Brewers’ Soup Collective
South Africa’s lockdown in the face of the global Covid-19 pandemic was harsh on restaurants and other service industries where people gathered to meet or enjoy themselves. The human cost showed itself in a slew of job losses and business closures while the isolation of lockdown brought psycho-social challenges to those who could no longer cook or play host to guests.
WRITTEN BY RUSSEL WASSERFALL
IMAGES BY BELL McLEOD
Over 6 weeks in lockdown, the Soup Collective fed an estimated 750,000 people, and their work continues to date.
The socio-economic impact of the pandemic provided an outlet and a purpose for some. An unintended consequence of lockdown was a rising hunger in the working-class communities and informal settlements of the country. People were hungry, and they needed to be fed. Who better to feed them than chefs with nothing to do?
Instead of just sheltering in place and hoping for the best, many chefs and restaurant brigades rolled up their sleeves. Cape Town restaurants on the Cape peninsula already have a proud tradition of tending to the needs of the poor. Former Quartier Francais chef and food personality Margot Janse had for years been running a charity feeding scheme called Isabelo Trust. This started feeding a handful of needy primary school pupils in the tourist town of Franschhoek.
Isabelo has grown over a number of years to feed hundreds of children daily. It now has a raft of international funders and programs for the upliftment of children in impoverished communities. The growing hunger of the vulnerable in lockdown spurred them to even greater action in service of their community.
As the crisis deepened, Isabelo set up a soup kitchen to feed all those in the community who had lost jobs or income thanks to Covid. Many of the chefs in this tourist hub, known for its fine restaurants, packed their knife rolls and went to help Margot in her efforts. It was an heroic effort and it certainly saved many people from hunger in the depth of a bitter South African Winter.
At the same time industry people, staring out the windows of their lockdown accommodation elsewhere on the peninsula, came up with ways to make a difference in their community. A restaurateur called Danny Diliberto, who had been running a soup kitchen called Ladles of Love rapidly expanded his operation. He went from feeding a couple of hundred people from the back door of his Bree Street restaurant to feeding thousands out of a convention centre in the city.
A local craft brewery owner realised that he could cook soup for the hungry in his mash tun brewing kettle.
Bell McLeod, a young chef, left the familiar surrounds of a restaurant kitchen to cook for the needy, and her daily output went from daintily plated restaurant dishes to thousands of litres of soup.
As the weeks passed, and government’s feeding schemes hit logistical and administrative snags – or became compromised by corruption – these ‘soup kitchens’ became a vital resource for the poor.
Andre Viljoen, owner of Woodstock Brewery saw all this and came up with an innovative plan. Lockdown in South Africa was accompanied by a ban on alcohol and tobacco sales. This meant his brewery in the heart of the city was mothballed until further notice.
Among the standard equipment for a craft brewery is a vessel called a mash tun. This is basically a great big kettle used to heat the ground malt and water in the brewing process. He wondered if he could make soup in it. Viljoen got in touch with his friend Mark de Bestel who owned a similar brewery in the Overberg region about an hour from Cape Town.
De Bestel had just employed the chef from a popular Cape Town grill restaurant, Bones Kitchen. Just before lockdown, Bell McLeod had hung up her apron at Bones in favor of a simpler life and a quieter kitchen at Hemel and Aarde Brewery in the famous wine-producing valley of the same name. Viljoen wondered if the new chef might be able to work out how to cook soup in a mash tun.
It was a big ask. Viljoen’s kettle has a 3,000 litres capacity. But McLeod had been kicking her heels at home for three weeks – she was ready to do something meaningful. Chance came knocking and she grasped its hand.
The mash tun soup consumed 1,800 kilograms of vegetables in a single cook and it had an endless appetite.
Repurposing the brewery equipment was easy. They could get a boil going in the kettle to make sure that all food safety requirements were met. Food-safe pumps and hoses for emptying the soup into containers for transport were already on hand.
Some wine farmers donated heavy duty bins usually used for pressed grapes to help with this, and the team managed to get the bulk containers of food leaving the site at around 85°C. In a situation where hungry or homeless people lack the means to reheat food, this was a vital consideration.
At about 330 ml per portion, 3,000 litres of soup can feed 9,000 people. Just days into the project, requests for food were coming into the brewery from communities all over the Cape peninsula. A food scientist and nutritionist were recruited to help McLeod ensure that the soups were as nourishing as possible.
When the project got into its stride, they were making 5,500 to 6,000 litres of soup per week. Over the first six weeks of operation, they fed 750,000 people, and in the process inspired other breweries to do the same thing. On one memorable weekend, Hemel and Aarde Brewery fed 33,000 people in the Overberg communities over 3 days.
At first the cost of ingredients was coming out of Andre Viljoen’s pocket, but soon donors stepped in to help. Thanks to special lugs provided to the brewery by wine farmers, the soup was arriving where it was needed at a piping hot 85°C.
While all of this was going on, the state was steadfastly ignoring the pleas of restaurants, brewers and winemakers to allow them to get back to work and save their businesses. The alcohol ban persisted, crippling the industry and drawing many of them into protests under the #jobssavelives banner.
Ironically, Bell McLeod and her colleagues took time out from doing their government’s job of feeding the hungry, in order to protest against that government’s destruction of their livelihoods. The non-profit organization ‘The Brewers Soup Collective’ was set up and originally funded by Andre Viljoen of Woodstock Brewery. While his business was being throttled by dubious state decrees, he was buying ingredient to feed the poor from his own pocket.
Word was getting out about the incredible work of Viljoen, McLeod and their many friends and collaborators though, and donations started to come in from the public. Broader appeals were made, and international donations began to arrive.
By this time Bell was working on the logistics side of Brewers Soup Collective and she was completely invested in the culture of volunteering and giving back to people. A chef called Chris Morris took over running the kettle at Woodstock, and Bell McLeod headed back to the relative peace of the Hemel and Aarde Valley to run an eatery and volunteer in her spare time in the community around her.
The team had to take time off from their charitable work to fight for their right to work in the restaurant industry. This was happening while government was unable to feed the poor and unemployed.