Edgy meets classy is how craft beer entrepreneur, Graeme Bird, described Poison City at the launch of Durban’s newest craft beer brand over the weekend.
It’s as much about producing a quality craft beer as it is about creating a legacy brand, one that speaks to the authenticity and identity of the city in which he and partner Andre Schubert grew up, surfed and ultimately honed successful professional careers.
“We love beer but, up until fairly recently, the only beers available in South Africa were commercial, industrial lagers. We’re offering a choice and the consumer can now say why not try a Durban beer?” explains Schubert.
For both Bird and Schubert, the creation of Poison City is as much the realisation of a dream as it is about encouraging Durbanites to embrace the city culture. “Among iconic South African cities, Durban is the ugly sister, smaller than Johannesburg and less beautiful than Cape Town. Edgy, artistic, on the waves and near the farm and country, this gritty, industrial city is unique and, in her own way, beautiful. Among the sisters, she is the keeper!” Bird told launch guests who were eagerly sampling the brand’s first beer, a lager cheekily named The Bird.
In their own words, they set out to “forget the usual pretentious launch bullshit” and herded everyone onto a bright purple “Durban bus” complete with signature artwork. Guests were in for a tour of Poison City with some of her coolest locals acting as tour guides – surfing legend John Whittle, photojournalist and street art guru, Samora Chapman, club owner Garry Church and Gangs of Ballet frontman, Brad Klynsmith.
Bird and Schubert’s wish to put Durban on both the South African culture and craft beer map is probably also something of a personal rebellion.
“We don’t like conformity and conservatism,” says Bird.
“Graeme and I have always made a statement. There’s a lot that we stand for and a lot that we want to stand for. There’s a distinct psychological aspect to encapsulating the experience (of the city) within the brand,” Schubert adds.
Of course, there’s the possibility that Poison City’s name hints at the “Durban Poison” for which the port city remains infamous. Then there’s the even more amusing fact that hops is of the same plant family as marijuana.
But as much as Bird and Schubert are determined to position their brand as a somewhat quirky home brew, they are also out to create a quality craft beer for which there is a sustainable demand.
The sound foundation is that Bird has, until recently, had a strong corporate career and Schubert, who started Café 1999 and owns the popular Market restaurant, is already a respected business owner in the hospitality space.
When Bird exited the corporate world, he decided to pursue his dream of creating a distinctly Durban craft beer and approached Schubert to partner with him.
Their shared love of craft beer stemmed from their travels during their twenties. They discovered good beer in cities like Brussels, Edinburgh, Munich, Lisbon, Sydney, Auckland and San Francisco that ultimately led the world’s craft beer revolution.
But Schubert, who was immersed in the restaurant game, wasn’t biting.
Eventually, 18 months ago, Bird’s persistence paid off and they decided to “have a crack” at brewing their own tipple at a friend’s place on the South Coast using equipment that they describe as “ramshackle at best”.
The first batch was ready in May 2014 and they took it to a friend’s birthday party. The guests not only loved it but emptied out the keg and they realised that they could be on to something.
After deciding they would get serious about brewing their own craft beer on a commercial scale, they headed back to the States and one of the centres craft beer, California.
They soon discovered that the sky was the limit. Schubert remembers coming across a Mexican inspired beer that included tea!
A visit to a campus bar at the University of California sealed the deal. Bird explains that students were prepared to pay more than double the price of commercial beer for something that reflected who they were. As with fashion labels, it wasn’t so much about price as it was about brand identity.
On their return to Durban, they began to collaborate with one of Durban’s top craft brewers, including top Durban brewer Paul Ten Hoorn Boer from That Brewing Company which currently brews Poison City’s The Bird lager.
It will be available at five Durban restaurants and two bottle stores initially. By the end of the year, they expect to be selling The Bird Lager in 10 restaurants and four bottle stores. They also plan to extend their range of craft beers to include a matured dark lager, an imperial pale ale, a Weiss beer and traditional English ale.
But, again, it’s not just about individual beers but about the Poison City brand and its connotations. They are also retailing avant garde but sophisticated collectibles such as a T-shirt sporting the Poison City logo designed by top Durban designers Holmes Brothers.
There’s a strong chance that their wooden surf board tap handle for restaurants and pubs may become a collector’s item too.