Woorde: Hein Eksteen, Fotografie: Michel Dei-Cont
‘The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.’ So writes Arthur C. Clark, the co-writer of 2001: A Space Odyssey, amongst other works. Most people reading this article may be considered members of the very small group of privileged South Africans. We are, after all, not living in cardboard boxes next to freeways, or begging at traffic lights. Well, not yet. Even so, we often feel adrift in this swamp of corruption, graft, poverty and despondency.
Is it even possible to continue living here?
Travel around South Africa, as I have the privilege of doing, and you meet people who venture into the seemingly impossible. From an intrepid man who successfully farms and processes pomegranates on 3.3 hectare, a woman who rears ethically farmed meat rabbits in veggie gardens to the pioneers of commercial almond production. What they have in common is to go beyond ‘the limits of the possible’.
Take Rob Hofmeyr, owner of Thorny Creek Brewery which shares a premises with his Basil and Barley Restaurant in Oudtshoorn. Cynics may ask: Another brewery and another restaurant? The innovative Rob takes matters a step further by using the spent grain to produce a whole range of healthy eats. A variety of breads, cakes, biscuits and even pasta.
BUT TO BEGIN AT THE VERY BEGINNING
Rob hails from Zimbabwe and after moving to South Africa in 1981 plied his trade keeping local horses happy. Olga, in turn is from Russia, and once they got together decided to embark on farming. Travelling the Cape they found the best value for money in the Kannaland region (Little Karoo) and promptly bought a 24 hectare piece of land.
A farrier? Farming? Mind you, the pomegranate farmer mentioned earlier was an economist and filmmaker in his previous lives, the rabbit farmer a chef in London and the almond pioneer a medical doctor in Canada.
Rob: “We wanted a piece of land on which we could make a living and started with tomatoes. A wide variety of seeds of which we brought over from Russia to see which will survive the harsh climate over here. After that and still doing some farriery, I got into brewing and was encouraged to upscale the latter.” Rob found a bankrupt brewery in Cape Town, bought the equipment and brought it to Oudtshoorn. With the brewery brewing, he started a small restaurant on the farm.
“I was feeding the spent grain to our chickens and rabbits on the farm. I soon realised I could use that for human consumption and thereby add another component to the business. I started milling the spent grain and started experimenting with baking.”
Baking with milled spent grain as certainly not as simple as mixing two cups of this with a handful of that, kneading and popping it into the oven to give birth to award winning bread. Rob will enlighten us later as to what his experiments entailed.
Rob: “People have definitely fallen in love with the spent grain beer bread, which is a real hit in the restaurant.”
The obvious question to the layperson may well be: If it is spent grain, what nutrients could it possibly still possess? “The nutrients are still there. What is taken out is the gluten. A lot of the starches and sugars, not all of them, are removed.”
The non-GMO grain Rob uses for brewing hails from Belgium. The grain is malted, which means that after the grain is harvested it is wet and sifted and allowed to almost germinate. As the individual grain is about to burst through its casing the process is arrested by drying it very quickly. “This process changes the starches into fermentable starches inside the husk. These are then crushed by me and a tea is made from that – the very basis of your beer making liquid.”
This ‘tea’ is called wort and contains the sugars, the most important being maltose and maltotriose, that will be fermented by the brewing yeast to produce alcohol. The wort is then drained off the husks and the crushed grain is rinsed to get as much of the sugars and starches out as possible.
“After this the wort heads off to beer making process – the fermentation and so forth – and the spent grain is dried very quickly. At this stage the spent grain is very stodgy and goes off rapidly.” Fortunately, the air in the Little Karoo is very dry and assists greatly with the drying. The stodge is spread out on nets and is rotated for two or three days.
“Then we can ground it down and mill it into flour together with the fibrous husk. Now milling spent grain needs a very high cutting speed – because of the husks – and therefore you can’t mill it between stones, for example. It is actually chopped. Almost like the way a coffee grinder works. So, it breaks down the fibres and prevents them from getting stuck between your teeth.” After this grand adventure, the grain has become flour and is ready to be turned into delectable breads, biscuits, cakes and pasta.
COOKING WITH SPENT GRAIN
“Baking with spent grain is vastly different from doing the same with conventional flour. Firstly, spent grain dough is way more sticky and the baking time is tricky, because spent grain creates a crust far sooner than normal flour. And if you don’t like too much crust you have to create a few tricks of your own.”
Rob obviously has to cater for the average person and that excludes those too heavy on crust. To counteract spent grain’s propensity towards crustiness, Rob places a bowl of water at the bottom of the oven, which delays the setting of the crust. Over and above that, spent grain flour takes longer to rise, because the fibre (which is about 70 percent of the spent grain content) traps moisture and is not sugar – the latter is needed to accelerate the raising part of the process. “We actually reduce the sugar and starch content in our dough and therefore it takes longer to rise.”
And now for the big trick. For different flavours, Rob uses different styles of beer. “It is extremely boring to use the same beer time and again. For example everybody loves Weiss, but it doesn’t bring much flavour to bread. Whereas stout offers the most flavourful result. Sadly, I don’t always have Stout.” Personally I have no doubt the stouthearted Rob already has the next batch brewing to allay his own displeasure. “Now, Honeybush Ale – which is basically Belgian Red Ale – with Honeybush tea added you smell this amazing honeybush flavour in the bread.”
For making pasta from spent grain you need to run with the big dogs of tricks – perhaps as big as David Copperfield. By the way, Rob bakes his bread by using a maximum of 30 percent spent grain. Of course it is possible to bake with 100 percent spent grain for the health conscious customers, the effort, according to him, reminds him of a brick and contains just too much husk.
Back to the problem around pasta. “The problem is that pasta is very smooth and you can’t just add spent grain. Pasta needs to elastic and that is where the heart of the problem lies. Pasta needs to be rolled out very thinly and that is very difficult with dough containing spent grain.”
Let’s return to where this whole enterprise starts. Making beer. The very word comes from the Latin ‘bibere’ which translates as ‘drinking’. Hence, to discerning beer aficionados, when they are enjoying beer they are ‘beering’, which sounds a lot better than drinking. Beer, according to those who study ancient secrets, was a result of the agricultural revolution (circa 10 000 BC) as fermentation was an accidental by-product of gathering wild grain. Fast forward by 6 000 years and evidence has it that the Sumerians in Mesopotamia were merrily imbibing (derived also from ‘bibere’) their bibere from bowls with straws. Archaeologists even found an ode to Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing.
Another mystery: how does one move from farriery to brewing beer?
Rob: “It was a most easy transition.”
But surely one has to study the art?
“I have a few books, but haven’t read them yet.”
Rob is one tough looking dude. Athletic and fit. Kind of iron man – perhaps more tungsten carbide man. And these are qualities needed (both physically and mentally) when venturing into niche farming.
“I was given a very basic recipe for making beer and I started off with the simplest equipment. It worked out well and from there on I just tweaked my own recipes. That versus following someone else’s recipe, because I want the beer to taste the way I like drinking it.”
According to Rob, brewers need to stick to certain styles so as not to confuse their imbibers.
“So, you do a Blonde, a Stout, a Weiss – which means there is a high wheat content in the barley – or an Amber Ale. A Stout, for example has a more highly roasted barley in the mix. Basically, you play around with different types of roasted barley.” Whereas with the pale ales you increase the hop content. And there are numerous types of hop with varying flavours.
“In my opinion the Americans produce the best hop for our beer brewing.”
BASIL AND BARLEY
The Basil and Barley Restaurant is yet another important component of Rob’s enterprise and fits in snugly with the farm and brewery. The farm produces fresh produce – tomatoes of various hues (which according to Rob actually taste like tomatoes and go very well with mozzarella), all the herbs needed for haute cuisine and black carrots, which is one of the house’s specialities. The brewery supplies the bibere, while also providing the spent grain.
The restaurant is housed in an exquisitely renovated building in High Street where you can enjoy specials like spicy lamb soup, mortadella (Italian sausage) and egg sandwiches on spent grain bread and grape and fig ricotta tart – all reasonably priced because, as Rob says, “We are feeling the pinch right now.”
And there it is. All very simple. You can either go with the flow and cruise contentedly along in whatever floats your boat, or discover the limits of the possible and go beyond them into the impossible. The amazing reality is that Rob (and many other niche farmers) has made the impossible seductively possible.
Let’s raise an ale and bibere to his stoutheartedness and health.
Thorny Creek Brewery & Basil & Barley Restaurant: 156 High St, Oudtshoorn | Contact: 072 273 1926 | @ThornyCreekBrewery