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March 23, 2011

Cape Town creatives: A beer with Brad Armitage

& Union

Photo courtesy Paul Weingartz

I really don’t believe that good ideas come like a lightning strike. Great ideas brew, I find. They percolate. How appropriate, then, that in profiling some of the great “ideas people” connected to Cape Town, I’m interviewing Brad Armitage. Brad is one half of the creative partnership that started vida e caffè  – the red-and-white corner café where you can always get a great cup, and get serenaded by your samba-loving barista too – that has since sold up (reportedly for “a bag of magic beans”) and gone into craft beer.

Brad Armitage and Rui Esteves were both living in Durban when they met – while surfing – and have been in partnership for some 11 years. & UNION, to be found at 110 Bree Street, is their beer salon and charcuterie, and their latest venture, launched in 2008. They’re also behind the WE LOVE REAL BEER movement (“Real beer. No additives. Just a few good ingredients and a lot of love.”) together with Jack Black Beer, all about good brew, good times, and artisan breweries.

Community and “the thinking man’s Long Street”

When speaking on creative entrepreneurship at the 2011 Design Indaba Conference, Brad and Rui emphasised four things in building any business. One: Focus. Two: Patience. Three: Loving what you do. And four? Building a community. I ask Brad about this community, whether it’s just brand ambassadors à la vida, say, or people seeking the honest, authentic drinking experience & UNION offers. How much are they a part of Bree Street, or Cape Town for that matter, I wonder out loud.

Brad speaks confidently, but honestly: “We don’t operate in a vacuum.”

He speaks of moving in to Bree when it was “not necessarily a good business investment” and “not an obvious choice”. But they saw the potential and wanting to be part of establishing “the thinking man’s Long Street”. (Apt, I think. & UNION offers pork and pints, stereotypically loved within more male domains, and the street itself offers everything from the Barnet Fair Barber Shop to DVD Nouveau – two favourites of another thinking man about town, photographer Andrew Brauteseth.)

“This place is built around street life,” says Brad. “We built on that culture.”

I ask more specifically about the building they’re in, one with a longer history in Cape Town, first as a theatre complex, then as a place of worship for freed slaves. & UNION might be built on street life, but it’s built in St Stephen’s – a church that still operates above.

Is there any connection? & UNION doesn’t trade on a Sunday. The “BREWERS” of “BREWERS & UNION” was dropped from the name following a request from the church. One of their signature drinks (Steph Weiss, a summery Bavarian brew) is named after the patron saint. And their patrons? “It’s my weekly ritual,” says Andrew Brauteseth. “It’s real beer church.”

These might not be glaringly obvious examples, but & UNION is not glaringly obvious. There’s no neon sign on the door bringing you in, and the establishment is understated. The connections to a larger community and history are there to be made, if you’re interested.

While Brad speaks of community and the overlay of history in the area (an old well nearby that was along the slave route, St Stephen’s original organ pit visible in one of the nextdoor establishments), he slips in the thought: What if the parking lot next to them, however convenient, was transformed into a public square?

What if?

Watch Paul Snodgrass talking about the & UNION experience. Video courtesy MyCitySlick

Connectivity and creativity

We start speaking about where good ideas (like & UNION) come from. Steven Johnson in his 2010 TED talk tracks the role of “liquid networks” – London’s coffee houses – in driving one of the “the great intellectual flowerings” of the last 500 years, the Enlightenment. He speaks of the importance of spaces “where ideas can have sex”.

Scott McDowell, in a piece entitled “Coaxing Serendipity: How Casual Get-Togethers Drive Innovation” speaks of spaces and opportunities that afford “the free-flowing exchange of ideas in a social setting”, and so serve “to encourage deeper thinking, challenge assumptions, and expand resources – crucial aspects of any creative career.”

It’s rumoured that & UNION is the haunt of locals like Dax of Relax with Dax, The Foodie and Jamie Who. The brew is reportedly particularly popular with arty types. The mind boggles to think who might be getting their fix for a fit of creative output at vida – anywhere across South Africa, and now in London. Clearly creatives must be finding some good ideas where the good brew is found.

But what about Brad? I ask him where he goes for his good ideas. He names three places: “I hit the streets. I hit the internet. I hop a plane.”

The world is infinitely connected, he elaborates – worldwide travel is more affordable than it ever was, not to speak of travel facilitated by the world wide web – and it’s this kind of connectivity that can also drive creativity. Rui and Brad were inspired by what they saw happening in London – the return to a more authentic and honest consumer experience – before they started FRESSH in Durban and vida in Cape Town.

“The secret of coffee is not as closely guarded as that of KFC. We’ve just got lazy,” Brad remarks, by way of example.

The implication is: If we just woke up (and smelt the coffee), we’d see the connections. The opportunities are ready and waiting, Brad implies.

Courage and conversions

Brad might not look it, in his straw hat, shorts, and light summer vest, but he was once in banking. Rui was in online marketing. While their current endeavours seem worlds apart from their beginnings, surely these backgrounds influence them. vida e caffè went viral with videos Rui released online, after all. And some good business and investment sense certainly seems to be guiding their current initiative.

Here’s one of the early vida e caffè viral videos, which Rui designed, edited and did the voice overs for. Video courtesy roedcntr

Of investment sense, local is the way to go, Brad seems to say: “There are very few barriers to entry in South Africa. It’s a great place to live and work.”

That said, “Building a new business is not for the faint of heart!”

Brad and Rui have made a bold move. They’re working on a niche market in a country that birthed SAB, one of the world’s biggest brewers. And they’ve come up against their fair share of criticism, namely for not selling local beer.

“We work with the right producers,” returns Brad, “no matter where.”

In a Design Indaba 2011 follow-up, Brad and Rui went on the record saying: “We are … a proudly South African company. Our quest has always been to seek out artisanal producers that we are proud to associate with. For the BREWERS & UNION range, where better to start our journey than the home of beer, Germany. Where will this journey end? Who knows?”

Who knows, indeed! Brad and Rui have, after all, started a kind of local advocacy movement for craft beer. WE LOVE REAL BEER is a way of educating the local public about the possibilities for beer, moving them on from what they’ve always known to a drink that can delight. And they’d love to go ekasi (into local townships) and enter the shebeen market.

Since & UNION’s 2008 inception, Brad says, at least three microbreweries have opened up in South Africa, and potential collaborations between would-be competitors are afoot. A new beer-drinking market is opening up. The converts? “Women and wine lovers”.

Good food pairings are their way of breaking down barriers to beer entry in these new markets, and Brad and Rui make an effort to accommodate these new recruits: The & UNION website deals directly with misconceptions around the nutritional value of beer, and also instructs you how best to keep and pour your brew.

Oenophile Jean-Pierre Rossouw, who was food and wine editor for House & Garden and wine columnist for the Cape Times, was found commenting on the name & UNION: “And what does the name mean? I guess it’s not related, but it sounds like a socialist uprising against SAB!”

Perhaps.

If you want to join the movement, then head down Bree Street to & UNION. Here are a few landmarks to orient you on your way.

(If Cape Town also gets your creative/entrepreneurial bits buzzing, and you’d like to see what company you keep, read this interview with Mark Shuttleworth, and watch out for more profiling of the city’s 2014 World Design Capital bid.)

UNION coffee

You can also get your morning coffee at & UNION. Photo courtesy Paul Weingartz

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