Belly button fluff. Whale vomit. Carrots. Not three things you'd expect to see in a sentence together. Or, indeed, in a beer. Yet, in the past couple of years, it's beers featuring those ingredients that have garnered media attention across the world – far more than pretty much any other beers released in Australia in that time.
The three beers – by 7 cent, Robe Town and 4 Hearts respectively – were all entered as festival beers for the annual GABS festival that takes place in Melbourne, Sydney and, as of last year, Auckland. None took out the People's Choice title and, along with the other more extreme entries for the festival over the years, only represent a portion of the total. Yet they filled more column inches and picked up more airtime and TV coverage than their peers, raising the question of whether such beers send a positive message about craft beer in general. And the question of what exactly brewers and drinkers gain from beers pushing at the outer realms of flavour, ingredients and experimentation.
With thousands of beer lovers descending on the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne for the 2017 running of GABS, we asked those on the frontier, festival co-founder Steve Jeffares and three brewers who take part, for their thoughts.
"Did I think someone would make a belly button fluff beer?" says Steve, when asked about his expectations for GABS when the first one – then the Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular and featuring just 20 Aussie beers at The Local Taphouses in St Kilda and Darlinghurst – was conceived.
"No. But we are really proud of the platform we've created from a brewer point of view. They seem to enjoy the process of creating something really new."
As for the runaway hype accorded some of the most outré beers, he says: "I understand in the media today with click-bait they're trying to write the top five or top ten lists to get people to read. But I get excited by the creativity of the brewers. Some beers get scratched. Some people spend months trying to get their beers to work."
Among those brewers who have spent plenty of time working on their beers is Kevin Hingston from Pact Beer (above, watching his Butterbing beer take shape), who last night took out Champion Gypsy Brewer at the Australian International Beer Awards. He hooked up with old mates of his that are behind Butterbing Cookies to create the Butterbing beer, a porter brewed with 20kg of crushed salted caramel cookies.
It sounds like a tried and tested way to hit the GABS top ten, with sweet stouts tending to fare well in the People's Choice given their ability to stand out in 85ml doses. Yet, says Kevin, it's also a beer that's been a labour of love, going through multiple trial batches and processes – not to mention some pretty painful cleaning afterwards.
"From a technical perspective we had to get it right so we could deliver something approachable," he says. "I don't want people to just have a taster and not want to go back for a pint. GABS beers can do that."
So, across three 20 litre trial batches before stepping up to a 600 litre brew at Wig & Pen, the recipe and process changed: the percentage of oats in the grist rose significantly, the beer was mashed in at a higher temperature and they created a "patented cookie back" in which the crushed Butterbings were added along with nibs that go into the cookie sauce. Then came a lengthy clean up to remove the "full on smear of butter grease" with which he'd coated his host's brewery.
Someone who is no stranger to unusual ingredients in beer – chicken or shrimps anyone? – is Ross Kenrick, head honcho at Queensland's Bacchus Brewing. You could argue that Bacchus is the perfect brewery for what GABS, at least in terms of festival beers, has become known for: they create three new beers every week, sometimes in one keg batches never to return and in a kaleidoscopic array of varieties too.
Ross has taken out two People's Choice awards at the festival, for his Raspberry and White Chocolate Pilsner and last year's Peanut Brittle Gose, as well as a second place for Sex, Drugs & Rocky Road. Bacchus hasn't entered the 2017 festival due to a lack of time to develop a beer they considered could win; he views it as a competition and feels that unless you're in the top three of the People's Choice there's little to be gained from being part of the event.
"We put a hell of a lot of effort into producing a beer that we think will shine," he says, adding that he'd never consider something like a belly button fluff beer: "To me, that has no attraction at all."
Yet, as a brewer who has done as much as anyone to push the boundaries of what's possible – or allowable – in beer, he doesn't see any danger in pushing at the extremities.
"Just having a beer with hops in is enough to skew some people away from craft beer," says Ross. "That's probably the most common thing I get at the bar – 'I don't like the fruity stuff.' [Having a broad range of beers on offer] just helps us find a beer for people who come in claiming that they don't drink beer.
"We're not looking to shock. We look at what we think people will like to drink and there are others around that do similar stuff to us. Then there are some who want to do something to shock people."
One of the three brewers behind last year's media darling, 7 cent's Belly Button Fluff beer, is Doug Bremner. News of the beer, for which they'd shot a promotional video, went global, hitting print and online media, radio and TV. It even landed them a slot on The Project. Yet, despite the fact the Belgian style ale wasn't anything like licking someone's navel, they couldn't shift a single keg of it post GABS.
"[The coverage] was absolutely ridiculous," he says of a beer that was just the result of him and fellow 7 centers Matthew Boustead and Brendan Baker "messing around".
They were taken by surprise by the coverage to such an extent they weren't prepared to take advantage.
"If we were a bit more savvy marketers we might have been able to leverage off the back of it," says Doug. "We got zero sales off the back of it. There was interest from America but we weren't packaging the beer in bottles so couldn't really send it.
"There was no measurable benefit, but again that's our own fault. We were just having a bit of fun and didn't intend it to be a media stunt."
While nothing appears to have caught fire like 4 Hearts' Wabbit Saison or the 7 cent beer in the global media this year – and we're yet to see whale vomit beers flood the market – you can look back at previous year's festival lineups and see hints of what might be to come. Look at the beer list from the very first GABS, when it featured just 20 Australian beers and was held at The Local Taphouses in St Kilda and Darlinghurst. [Watch our video of the event here]
Among those beers are a cherry Berliner Weisse from Wig & Pen (when BentSpoke's Richard Watkins was still head brewer), a Flanders Red from Moon Dog and a spiced IPA from Jamieson (whose brewer is now at Social Bandit) – not to mention the first appearance of Feral's now core range black IPA Karma Citra.
Subsequent festivals have also given drinkers the first taste of beers such as Two Birds Taco, La Sirène's Praline and Yeastie Boys' Gunnamatta, all of which have gone on to enjoy continued success. Steve says, after this year, there will have been more than 100 GABS beers that have been brewed again after the festival, some of which have gone on to become core range beers.
Yet he's aware the outrageous will always be there.
"This year there's a beer featuring bone marrow and the proof will be in the pudding. People often recoil from a beer and I think Mountain Goat [which has brewed what they say is an insanely hot chilli beer] will be the talk of the weekend because you put it to your lips and they burn," says Steve.
"That's not what rings my bell, but I think the idea that brewers are pushing boundaries – even if you rein it back a bit – that's how we progress."
And, says Kevin, for all that there's a risk of people outside the beer world reading about the most unusual beers in the media and forming the opinion that craft beer is little more a gimmick, "if we held an ESB festival with 120 ESBs, no one would give a shit.
"You have to take the wins you can and back it up with good beer."