It only takes the briefest of glances down the GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers of 2017 list for a few stories to leap out at you: the new number one, the utter domination of hops – particularly in the top ten – and so on.
But drill down a little deeper and look at how the list has evolved over the years and you find more is revealed. We discussed some of the takes from this year's list in our Results article here and have put together a colourful Infographic summarising many more. But, as in previous years, here's our thoughts on what this year's top 100 says – kicking off by addressing barbs likely to be hurled in its direction.
Breweries with the biggest reach and marketing spend are at an advantage. Breweries who release loads of beers can suffer as votes are spread over their entire range. Breweries with their own venues could encourage visitors to vote, giving them an advantage over those without one. Why on earth are the likes of James Squire and Yak Ales allowed to be part of it? It's only a popularity contest and is too mainstream now. And on and on.
If there's one thing guaranteed each year when the results are revealed, it's a cavalcade of complaints, many with varynig degrees of validity. Yet, without addressing them all one by one, it's perhaps easier to look at the Hottest 100 for what it is and place it within a broader context.
Yes, it is a popularity contest with all the pros and cons that entails. No one involved in running it from when it started out at The Local Taphouse to now, when it's run under the same team's GABS banner, is claiming otherwise. But, quite apart from the fact it generates discussion and excitement about locally brewed (if not always locally owned) craft beer, taken together with a number of other competitions, sites and so on, it helps anyone interested in the contemporary beer world create a more complete understanding of where we sit.
No one of the following is perfect on its own, but for those who take their enjoyment of beer beyond the consumption of it, they can all serve a purpose and, in conjunction with the Hottest 100, paints a detailed picture of where we are:
- Major beer competitions like the Australian International Beer Awards, Craft Beer Awards and state based versions – experts judge beers blind against style guidelines
- Consumer driven rating sites like Untappd, Beer Advocate and Ratebeer – all have a tendency to favour extreme, high alcohol beers and, arguably, can suffer from a herd mentality
- Critic's Choice publications, Best Of lists and so on, such as our Best New Beers by state/territory each year – can be subjective and dependent upon panelists' particular tastes
- Our blind tastings, run in a similar manner to the major beer competitions but featuring beers bought from retailers – we often can't sensibly try every beer in a style; it depends on the condition of the beers we buy; and our panel is rarely the same one session to the next
- Beer media, bloggers and social media – there's an ever growing number of sites and individuals offering reviews of and opinions on beer; find those you trust.
As an aside to this – and inspired by one of our writer's comments: "I hardly expect any of the beers I've really enjoyed in the past year to appear in the Hottest 100" – we looked at how this year's Hottest 100 compares to the current Ratebeer and Untappd top 50 Australian beers (acknowledging that both contain beers no longer available) and the 65 beers that made our Best New Beers of 2017 lists. Here's what we found:
- Ratebeer's Top 50 – 8 H100 beers
- Untappd's Top 50 – 14 H100 beers
- Our Best New Beers of 2017 – 11 H100 Beers
The Golden Coast
Melburnians are always quick to throw their hat into the ring when it comes to discussions over Australia's craft beer heartland. And, with the most breweries and beer venues, not to mention the annual double-header that is Good Beer Week and GABS, they're got a strong claim. Likewise Sydney's Inner West, where breweries have been springing up like wildfire in recent years.
But, if this year's poll is anything to go by, the Gold Coast is the hottest of the hot. Yes, you read that right: the Gold Coast is the hottest of the hot.
The region more commonly associated with mid-strength macro lagers was responsible for ten of the beers in the Hottest 100: five from Balter, three from the region's pioneers Burleigh Brewing and two from near neighbours Black Hops, who also notched the highest new entry for a brewery making its first appearance in the list.
In total, Queensland snagged 15 spots – up from just five last year – marking the biggest year-on-year increase for any state or territory, with Green Beacon landing four of its beers there too and tiny brewpub operation White Lies completing the haul. In part, this may be down to the gradual spread of votes across the country – remember this poll started out at a Melbourne pub before growing to what it is today – but, with a number of other sizeable breweries opening, or set to, in and around Brisbane, plus others further north in the Sunshine State, don't be surprised if this is no anomaly.
The other pocket of the country with particular reason to cheer this year's poll is the nation's capital, which – aside from two Wig & Pen beers in the lower reaches of the 2009 poll – has risen from one beer in 2015 (BentSpoke's Crankshaft IPA) to seven this year.
BentSpoke continues to lead the way, with Crankshaft crashing the podium, but Capital Brewing Co, which opened its own venue in 2017, matched their neighbours' trio with three of their own, while Pact Beer – reigning AIBA Champion Gypsy Brewer – appears with its Mount Tennent Pale Ale.
It makes for quite the contrast with Tasmania, the state with the closest population size, which hasn't hit the hundred since 2012. It's perhaps understandable, however. While ACT has three brewing companies that distribute across Australia plus some brewpub operations, Tasmania is now home to more than 20 breweries, few of whom send beer to the mainland and, when they do, often in small volumes.
In A Haze
In last year's poll, there was a grand total of zero New England style IPAs (although you could make a case for Hop Nation's The Chop). This year, there are seven, with one – again from Hop Nation – gatecrashing the top ten and two more (3 Ravens Juicy and Mountain Goat's Back To The Brewer Double Steam Ale) finding a home in the top 20.
Indeed, the passion for such beers among many beer lovers is so fierce that even beers with relatively limited distribution – Dainton's Blood Orange New England Rye IPA and White Lies' Hazy Craze – appeared in a top 100 that's ever harder to crack for small breweries.
Quite where this leads remains to be seen. NEIPAs form a category that's hotly debated from grass roots drinkers to gurus at the top of the industry and quite how far they might spread when you can empty a can into your glass and be faced with what appears to be chunks of plasterboard in the bottom is a matter for debate.
What can't be denied is that this "Instagram beer style" has captured imaginations for plenty in 2017. For what it's worth, we imagine it will follow a similar path to black IPAs: a few years ago everyone was making one; now, they've found their niche.
In terms of our coverage of the Hottest 100, ownership isn't new. We've always highlighted how many beers the big breweries have had in the list from the day we put together our first infographic. Yet ownership and independence has become a hotter topic than ever in the past six months following the rapidfire sales of 4 Pines (pictured above celebrating with their new AB InBev colleagues), Feral and Pirate Life. It means 28 of the beers in this year's top 100 are owned by one of CUB/AB InBev, Lion/Kirin, Asahi or Coca Cola Amatil – up from 20 in 2016.
Indeed, the first of that quartet have a decent rejoinder to the saying "Money can't buy you success", with their acquisitions of Pirate Life and 4 Pines adding ten spots in the table to the two for their Yak Ales brand. It also means the only beers to have topped the Hottest 100 in the ten years to date that are still under independent ownership are Stone & Wood Pacific Ale, Balter XPA and Vale Ale (although Vale Brewing is now part of SA soft drink company Bickford's portfolio).
While it's perhaps foolish to try to read much so soon into the impact of such acquisitions on voter preferences (and acknowledging that the majority of those voting are at the pointier end of the beer consumer spectrum), taken as a whole, the former independents have experienced a drop.
Sure, Pirate Life has more beers in the 100 than anyone else and there's always the element of not being the shiny new things to consider. But the four most high profile acquisitions of the past few years, with Mountain Goat included, have 17 beers in the 100 compared to 20 in 2016 and most have seen their highest ranking slip: Pirate Life from second to sixth; 4 Pines from tenth to 16th; Feral from third to 14th.
And if you look at the upper reaches, 11 of the top 12 beers are independently owned. It's too soon to say if this is a mere one-off but it's something to look out for in the future.
Yes We Can
While hoppy beers dominate the chart, it's hard to avoid the story around cans from the past few years. As recently as 2013, there was a grand total of zero beers in the Hottest 100 that were available in cans. If we've got things right (and we have made a couple of mistakes in the madness of the past couple of days spent analysing the results – sorry, folks!), in 2017 a staggering 61 of the top 100 beers are available in tinnies – eight of them in bottles too.
Any stigma surrounding beer in cans would appear to have been overcome. And then some...
Breaking In Is Hard To Do
Over time, it's getting tougher to break into the top 100. There's more beers than ever before and, if you're small, you're at an immediate disadvantage when there are plenty of larger brewing companies out there and many that campaign hard in support of their beers.
So all credit to those appearing in the list for the first time, listed here with their highest ranking:
- Black Hops – 20th
- Capital Brewing – 25th
- Philter – 33rd
- CoConspirators – 40th
- White Lies – 76th
- Dainton Family Brewery – 85th
- Beer Farm – 88th
It's also fair to say it's getting tougher for more experimental or out there beers to make the list. There's just a couple of sours in the top 100 this year, just a solitary imperial stout and, for the first time since 2010, not a single beer that's spent time on oak (even the 2008 poll had a barrel aged entry in the form of Murray's Anniversary Ale). Hop forward beers dominate throughout, with tastes seemingly moving towards bigger and hoppier beers as evidenced by a big drop in beers we group under the "session ales" banner from 2015 and a nearly 25 percent rise in beers six percent ABV or stronger compared to 2016.
Looking at the challenges of polling another way, it's eye-opening to look at some of the breweries not in the top 100. Both 2 Brothers and Boatrocker had three beers in the 2016 list and none in 2017, while Hawkers is a notable absentee, having placed twice in 2016. Then there are small breweries around whom there's plenty of talk and hype that haven't registered either, such as Wildflower, Sailors Grave and La Sirène. There could be myriad reasons behind each of these: how much focus they put on the poll, how diverse their output is, the niche nature of their beers, an ongoing equalisation of votes across the country and so on but, again, it highlights how tough it can be to break in – should you want to.
The Rise Of Lager
There's been talk for a few years about lager making a comeback in the craft beer world, in part because the industry is established and has less need to define itself as not producing "fizzy yellow swill" and in part because it's bloody popular and brewers need people buying their beers – whatever form they take – to survive.
Yet, while you'll find more and more small brewers with a lager – typically tagged Draught and offering a nod to their locality – this hasn't been reflected in the Hottest 100 for the past few years. With five lagers of various forms in this year's hundred (including Blackman's Juicy Banger, pictured above) – the most since there were seven in 2012 – perhaps the poll is starting to reflect this change.
For more on this year's Hottest 100, head here.