Voting opens today in the tenth Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers poll. Over the past decade, what started out as a bit of fun for staff and customers at The Local Taphouse in St Kilda has grown into an influential and much talked about national vote now bearing the GABS banner, with the countdown becoming an annual highlight for many in the Australian craft beer community.
Its growth, in many ways, mirrors that of the industry it was designed to celebrate, moving from a niche interest for a few early adopters on the fringes of the wider beer industry towards the mainstream, complete with debate over definitions, ownership and transparency.
At the same time, looking back over the results dating back to 2008, it offers a reminder of how far the industry has come and how fast – however you look at it. While it's easy to dismiss much about the very earliest years – there were so few people voting you'd have maybe eight beers with the same number of votes; there was a Victorian bias purely down to how and where it was run, for example – there's a story in there too. Just as looking at one year's results, even now, might not, at a glance, seem to reveal much, put each year in the context of those that have gone before and you can pick up some insightful trends. (You can head back through our past coverage of the poll here.)
The most obvious takeaway from those early years is how few breweries there were to pick from even as recently as ten years ago – Little Creatures, James Squire and Coopers each have two beers in the top ten, while Murray's scored eight beers in the top 50 (the brewery's trailblazing but now almost forgotten Icon Double IPA took second place in the first two years).
There are reminders of breweries and beers that are no more: Barons and its Black Wattle Ale, Bluetongue Brewery, Knappstein, Matilda Bay (OK, the last of these hasn't gone but the relevance of Australia's first contemporary craft brewery to the wider beer world is severely diminished). Then there are oddities, such as Vale Ale's top spot in 2010 that sent beer geeks rushing for their pitchforks and flaming torches, and some beers that are no longer eligible, such as Crown Lager – as well as reminders of when certain beers first appeared on the scene, most notably the beer in 14th in 2009, a Draught Ale from a new brewery based in Byron Bay called Stone & Wood. Whatever did happen to that beer...?
"It's so funny looking back to those original lists – Crown Lager, Hahn Premium," says Steve Jeffares, who launched the poll with The Local Taphouse team. "The past ten years have been such a wild ride for those of us who've been around for that decade or more."
Perhaps the standout theme across all nine years to date, however, is one that's grown in relevance and column inches and is set to reach fever pitch in 2018: ownership, or independence. Stone & Wood apart, every single beer that has taken top spot – plus many others that have regularly filled the podium and top ten positions – is now owned by one of the multinationals or a larger parent company: Lion/Kirin owns Little Creatures Pale Ale (first in 2008/2009); Bickford's owns Vale Brewing (2010); Coca-Cola Amatil owns Feral Brewing Hop Hog (2012/2013/2014).
Just looking at the results from January this year and the beers in second, third, fifth, tenth, twelfth, fourteenth, fifteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and twentieth – half of the top 20 – are all now multinational owned, while Gage Roads in sixth was once part-owned by Woolworths. With Stone & Wood declaring its dedication to independence in increasingly strident terms, past trends would suggest Balter will be next in the sights of AB InBev and their peers.
While there will be a separate independently owned beer list produced this year ahead of the launch of the Independent Brewers Association's independence seal, the brands owned by the multinationals remain eligible for the poll. Just as we retain listings for Mountain Goat, Pirate Life, Little Creatures, White Rabbit, 4 Pines and Feral in our brewery directory (with their new owners indicated in brackets after their names in the interest of transparency) because they continue to make good beer and play a role in the changing of the Australian beer landscape, so they – plus the likes of other big brewery brands like Yenda and James Squire – remain part of the GABS Hottest 100.
"I've always maintained that the big guys have a really important part to play in getting people on the first rung of the ladder," says Steve, suggesting that excluding the likes of Little Creatures and Feral could send a message to those who are discovering new beers via such brands that they're not good enough, that they're not welcome in the craft beer club.
"We want to be seen as inclusive," he adds.
Certainly, one of the most fascinating aspects of this year's countdown will be watching to see if the recent decisions of 4 Pines, Pirate Life and Feral to sell to AB InBev and Coca-Cola Amatil respectively will affect their placements; given the core of the voting audience remains those immersed in all things craft beer, it will be an indication as to how many will walk away from beers they've loved and into the arms of others who have retained their independence.
In many ways, other than the makeup of the list and the number of voters, which is now counted in the tens of thousands rather than tens (even if the organisers keep the actual figure close to their collective chest), little has changed since the first vote. Voters are still asked to pick their favourite five beers of the year, a team headed by The Local Taphouse (and now GABS and Stomping Ground) staff oversees the running and revelation of the poll and the results are still unveiled from 100 to one in late January (albeit no longer on Australia Day except when it falls on the fourth Saturday in the month).
There have been changes over the years, however, from a restriction on eligibility to independent, Australian-owned beers and the craft brands of the major players, to a ban on breweries offering incentives to potential voters. Last year, the poll was introduced in New Zealand for the first time and there are more changes this year, including moving the date in line with the triple j countdown that inspired its beery counterpart in the first place.
New style categories have been introduced – New England IPAs, Australian wild ales, for example – and the results will be presented in a variety of formats: the top 100, the next 100, independently owned beers and Hottest New Beers. All voting is now done via the GABS website, rather than hosted there and on The Crafty Pint, Brews News and the Dan Murphy's site with the aim of providing a cleaner user experience.
We'll still be covering the results as they come in, providing our analysis of the results, chatting to the people behind the year's biggest stories and producing more infographics, while Brews News will be running its live commentary on January 27 too. Much debate will no doubt ensure online and brewing companies that fare well can look forward to a bump in orders. Not bad for something that started out among, effectively, a small group of mates.
"I don't know who came up with the original idea," says Steve. "It was pretty small [in the first year] but we managed to come up with a list. We used Survey Monkey: the managers would have to download the votes from a spreadsheet and go through a very manual process."
From there, one of the Ale Stars at the second Local Taphouse in Darlinghurst (since sold to new owners) developed the voting form that was still used in one form or another until this year while a number of moves helped bring it to a wider audience: first partnering with this site, then Brews News and Dan Murphy's; inviting other venues and breweries to host countdown parties; engaging the GABS audience.
That said, at one point around five years ago, Steve was close to pulling the poll in response to people questioning its relevance, back before it was embraced more fully by the wider Australian beer community.
"JJ [long-term staff member and now Stomping Ground co-owner Justin Joiner] talked me off that ledge," he recalls. "For all the naysayers – and there are a few – I'm really proud of what we all have produced. I think it really does play a fun and important role for not only beer fans but also those who sell beer. It's helping independent and craft beer advocacy in the wider marketplace."
And, given that chimes with the reasons we launched The Crafty Pint in 2010, we're delighted to be on board as a partner again, with more than 1500 beers registered by more than 170 Australian beer companies. This year, every voter will also go in the draw to win tickets for them and ten mates to GABS Melbourne or Sydney (whichever is closer), plus a lifetime membership for our beer lovers bonus scheme, The Crafty Cabal.
Starting Friday, look out for our annual Best New Beers of 2017 state by state (and territory) lists if you're after refreshers as to which beers blew your mind (you can find the 2016 equivalents here). And, if you're a fan of Kiwi beers, look out for the opening of that poll on December 20.
The Aussie poll closes on January 19 and will be counted down on January 27, with the Hottest 100 Kiwi Craft Beers following on February 3, 2018.