at Banana Jam Cafe
I remember the first time I went to the Banana Jam Café. It was 2011 and we were broke – a freelance writer and a Master’s student saving for a wedding. We used to walk straight past the brightly painted façade of this Caribbean restaurant in suburban Cape Town to drink pints of SAB’s Castle Lager for R12.50 (US$0.85) in the sports bar next door. Then one day we spotted a sign outside Banana Jam advertising free craft beer tastings.
We had recently moved to the Cape and craft beer here was brand new. There were fewer than 30 breweries around the country, most of them out-of-the-way brewpubs that didn’t distribute. Somehow we had stumbled upon the only restaurant in the country championing the stuff.
Banana Jam’s owner, Greg Casey, had recently fallen in love with craft beer while travelling in the USA and wanted to bring it into his restaurant. A local search didn’t unearth much, but he did discover Jack Black, back then a contract brewery and today largely credited with making craft beer “a thing” in South Africa, and Greg was the second in the city to put the brewery’s lager on tap.
Over the years, that single craft tap became 16, and then 29 – a sole tap at the end of the bar pours macro lager. In a country where most taps are owned by breweries, Banana Jam became one of the first to invest in their own lines, offering a carefully curated range of local and international beers and, of course, attracting a slowly increasing number of beer enthusiasts.
It’s difficult to put into a single essay the importance that Banana Jam has played in South Africa’s craft beer scene. They were the first to offer a carefully thought-out beer menu; the first to celebrate things like IPA Day and International Beer Day.
It’s a restaurant run by an avid beer lover, where the lines and glassware are always spotless and the beer selection always impeccable. It is the de facto home of the local homebrewing club and the first place I take visiting beer lovers from other countries.
It is even more difficult for me to put into words my personal relationship with what regulars simply call the Jam. It was the first place I ventured to a as neurotic new mom. It was the place I chose to celebrate my 40th birthday – and several before it. It’s the place I first met many of my closest Capetonian friends. It’s a place my now six-year-old chooses to go when he’s given the chance to pick any restaurant he wants. Of course, he’s not keen on beer yet, but he loves the food, the milkshakes and the fact that the staff all dote on him.
The Jam is the heart of Cape Town’s craft beer community; the sort of place you can pop in for a beer by yourself and have to rearrange the restaurant and move tables three times to accommodate the expanding number of familiar faces who have likewise popped in to see what’s new on tap.
Five years ago, Greg installed his own microbrewery upstairs, a 500-litre brewhouse churning out a core range of hop bombs and a steady flow of cool collabs and weird one-offs. But when I pop in to write my Flagship February piece, I know there’s only one beer that will do. It is the only beer that has remained permanently on tap since Greg discovered craft and it’s as popular today as it ever was. Brewed just 7km away, Jack Black’s Lager is nothing showy. It’s an all-malt pale lager, with a touch of Graham cracker sweetness and a balanced, lasting bitterness. It’s a great beer and one I don’t drink enough in this world of double dry-hopped hazy lactose glitter stouts.
I’m here alone, but not for long. As the friends I know because of beer join me, we raise a glass of the beer that helped launch South Africa’s craft beer scene in a bar that ensures it will forever have a home.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.