A craze for homebrewing has swept across South Africa since the government banned the sale of alcohol to help hospitals and keep order during the coronavirus lockdown – good news for Frank van Wensveen, who owns a home beer brewing supply shop.
South Africa, which has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption per capita in the world, imposed a lockdown on 27 March and banned alcohol in a bid to ease hospital workloads, help the public stick to social distancing rules and prevent a rise in domestic violence.
South Africans have improvised, brewing their own beer and umqombothi, a traditional African beer made from sorghum, as well as distilling mampoer, a potent Afrikaner fruit-based moonshine.
“The market has absolutely gone crazy,” said van Wensveen, standing in his Johannesburg store before empty shelves. “When the liquor ban was initially announced, people were coming to the shop in a panic and essentially buying everything in sight.”
Since the government reopened e-commerce earlier this month, online orders have ballooned, with sales up 15-fold from pre-pandemic levels, he said.
Google searches on homemade beer recipes have spiked in South Africa, according to Google trend data, and a run on pineapples for beerbrewing forced supermarket giant Shoprite to limit their sale to five per customer.
Predictably, illegal liquor sales and smuggling of the contraband across South Africa’s land borders has also been on the rise.
Yet the ban on alcohol sales appears to have had the desired effect. Before lockdown, hospitals in South Africa took in around an estimated 17,100 alcohol-related trauma admissions per week, compared to 10,300 per week since lockdown began, said Charles Parry, director for alcohol, tobacco and drug research at the South African Medical Research Council.
Parry expects the numbers to rise again once lockdown restrictions are eased from 1 June and alcohol sales will once again be permitted, although under tight restrictions and only for home consumption.
While the temporary prohibition has caused a rise in spawned a booming business in workarounds, it has come at the expense of traditional purveyors of booze.
Bars and liquor stores are suffering, as are the largely informal and sometimes improvised neighbourhood taverns – known locally as shebeens – scattered throughout South Africa’s working-class townships.
“The people I am worried about are the shebeens, the Mama Ruby’s corner, the Uncle Jack’s liquor store,” said Collin Kambi, a resident east of Johannesburg, who misses his local dive. “They are going to get poorer and poorer.”