The GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers of 2016 is done and dusted for another year. It's given us a repeat winner, much debate online and now, as in past years, an opportunity to look at what the voting patterns say about the Australian beer scene today.
Before we get into this year's analysis it's worth addressing a couple of things. Firstly, however you dress it up, it's a popularity contest in which anyone can vote. Beers with the most reach, that sell the greatest volume and those from breweries with loyal supporters they're able to rally to vote will do well. It's not a list picked solely by experts either (although beers occupying the upper reaches of the chart all fare well in competitions that are). And, from day one when it was a competition run by The Local Taphouse for staff and customers, it has included the craft arms of the big breweries.
A combination of the above leads each year to comments that the results are boring and not "crafty" enough, that it should be a poll only featuring new beers released in that year (like the annual Best of lists we run on The Crafty Pint), that only independent breweries' beers should be included.
There's validity in the above, but you have to ask what the main goal of the poll is. And we'd suggest it is, above all, a bit of fun that gets people thinking, drinking and talking about Australian craft beer more than at any other time of the year. At a time when, taken together, all the beer sold by independent Australian breweries (excluding Coopers) makes up around 2.5 percent of the total beer market, anything that helps raise awareness of – and potentially brings new people to – local craft beer is much needed.
As soon as you start tightening the parameters, you risk becoming exclusive and making the craft beer community seem closed off to people just starting to move away from mainstream beers. For many drinkers, 2016 will have been the first time they had a Pacific Ale or a Hop Hog so those beers are "new" to them. If they're told, sorry, you're not allowed to vote as you're late to the game, it's hardly welcoming.
As for the beers from the major breweries, they also play a role in introducing people to new flavours and breaking loyalties to older lager brands. Furphy may not be the most exciting beer (and was only added to the poll by Little Creatures under pressure from its fans) but it already sells more beer in Victoria than almost every small Australian brewer sells globally and, potentially, its drinkers are those who could be next to pick up a Pacific Ale or Balter XPA so bringing them into such a vote has validity.
Maybe parallel polls – one as is and one just for new releases from that year – are the way forward. But, as we head into the analysis, yes, it's a popularity contest and, yes, it's voted for by a small percentage of beer drinkers across Australia, but let's see what the results suggest anyway...
Wherever you draw the style boundaries as to what is a hop driven pale ale, it's fair to say hops dominated. By our calculations, there were 69 pale ales and IPAs of various types in the top 100. The number of session beers (some of which could arguably be added to that 69) was down significantly, suggesting past golden / summer ale drinkers are now moving to pales or IPAs as beer of choice.
A few years ago, we did a loose survey of 20-odd microbreweries and, for all that had a pale in their lineup, it was their biggest seller. We were also told last year that, within one of the country's biggest retailers, pale ale is viewed as a brand; they're not too fussed what pale they have in their fridges as they believe most of their buyers after a pale ale are after just that, rather than wedded to a particular brand of pale.
It suggests that "pale ale" is becoming "beer" for many moving into craftier waters, with the rise in popularity, variety and availability of IPAs, following US trends again, augmenting the popularity of hop forward beers in craft beer drinkers' affections.
Can it or will it continue? We've heard people say plenty of times in recent years that the rise of IPAs, in particular, will prove to be something of a flash in the pan. But will it? We're sure that, over time, there will come to be a few good ones that dominate. Equally, why should the popularity of US influenced, hop forward pales and IPAs fade? When brewed well, there's little more enjoyable to drink; certainly, when good pales or IPAs land in the fridges at Crafty Towers they disappear faster than pretty much anything else.
Ultimately, pale ale will likely become the staple of the section of the beer world tagged "craft", just as beer has meant lager for the past century and more. Brewers will get better at utilising hops in such beers while also getting to play with ever more new and fruity varieties too.
Farewell, Olde Worlde!
The advent of beer's Brave New World seems to be ushering the Olde Worlde out the back door. Sure, there's never been a massive array of traditional beer styles populating the Australian beer landscape – or indeed peppering the Hottest 100 – but there's never been so few in the annual list either.
No ESBs. No Scotch ales. No porters. No hefeweizen. No witbier. No saison. The two lagers are a hoppy rice lager and a hoppy rye lager. Sure, there's a handful of Berliner Weisse and gose in there, but they're very much new wave takes on the styles.
Unlike Steve Martin's deranged nemesis in The Jerk, Aussie brewers love cans. Two years ago, four beers in the Hottest 100 were available in cans. Last year, it was 17. Yesterday, there were 32, including some that are available in bottles and cans.
We won't say too much here as we've got a Big Issue on the rise of cans that we'll be publishing next week, but, led by the likes of highly visible brands like Goat's Summer Ale, Pirate Life, Modus Operandi and Balter, and assisted by East Coast Canning's jaunts up and down one side of the country, don't expect to see the number drop anytime soon.
The Power of Sour
OK, so there are only five sour beers in the top 100. Does that mean all the hype about them in craftier circles is hot air? Given there was only one in 2015, we'd suggest not. Sure, you can use statistics to prove pretty much anything so can claim a 500 percent increase or say it's still only five percent of the list.
That said, given how small in reach most sour beers are, the appearance of Miss Pinky, Watermelon Warhead, Freshie, Bacchus' Peanut Brittle Gose and Wayward's Sourpuss is notable. And, given the samples that have arrived at Crafty Towers in the past week include a sour blonde, two gose, a Berliner Weisse and a funky farmhouse grisette, the number in next year's is only likely to increase. Hopefully, consistency and quality of such beers continues to rise too.
It's Getting Tougher Out There
Just as breaking into and growing in the marketplace is getting tougher, so is breaking into the Hottest 100. There are more brewing companies and more beers to pick from than ever before and the bigger number of voters favours breweries with greater reach, social audiences and mailing lists. That said, the number of voters is still of a size that a small brewery that rallies its fan base can fare well.
Thus, while the big breweries make up 20 percent of the top 100 (albeit with no beer higher than 14) and, taken together, Stone & Wood, Feral and 4 Pines claim another 15 of the top spots, there are still notable successes from smaller operations.
Modus Operandi only put their four core beers up for the vote and all made the 100, while BentSpoke flew up the table. Fixation, Pact and West City Brewing all gained enough support for their flagship beers to make their H100 debuts, with the last of these, Footscray Ale, a fitting end to a year in which the Doggies took the flag. Fellow Westsiders Hop Nation registered with The Chop and, a few years after launching, Nomad reaped the rewards of the growing interest in sours with Freshie gaining their first placing.
But it's likely to be harder to break in. Will we see many more dramatic debuts like Pirate Life and Balter in future years?
The vote started out at The Local Taphouse and, even with The Crafty Pint and Australian Brews News coming on board to help promote it to a wider audience a few years later, had a distinct East Coast bias in voters for years. Awareness of the Hottest 100 across Australia has grown more recently, while beers from some breweries have also become available nationally, thus we're seeing a greater spread of representation across the states (albeit with Tasmania again missing, something that's unlikely to improve given there are now 20-odd brewing companies vying for attention there; Moo Brew and Bruny Island did make the top 200 this year, however).
Victoria's share continues to slide as a result, with WA having the most beers in the top 100 per capita, closely followed by ACT (although you could argue as to where some of Little Creatures beers "belong"). As state lines become increasingly blurred, the current state of play will likely become the norm.
Goodbye, Old Friends
It's worth giving extra credit to the likes of Feral, Stone & Wood, 4 Pines, 2 Brothers (pictured) and Bridge Road Brewers, all of whom have consistently registered multiple beers in the list over the years as many brewing companies that once did so either fluctuate in and out of favour or have steadily dropped away completely.
High ranking beers from past polls like Holgate's Temptress and Hargreaves Hill's ESB are no longer to be seen (even Little Creatures Pale is down from fifth to 15th), while there are other breweries who you'd expect to fare well in a craft beer poll, such as Moon Dog, Grifter or Newstead, that sit outside the 100 this year. There will be reasons in each case – some breweries really get behind the poll, others ignore it; Holgate, Moon Dog and Newstead have all been busy buying and building new breweries, for example – but the beer geek's relentless search for the new might make it tougher for more established breweries to keep catching their eyes.
Are we trying to read too much into a popularity contest? Maybe, but there's no bigger "survey" of Australian beer drinkers' tastes from which we can try to draw trends year to year so we'll keep at it anyway.
Thanks again for voting and reading. The results page is here, the Infographic here, we'll have interviews with some of the 2016 debutants on the site later, and you can still vote in the Kiwi poll here until midnight tonight (Jan 27).