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Arriving in Clarens on a warm summer day felt a bit surreal. With parked cars lining every street, pedestrians crossing in all directions, and restaurant patios overflowing with patrons, it was a stark contrast to our recent few days in the quiet and remote Golden Gate Highlands National Park less than twenty-minutes away – and a world away from the snow-covered Canadian winter we had recently left.

Clarens, 300 kilometres south of Johannesburg and self touted as the ‘jewel of the Eastern Free State’, reminded me of the quaint cottage town where I spent my childhood summers. Art galleries and quirky shops are at every turn, farm-to-table eateries line the main drag, and vacationers stroll leisurely with ice cream in hand.

We park the car and head straight for Clarens Brewery, one of the pioneering craft breweries in South Africa. The open and airy space is inviting, which is good for us as the outside patio is chock-a-block with thirsty patrons enjoying a beer in the sun. Despite the crowds, the staff are friendly and the service spot on. After consuming mostly Castle Lager and Black Label on our month long South African road trip up to this point, we’re eager to try something (anything) different.

We’re offered a sampler, which consisting of Clarens Brewery’s year-round brews as well as a few seasonals. The brewery has the basic styles down, like their sessionable Clarens 1912 American Pale Ale and crisp flagship Blond, as well as delicious pure ciders made with fruit from local farmers. The unrelenting heat makes us gravitate toward the Weiss and cherry cider, both of which are refreshing and tasty.

The winters in this mountainous region of South Africa can be harsh, but it allows the brewery to experiment with heartier brews like Trappist Ales and strong Stouts.

The food menu is similar to what you would find at a German beer hall, featuring grilled sausages and meat & cheese boards that focus on local ingredients. We order the Combo Platter for Two and are happy we did. It’s simple and substantial, and definitely does the trick.

It’s hard not to miss the signs for the Clarens Craft Beer Festival posted on the walls. As a frontrunner of the craft beer scene in the Free States (as well as South Africa at large), Clarens has been warming up local residents to the country’s best craft beers and bringing together a community of brewers for the past several years.

Before we leave for our next destination, Lesotho, we grab a selection of bottles to take with us. A couple of IPAs, a few Weiss, and one of each seasonal brew left in stock comes along with us. And good thing as it would be quite awhile before we encountered decent variety again on our journey.

Clarens Brewery Photos by JP Bervoets and Kaue Fonseca