AN URBAN CRAFT BEER WITH LARGER-THAN-LIFE VISION.
Mad Giant, the fantastical craft brewery in the heart of Joburg’s CBD, together with Urbanologi, the “urban garde” restaurant in the brewery, creates a new authentic urban destination
Eben Uys brewed his first batch of beer in 2006 when he was a chemical engineering student. “I built a small brewery for the University of Stellenbosch,” he says. “It was part of my undergrad final year project. I became intrigued by the process. It’s simple and complex at the same time.”
In the decade between that project and his decision to take the leap and open Mad Giant Brewery in the 1 Fox Street Precinct in Ferreirasdorp in Joburg’s CBD, he never really stopped brewing craft beer. He constantly dabbled with ingredients and recipes. But he earned himself a PhD, got married and started working for a large energy company.
But the seeds of that early student project were always at the back of his mind, and he continued experimenting with craft beer. In 2014 he got to a point where he thought he’d actually launch a craft beer. “I did it part-time, developed the recipes and started small,” he says. At the time, he still had a full-time job as an engineer. “But when we finally brewed the first batches, it became real,” he says.
He felt as if he had reached a crossroads: either he would have to be a small-scale hobbyist or he would go large. He couldn’t do both. “If you’re going to take the plunge, there are no breaks,” he says. “I very soon realised I would need my own brewery and go bigger. You can’t do it in your garage because no one is going to pay your salary for you.”
He felt it was half-crazy. “It’s quite a bold move, leaving everything behind and going in a new direction,” he says. His vision had mushroomed. It was crazy and big… a Mad Giant!
“Mad Giant is about the little guy who is mad enough to pursue his massive dream and take the chance without fear of the outcome,” says Eben. “The Giant is our take on the dream. It’s kind of mysterious, it’s a little bit unrealistic, it’s scary, but it always has one eye on the prize.”
Breweries (especially the craft type) tend to have a rural flavour about them – connecting to the pastoral origins of the ingredients and harking back to the idea of the small country pub. Eben, however, had the opposite idea: something in the city, and a new understanding of an urban context as a place where organic alchemy can take place.
After searching around for ages, he came across a warehouse in the 1 Fox Street Precinct in Johannesburg. “The whole concept was to build a brewery and make it a destination,” he says. Eben wanted the brewery itself to convey and share something of the magic he felt in the brewing process.
“I started the business with two ales,” says Eben. Now there is a whole range – four of them bottled, the rest on tap. “From a brewer’s perspective, we do a lot to put authentic flavour into a beer. We don’t pasteurise because that kills flavour. And I love dry hopping. It adds that explosion of tropical fruit and resin-y, pine-y, citrus-y awesomeness.”
The industrial shed was big and high enough to accommodate the brewery.
“We needed the height, the electricity, the zoning, the size, the space,” he says. “And there was ample secure parking.”
It is part of the same precinct as The Sheds @1Fox and the Good Luck Bar, so there’s enough social energy to make it a destination. He wanted people to come to the brewery, taste the beer, see how it all worked. “Especially when we brew late at night, when we stack a couple of batches, there’s steam coming out everywhere…”
The building, he says, was “an absolute mess”. Haldane set about gutting it. “We basically stripped the building,” says Haldane. “We ripped the whole roof off. All the ceilings. We bashed out all the walls. We even had to pull up the floor because it wasn’t strong enough to support the brewery tanks.”
The exposed steel beams and trusses captured his imagination. “We painted all that red so it highlights the structure of the building,” says Haldane. “The brewery was central to the concept. It’s in the middle of the space, so it’s a working space, which always adds a nice element to hospitality.”
“Everything is exposed,” explains Eben. “It’s the same with the brewery. Everything we do, people can see.”
The restaurant’s menu is a sophisticated take on Japanese street food – dubbed “urban garde” – an authentic urban cuisine with umami flavours that complement the beer. “I like the idea of this fine dining food in this raw, functional space. It creates a nice tension between the two,” says Haldane. “The way that Urbnanologi make their food is very honest. The production of the food is very important. It’s all on show. They have this lovely big island, prep counters and a grill they had custom-made. It’s the same philosophy that goes into crafting beer: they’re crafting food. There’s the same attention to ingredients and they’re doing it with flare. There’s a nice synergy.”
Haldane custom-designed furniture based on the concept of a gigantic Meccano set. He played with the idea of the giant at the heart of the brand but, at the same time, the childlike delight of Eben’s approach.
“Then we experimented with floor finishes to highlight certain areas and make others more practical,” says Haldane. “So there is parquet towards the fine dining side and cast concrete near the more beer hall side of things.”
He goes on: “We played with this traditional American diner-seat typology and then exaggerated the ribs. Then we had the idea of leaving it half-finished, so that the leather drapes to the ground. It expresses the making of the furniture.”
The main bar, where you can taste the beers, is also a play on scale. “That concept came from taking a beer bottle cap and scaling it up to the size of the bar – and just by chance there was an interplay between the wavy bar front and the wavy leather fabric on the seats,” he says. The vision of Mad Giant as a simultaneously functional and magical place rooted, as Haldane points out, in “real experiences” took form. And the brewery has become a destination. “We have been mentioned twice as one of the top bars in the world,” Eben points out. (By get lost Magazine and We Heart.com.)
It is also very much at the heart of a new experience of the CBD, and a turning point for a vision of its future as a place where the brewery is as real and functional as anything, but where it is also seamlessly combined with fun, food and a lifestyle that is often the seed of urban transformation. Another small idea about to snowball, perhaps…