The 2016 GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers poll saw nine brewing companies appear in the list for the first time. As with the previous year's poll, rather than speak to familiar faces filling the top spots, we decided to chat to three of those making an appearance in the top 100 for the first time.
This year, that meant head brewer Scotty Hargrave from Balter Brewing (pictured at top), who landed two beers in the 100, including the XPA at four, Tom Delmont from Fixation Brewing, whose IPA debuted at 11, and Renn Blackman, of Blackman's Brewery, whose Reginald IPA came in at 57.
It's fair to say that, for all the excitement generated when it was revealed that Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Bede Durbidge and Josh Kerr were behind a brewery rather than a men's scent, there were some who doubted it was much more than a marketing gimmick. Indeed, when our panel put Balter's XPA into the Best New QLD Beers of 2016 list, it attracted a few online grumbles (it is the craft beer world, after all...).
You can understand why some might have had doubts before they launched: surely they could put out a nondescript lager and still achieve sales on the back of the foursome's fame? What's more, among those doubters was Scotty Hargrave.
Scotty was at Stone & Wood in its early years before skipping across Byron Bay to become head brewer at the brewpub of the same name (before it was bought by Lion). While there, he was approached by the Balter team and invited to join the project as head brewer. They'd clearly done their research as, not long afterwards, two of the beers he'd created at Byron Bay Brewing won trophies at the country's biggest beer awards. But, despite the big name appeal of Balter, Scotty just wasn't sure.
"Part of me saying yes was having other guys like [co-founder and brand director] Stirling [Howland] saying it wasn't about the boys, it was about the beer," he says. "Sure, you can get folks to try the beer the first time [because of the story] but it's the beer that keeps people coming back.
"That's what took me so long to say yes – I had to be sure it wasn't some cynical play."
Ten months on from the Gold Coast launch of the XPA (ten months that "seems like five years" to Scotty), it's a beer that can be found on tap and in its simple, eye-catching cans in venues right across Australia. The beer won gold medals in both draught and packaged form at the 2016 Craft Beer Awards, has been joined by the well received ALT Brown and, in recent days, a Pilsner that might be the best of the three. The first two made the Hottest 100, with the XPA this year's highest new entry in fourth.
"Since we started to brew, it's been a case of head down, bum up, so I probably haven't absorbed it as much as I should have," he says. "It's been crazy and awesome."
Since opening their impressive brewery and venue in Currumbin Waters, they've had to add six new tanks to meet demand, something that has kept Scotty from spending as much time as he'd have liked on the brewery's pilot system trying out new recipes on visitors. But he believes there will be more of this in 2017, with the aim being to take their growing local beer community further into the wide world of beer.
"Hopefully, we are opening a few doors and not just for us but for better beer in general," he says. "We have a profile that's growing pretty quickly and we don't take the responsibility lightly."
Among those they're converting are local surf clubs and the RSL in Currumbin, with XPA opening the door for the ALT Brown and Pilsner to appear on tap. A fourth beer is due out in cans in "a couple of months", while more tanks are on the way too. Other than having to work his arse off, it's clear there are no regrets for Scotty.
"There would have been a regret if I'd said no," he says. "My wife was bashing me for leaving them hanging for a week.
"Holy shit, it was close. I almost walked away from it."
The current monthly prize draw for Crafty Cabalistas is for a case of each of Balter's XPA, ALT Brown and Pilsner plus brewery merch.
A short drive down the coast from Balter's home, you arrive at the sites where Fixation Brewing's beers are brewed. As we've written in the past, the IPA only brewing company with the serendipitous start in life is a joint venture between the Stone & Wood Group and former Mountain Goat rep and well known beer industry figure Tom Delmont (pictured above). They had only released a handful of kegs when voting was open for the 2015 H100 poll but came close to storming this year's top ten with their flagship IPA.
"Overall, it's been a fantastic year of just focusing on our one main baby," says Tom. "We started out with one tank at [Stone & Wood's original brewery] at Byron Bay and very carefully added a little bit more into the market as we went.
"We'd empty that one tank and fill it the next day, just racking kegs as required to keep it as fresh as possible and in punters' hands as fresh as possible. The number one focus for us has been quality – whatever we're putting in our customers' hands is in the best condition it can be."
A dedication to freshness and quality is something we're seeing more of, particularly from the best brewers of such beers, brewers who are well aware hopped up beers need to be enjoyed as soon as possible after they leave the brewery. Hence such endeavours as Feral's Tusk Days, Akasha starting something similar with its Korben D, or Big Shed's Cannonball Run style dash across state lines. In the case of Fixation, it has seen them put tight four month best before dates on the bottles (which come out of the larger brewery in Murwillumbah) and work to educate stockists about the importance of keeping such beers cold through to them hitting taps or leaving the bottleshop.
To date, the only other beer to come out under the banner is The Fix double IPA, but more will follow later this year, with the brewers currently playing around with some fruity adjuncts on their pilot system and plans to put The Fix into 500ml bottles at some point too. There's also the possibility of a physical home for the brand too, most likely in Melbourne where Tom lives.
"We'd love to find a small home for Fixation in the next 12 months," says Tom, "and have a brewing kit there as well. It would be a place where visitors, supporters and venues can come to taste our beers."
It's only a little more than 12 months since Fixation launched its first beer, at a time when Australia's love affair with IPA was starting to blossom.
"We did launch at a good time," says Tom. "That was great, but I think it's very crowded out there and there's certainly beer being dropped into the market that's not the best or the freshest it can be, and that doesn't help anyone.
"It would be great if more retailers and beer buyers asked the question, 'When was this beer packed or racked into kegs?' Not many are, but the good [retailers] are starting to.
"I've talked to some really passionate IPA guys and they're sick of getting sent beer that's expensive and isn't fresh. As more and more people enter the craft beer industry, what we hope is that they're doing it for the right reasons and put beer quality as the main priority."
The brewing scene in Victoria's southwest has been growing steadily in the past few years. From small contract operations to rural brewpubs to the mighty Little Creatures/White Rabbit one-two in Geelong, it's a region where you needn't go short if you're after locally brewed beer. Yet, take out the Lion-owned operation and the only beer to make the Hottest 100 from the region prior to 2016 was Odyssey's Calypso Pale Ale.
That changed in the 2016 poll, however. Odyssey landed a second beer in the 100 (its Beach Ale) and Blackman's Brewery continued its impressive rise since founders Renn and Jess Blackman opened the doors of their Torquay brewpub in 2014, with the Reginald IPA hitting number 57.
When we first sat down with Renn shortly after the brewery opened, he told us that he wanted Reginald, like all of their beers and cider named after a family member, to be Blackman's flagship beer. Higher in alcohol than six percent ABV and jammed full of big, fruity American hops, we figured it was a nice aim to have, but that, surely, his delicious Ernie golden ale or the excellent Lager that followed some months later would find a bigger market share.
Yet, as things stand, Reginald is leading the way – and not just with voters in the H100 poll. It's by far their biggest seller in cans – they've produced 1,000 cases of it on their in-house canning line compared to no more than 500 of any other beer to date – and the beer topped part one of our IPA Blind Tasting last year too.
"We've got a really good local following now," says Renn (pictured above). "We're getting more and more customers and I think everyone is. The new venues and shops [in the region] are putting on local brewers too."
One venue putting on local beer – well, his at least – is their own, the newly opened Blackman's Brewery Bar in Geelong. The aim was to get a foothold in a city that's proven resistant to craft beer's charms and thus introduce more people to their beers.
"Opening a bar was pretty amazing," he says. "And pretty crazy!"
As for what lies ahead, look out for more Blackman's beer appearing across Australia and more cans too – a new line is already on the horizon.
The other first-timers in the top 100 were West City Brewing, Cricketer's Arms (Asahi), Hop Nation, Nomad, Pact and Stockade.
Photo at top of article by Trent Mitchell.