The shed next to the swimming pool at the George Hotel in Eshowe is pretty unremarkable. It’s green paint is peeling in parts, trees grow up against it and creepers make their way along the walls. It is not more than 5m long and 3m wide.
But it was in this room that Richard Chennells and his dad, Graham, decided they would start a micro-brewery to encourage people to visit the George. It was in this room that Zulu Blonde was born.
Now, about a dozen years later, the locally-made beer is tickling tastebuds across the UK. Chennells was invited to participate in the 2012 JD Wetherspoons Real Ale Festival in the UK, where his beer sold faster than he could have imagined. Within three hours, at three different flagship Wetherspoons pubs, the beer was sold out.
“I was over there and I wanted to get some mates to have my beer with me. We went to the first place, and it was sold out – and at the second, and the third. Eventually I called a guy at a pub in Liverpool Street (in London) where they had a keg available but he hadn’t put it on tap. He kept it for me so I could drink my beer with my friends.
“Boet, I could never have imagined that something I started with my dad in a little shed could have taken off the way it has. Sometimes I have to slap myself to believe it,” Chennells said from the hotel this week.
The success of Zulu Blonde isn’t a one-off. In the 2010 edition of the festival, the biggest of its kind in the UK, it was named the best beer of the competition. Chennells was then asked to brew some more for the 2010 World Cup to give the pubs a local South African flavour during the tournament. Now he is in talks to have some brewed for the London Olympics. But it certainly wasn’t smooth sailing from the onset.
“The first one tasted like kak, bru,” Chennells laughed, adding “and it wasn’t just the first one. There was a lot of trial and error. The first year was a lot of hit-and-miss. But this wasn’t a problem for us, because this was just a local drink and something I treated as a lot of fun with my dad. When we got it right, though, it was very good.”
For the next few years, however, it wasn’t something they took overly seriously. Then in 2005, after a nine-month stint at the American Brewers Guild in California, Chennells came back and “tweaked a few things” with the recipe. The brand was created and it started attracting a lot of attention, mainly thanks to a marketing campaign that had him driving a Land Rover to golf days and punting “beer and golf weekends” in Eshowe.
When it seemed the brand was about to kick into high gear, Chennells admits the brewing dream “fizzled out”. In 2006 his mother died and his father started spending more and more time overseas. But it was a unexpected phone call that got him “back in the game”.
I was sitting in a garden on holiday with my family when my phone rang. It was a guy from the UK asking me if I would be one of the guest brewers for the festival. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When I told my family, they all said the same thing: ‘Kak, man.’ None of them believed it,” he said.
That was in 2010, and just months later Zulu Blonde would win the festival. After getting the recipe sorted ahead of the festival and brewing at Burton-on-Trent — a town Chennells describes as “to brewers what Graceland is for Elvis fans” — he, his father and his brother decided to set themselves a beer-drinking challenge: 100 different beers in 10 days. They did it in four.
Shortly after that trip, Chennells got another phone call, this time asking him to come back and pour the first pint of the festival. He did it, in a London pub, wearing a makaraba and blowing a vuvuzela.
“I said to the okes, ‘This is our secret weapon for the World Cup.’ I blew it and irritated people all night. None of them knew what it was. But when I came back two years later, they all knew,” he laughed.
It’s exactly this brashness, almost over-the-top enthusiasm, that has got Chennells recognised – and it is what he believes will make the Zulu Blonde brand grow.
“It’s a great tasting beer. It’s a great brand. And it’s got a great story, starting from a shed and then winning the biggest ale festival in the UK. But I don’t want it to stop there. I want a bigger brewery. I want to bottle it. I want to send it across the world. I want to put Eshowe on the map.
“And, boet, I’m going to make it happen. I’m passionate and I’m a stubborn bugger. If someone tells me I can’t do it, I will make sure I prove them wrong.