The festival that was the Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular is over – the kegs are stowed away, the Royal Exhibition Building’s doors are closed and I am back in an office in Sydney, wishing I were still out drinking in a giant echoing beer hall. Partly to give thanks to Steve, Guy and all those involved who poured so much effort into GABS, but mostly to exorcise my disappointment at being stuck up north for the rest of Good Beer Week, I thought I’d share with you five key take-outs that I learned during the largest beer festival ever seen on our shores.
1. Play it by Ear
I’d just like to share a little bit of common sense that eluded me, from the moment I logged on at 9AM the day GABS tickets went on sale, to the final ‘last drinks’ bell when I finally finished my 58th unique beer review of the festival: don’t get bogged down by planning.
One of the most enjoyable things about festivals, or parties of any sort, and about ordering a beer at the bar, is the ability to be spontaneous. If you go in with too many pre-conceived notions about what you’re expecting, and what you want to achieve, you’ll end up missing out on more than you will experience. Of course, part of the reason I felt so bogged down was that my project – to sample and write up tasting notes on every beer at the festival – was really quite ambitious, and I had only booked in two 4-hour sessions in which to achieve it.
Feel free to learn from my experience: I regret not sampling the food halls, I failed to chat to all the brewers wandering around and I unintentionally avoided all of the beer education courses. Spread yourself more thinly, and allow yourself to be dictated to. And if there’s genuinely some half-cocked, ambitious project you want to achieve, then feel free to give yourself extra time – I wish I had paced myself for a third session and taken in more of the full festival experience that was on offer.
2. Beer People are Good People
It stands to reason that, to handle a festival the size of GABS, you need a few good people. From the volunteers at the entry gate to those behind the bar, the food servers and the sound technicians, it was clear that the Spectapular was a well-oiled machine, and a hell of a lot of work had gone it to make sure it ran smoothly.
But that wasn’t all there is to it. When it takes longer than half an hour to reach the front of a queue, when there’s noise and crowds everywhere and alcohol is flowing, tempers have a tendency to fray. A spilled drink here, a shove there, and suddenly the bouncers at the door are playing umpire to a spontaneous amateur boxing tournament. There was none of that at GABS – at least not that I saw.
It’s long been acknowledged that there is very little animosity in the world of craft beer. While rivalries, disagreement and snobbery still exist, consumers, producers and merchants alike can agree we’re all in it for the love of beer. In short, beer people are good people.
Even in the hustle-bustle of the busiest session on Saturday afternoon, there was no sign of disorder from the crowd. A common celebratory spirit bonded strangers, from the most opinionated homebrewer to the soft-spoken novice. The beer being doled out acted not only as the social lubricant it is, but also as a catalyst for celebration, as we swapped favourites, recommendations and other anecdotes. Nowhere is the craft beer camaraderie more apparent than at a huge festival like GABS.
3. New Zealand sure knows its beer
Okay, so this one wasn’t a revelation to me, and probably not to many others. Our neighbours across the ditch have a country about a thirtieth the size of ours, and a population about a fifth the size of us, and something about that more concentrated community brings out a real sense of adventure and a love of artisanal produce.
When it comes to beer, Australia has a larger raw number of breweries churning the stuff out, but New Zealand is a clear head and shoulders above us in terms of quality over quantity. I’m not going to make any value judgements about who brews the better beer, but when it comes to GABS, the fact that a couple of contract brewers from the South Island took out the glittering grail of the people’s choice award (Yeastie Boys with their ‘Gunnamatta’ Tea-Leafed IPA) speaks volumes.
More to the point, although they showcased only 16 of the 60 beers on offer, the Kiwi brewers ran the gamut of styles: from the fiery-hot heat of Emersons’ chilli pilsener and the palate-tearing intensity of Liberty Brewing’s Imperial Simcoe IPA to the smooth, desserty smoothness of Renaissance’s oak-aged scotch ale. Across the board, New Zealand delighted and impressed with their brewing prowess and keen understanding of flavour. We’re bloody lucky to have them so close by.
4. Australia is ripe for sour beer
A little while ago, my first piece of beer writing – about introducing a friend to sour beers – was published. Now I’m not alone in my love of the sour. It seems to be a commonality across beer geeks that we like, or at least very much appreciate, a well-made tart beer. While European brewers like Cantillon and Lindemans have been doing it for centuries, GABS heralded in a couple of friendly truths about sour beers in Australia.
One of these truths is that Aussie brewers can certainly match the rest of the world in making – at least – an interesting sour beer. The sours of the festival – from Feral (WA), Wig & Pen (ACT) and Moondog (VIC) – were all talking points around the beer hall and, I personally would posit, all brilliant drops.
They were all interesting and complex to varying extents, all idiosyncratic and crisp and refreshing. This is not to suggest that they were everybody’s cup of tea: sour beer is undoubtedly an acquired taste, and although they were some of my favourites of the line-up, they seemed to produce quite the opposite effect in a handful of punters I spoke to.
Polarising though they were, the sheer number of people through the door and queueing for bars suggests that a vast number of regular beer drinkers have been exposed for the first time to the world of sour beer, brewed locally and served fresh. The more people get exposed to it, the more appreciation there will be as a result. Feral, Wig & Pen and Moondog all have existing pedigree in the sour field, and despite the extended time & effort it takes to produce a good limbic or wild ale, I suggest the time is right for more breweries to try their hand and tip off a little of the wild and funky.
5. The Best is Yet to Come
The Great Australasian Beer Spectapular advertised itself as the greatest beer festival Australia has ever seen. I’ve only been around the scene for ten years, but I still think it would be hard to refute that claim. Even just going by numbers through the door, I think GABS has the title in the bag.
I would still maintain, though, that it can only get bigger and better from here. Everybody attending GABS had some level of interest in beer, and everybody I came into contact with seemed to be having a great time. It has already outgrown the original Taphouse venue, but there are reasons to believe it will get bigger next year and beyond.
Even though it’s the biggest, GABS is still just one festival celebrating beer throughout the year. If it attracted the same crowd that might attend the Bendigo Beer Festival, Bitter & Twisted, or even some of the other Taphouse Spectapulars, it also attracted many more, and exposed them to beers and breweries they’d never had a chance to try. That awareness-raising goes a long way to building up the beer scene, and getting people excited about trying new things.
As the appreciation of beer begins to grow nationwide, so too does the number of people making it. Just off the top of my head I can name five breweries that didn’t have a beer in the lineup, and three more that weren’t even considered for GABS, simply because they only started brewing after the call went out. By simple law of supply and demand, as more people are willing to try new beers, there will be more people around to supply it, and when it comes time for GABS 2013 (if it happens, of course), those 60 beers will be joined by many, many more.