It’s a great time of the year to be a beer lover in Australia. The sun is out, the barbecues are fired up, and with a big cluster of public holidays on the way, there’s plenty of time to kick back in front of the cricket with your favourite brew. What’s more, if you’re one of Australia’s more discerning beer lovers, it’s time to start whittling down your options for what is easily the most important vote you’ll cast in 2016, GABS Festival’s Hottest 100 Beer competition.
Now in its ninth year, the Hottest 100 has grown exponentially from its very humble beginnings as a bit of fun floated by the Local Taphouse guys among their customer base, to becoming the definitive popularity contest among Aussie beer drinkers – and it’s still just a bit of fun.
Every year on Australia Day, the results never fail to delight, shock and even outrage people, from the casual beer quaffer to the geekiest beer-spreadsheet keeper. And given the increased attention that the poll garners each year from drinkers, brewers and marketers alike, there’s no question that the 2017 results have a few surprises waiting. What do some of the big winners from last year’s poll expect from this year’s results?
The big story last year was the meteoric debut of Adelaide-based Pirate Life Brewery which, at less than a year old and with a core range consisting of only three beers, took out the #11, #4 and #3 spots. After expanding that range in the first half of 2016 with the launch of an IPA, Pirate Life co-founder Red Proudfoot is certainly not feeling complacent about this year’s poll.
He suggests that the launch of the IPA in April could be a double-edged sword, with the beer not only being a contender but also acting as a competitor to the rest of their core range, the Throwback IPA, Pale Ale and Double IPA.
“It’d be nice to have similar results to last year,” Proudfoot tells me over the phone, “but that’d be a bit greedy.
“We don’t have much in the way of expectations, I’m just looking forward to a good day at the pub, drinking some beers and looking at the results as they come in.”
As low-key and casual as Pirate Life is playing it, there’s no denying the effect that last year’s unprecedented success had on a brand that was still in its fledgling stages of development.
“In the week or two weeks post the hottest 100, we opened another 250 accounts from independent bars and bottleshops, which was pretty significant…we weren’t even a year old,” Proudfoot recounts.
On the other hand, a large beer brand with a strong distribution network should be confident of some success. But Chris Sheehan, head brewer at the Malt Shovel Brewery in Sydney, says his was uncertainty growing as the 2016 results came in.
“We got to #30 and I’m wondering, ‘where’s Lashes? [150 Lashes, their pale ale] Where’s the Golden Ale?’” he says.
In the end, the James Squire brand had secured three top 30 spots, with the brewery’s Chancer Golden Ale at #28, Hop Thief American Pale Ale at #12 and the 150 Lashes at #6, an impressive rise from their respective positions the previous year and a result that seemed to ruffle some feathers among fans of smaller independent breweries.
“It came out of nowhere, which stirred a lot of debate,” Sheehan says.
“To us it didn’t come as a surprise due to the sheer popularity of the beer…it’s 60 per cent of our volume, so many people are drinking it.”
On the debate, Sheehan says people like to back a winner.
“People like to see things they like be successful in a poll. But it’s like politics, your guy doesn’t always win.”
Sheehan says that 150 Lashes in particular has grown even more popular since January 2016 so he expects it will occupy a similar position in 2017.
“I expect Lashes will be up and about up there,” he says. “I think you’ll see [Matilda Bay] Fat Yak come up a lot harder as well…with a lot of the mainstream drinkers coming in. I don’t think there’s much room for [Lashes] to go up; it might, just based on sheer number of drinkers and the fact that it’s in growth.”
As a beer brewer with national brand recognition already established, Sheehan sees the hottest 100 poll largely as a bit of fun.
“I think it’s a great point of difference from competitions and awards, so something like Lashes will still pull silvers at awards, because judges are drinking it and saying it’s true to style, but to succeed in a popularity contest is good as well.”
He adds, “I wouldn’t say it’s a novelty, but it’s just something different. It’s good to see.”
Stone & Wood’s Pacific Ale topped the poll at #1 in January 2016, with its flagship beer always a fixture in the top three but only getting the number one spot twice – last year and in 2012. Stone & Wood co-founder Brad Rogers says that it never stops being a big deal despite the consistent success in the poll.
“Are we going to be excited if we win again? Shit yeah!” he says. “I don’t think I’m losing any sleep over it yet, but it is exciting. It’s not something we discount, it’s not something we just put out the back…It’s something that a lot of people are talking about across the beer world.”
In the past couple of years, Stone & Wood have been undergoing a steady expansion of their northern New South Wales facility to keep up with increasing consumer demand, and in 2016 took out the AIBA award for champion large brewery, although Rogers doesn’t like to think of themselves as a large brewery.
“We’re still doing what we’ve always done,” he says. “It’s just we’re doing more of it now, and there’s more of us doing it.”
He explains that the increased size of the Stone & Wood family hasn’t led to a dilution of the hottest 100 excitement, despite the increase in people sharing in that excitement.
“It’s a really cool shot in the arm,” he explains. “It lifts everyone across the team. It’s important to do well.”
“There’s a lot of good beers and some really good breweries out there, so to be on top of that it’s a really nice pat on the back for all our guys across the business.”
From a popularity point of view, we can no doubt expect to see Perth’s Feral Brewing and their Hop Hog remain near the top of the list, although the release of their larger War Hog IPA could potentially split the voting a little among their fanbase.
Sydney’s 4 Pines brewery also consistently appear among the top tier, due in no small part to their growing army of dedicated fans, and the long-standing favourite and two-time winner Little Creatures Pale Ale is also sure to be somewhere in the mix.
There are some new breweries making waves on the scene, too, that many expect to make inroads in the list. These include the Gold Coast’s Balter Brewing (co-owned by Mick Fanning), Byron Bay’s Fixation Brewing and Canberra’s Bentspoke Brewery, the latter of which was around for last year’s poll but has only just opened up a canning line to get their beer out to a wider audience.
Another beer not to write off is one that changes every year but always garners a lot of votes in the Hottest 100 – the GABS festival people’s choice winner, which this year was Bacchus Brewing’s Peanut Brittle Gose.
Of course, everybody has their own take on what will take out the top spots, and in many cases their view on what should take out the top spots is a different story altogether. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks, as long as everybody makes the effort to whittle down that list of favourites and put in a vote. And tell your friends to do so, as well.
4 Pines Brewery and Feral Brewing were contacted but unavailable for comment at time of publication. Little Creatures declined to comment.