB -- previously South African Breweries -- now SABMiller, that is one of the largest beer conglomerates in the world.  The maltings was a fascinating and entertaining diversion. They produce something like 220000 tonnes of malt a year!  But they're still happy to deal with homebrewers wanting only a tiny, little, insignificant 50kg sack of pale malt.  A very helpful, friendly lady named Estelle was wonderful in helping me get my malt.  For them a tiny little drop in an ocean of beer.  For me a rather large1 quantity.  Had to park the car on a weighbridge long enough to weigh a small train so that they could weigh my purchase.  50kg on the nose!

I'd have taken a picture of my little Corolla pimpmobile on the weighbridge, but, after my single pic of the maltings, the security guy on the gate came running over to tell me, "No, no! You're not allowed to take pictures!"  Say what?  It's not like this is a weapons factory.  They make malt!  We've known how to make malt for thousand of years! WTF?

"What would happen if I just stood outside the gate, across the road and took a picture?" I asked him. "You couldn't stop me then."

"Yes," he agreed, "It's a stupid rule, but its more than my job's worth!"2

I promised him that I would delete the picture from my phone.  Faithless liar.
Caledon Maltings
The Nation's Beer

Much of the drive is along the N2 -- the National Road that runs from Cape Town all the way to Durban and parts beyond.  Driving along the smaller roads between Caledon and Gansbaai gave me a better appreciation of the vastness of the grainlands.  I was quite surprised at the humbleness of the machinery still used to gather in the harvest.  I expected to see lines of giant combines, four abreast, followed by large tractor-trailers catching the grain.  What I saw was simple mowers, cutting down the grain and gathering it into windrows, ready for the thresher in a few days, followed by the bailer to make those gigantic round hay-bales that need a tractor with a forklift attachment to move them.

There was a logic to the old-style balers that made rectangular bales.  Bales were still small enough for a man to lift.  These huge round things? Never!

What would happen to these farmers if you took their diesel away?

They plough, disk and plant their multi-million-rand seedbed using massive four-wheel-drive tractors, four to six wheels per axle.  They spray, spray, spray, poison upon poison, using aeroplanes and wide-boom sprayers aback their tractors. They harvest -- be it with the very large all-in-one combine-harvester mobile grainfactories (and there were some) or with the humbler, simpler  and cheaper machinery -- and load their harvest onto 22m long trucks to be transported hundreds of kilometres to a silo.  From there the grain gets trucked -- mostly trucked, since the rail network no longer finds it economic to transport grain -- to the millers.  The industrial mills that tear the grain apart into its smallest usable components, to be reconstituted into computer-managed maximum-profit product, stuffed with additives to enhance the colour, smell, and, mostly, shelf-life.

What happens when you take the oil away?

What happens when diesel is too expensive?

How do the millions eat?

Let alone drink beer...

The simple truth is, "They don't!" The Elephant In The Room That Nobody Wants To Talk About: there are simply too many of us humans in an energy poor future.  I am not suggesting a catastrophic starvation scenario -- those are more usually politically engendered than arising from natural consequence.  But I don't see how to feed upwards of 6½-billion people without cheap and abundant energy.

I'm planning to get into small-scale grains over the next year or so.  Even if its just for making my own beer :-)

[Pics taken with cellphone camera.  Please excuse the pathetic quality.]

[1] Nearly typed "a very lager quantity" there... Freudian ship?

[2] Not in those words. Poetic license. This is a Xhosa-speaking man for whom English is a third or fourth language. You get the gist. (May I  one day speak Xhosa half as well as he speaks English!)

No comments:

Post a Comment

You might also like

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...