Soul Barrel Brewery, a microbrewery based in the Cape Winelands, officially makes the best beer in Africa. The brewery, which specialises in barrel-aged beers and beers featuring South African ingredients, won the top spot in the 2024 African Beer Cup – the biggest beer competition on the continent. Soul Barrel is the only brewery to win the accolade twice, also taking the top spot in the 2022 competition.

The winning beer, Ale of Origin, exemplifies Soul Barrel’s brewing philosophy. The beer uses all South African ingredients, including local malt and wheat, hops from the Western Cape, Simonsberg mountain water and natural, wild yeast that floats in on the wind.

“Ale of Origin was brewed according to the world renowned and fiercely traditional Belgian Lambic methods: raw wheat, aged hops and spontaneous fermentation, and is the only beer in South Africa brewed in this way,” says Soul Barrel founder and brewmaster Nick Smith.

The beer went up against 270 other beers entered from 16 African countries. A team of highly experienced and prestigious judges from around the world evaluated the beers over three days in Cape Town earlier this month. The judges awarded 62 medals across 32 categories, including the new African Grains category.

“In line with many other major competitions, we use the American Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines in our judging process,” says competition director and co-founder Lucy Corne. “However, the beer scene across Africa has developed beyond following global beer trends, and we’re now setting some trends of our own. This year, to reflect what is happening in craft beer around the continent, we introduced a new category to showcase beers that are using traditional African brewing grains, including sorghum, millet and fonio.”

The winner of the African Grains category is awarded with the African Celebration Award, sponsored by the Beer Association of South Africa (BASA). This year’s winner was Johannesburg-based Swagga Brewery for their Sorghum Ale, an unhopped beer using 100% South African sorghum, described as “a modern brewer’s take on the classic sorghum beer, fermented with English Ale yeast”.

Another Soul Barrel beer, Wild African Soul, took the silver medal in the African Grains category, while Botswana-based Okavango Craft Brewery took the bronze for their Delta Lager, which uses 59% millet from farmers in northern Botswana. Medals also went to breweries from Eswatini, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, the Seychelles and Tanzania.

“The craft beer industry in Africa is still in its infant stages and the fact that the African Beer Cup has grown to 16 participating countries with 15 awards going to breweries outside of South Africa is testament to the fact that we can expect a lot of growth in our continent and will see a lot of exciting beers coming from the rest of Africa in the future,” says African Beer Cup partner and financial manager Romina Gaggero-Delicio.

The competition has a stringent judging process, with all beers judged twice. Winning a medal is extremely prestigious, with a maximum of three medals awarded per category. Only beers reaching certain threshold scores are eligible for medals.

“Winning Best Beer in Africa is one of the most significant accomplishments a brewery can achieve in Africa,” says Nick Smith. “The African Beer Cup is the most competitive, intense beer competition on the continent with some of the best judges in the world. Winning with a beer that features local yeast and grain is a major achievement for South African beer. We believe in South African agriculture and this is just the start of what we can accomplish with local ingredients.”

Charlene Louw, CEO of the Beer Association of South Africa says: “BASA not only values the African Beer Cup as a mark of quality and excellence, but also as an annual reminder of the huge potential African beers have when it comes to tourism. Our continent’s beers are world-class and offer taste experiences to all types of visitors,”