Behind The Hottest 100 Beers Of 2017

January 29, 2018, by Crafty Pint
Behind The Hottest 100 Beers Of 2017

There were plenty of stories and talking points to come out of this year's GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers results. We put our thoughts down here, the organisers published more information around the poll than ever before, including the top 100 beers new to the poll, and comments continue to stack up on social media (giving Luke at Ale Of A Time ample material for his annual "hot take").

Since the results were announced, we've chatted to some of the brewers behind the year's biggest stories. So, in our final piece of 2017 coverage – at least until the Kiwi results are announced this coming weekend – here's Scotty Hargrave from Balter, Richard Watkins from BentSpoke, Sam Harbour from Hop Nation and Michael "Govs" McGovern from Black Hops.

Scotty Hargrave – Head Brewer at Balter

Hottest 100 of 2017 Placings

1.  XPA (up from 4)
6.  IPA (new entry)
43. Pilsner (new entry)
90. Black Metal Disco (new entry)
96. Alt Brown (up 2)

It's been story after story after story for Balter – dating back to before the brewery was even announced. Prior to revealing they were part of a team behind the Gold Coast brewery, surfers Mick Fanning (above right with Scotty Hargrave at the brewery's launch), Joel Parkinson, Bede Durbridge and Josh Kerr made waves in the media with the news they were launching a new fragrance for men called Ocean's Mist.

While that was a joke, the brewery's rise to prominence since has been anything but, with Balter amassing fans and collecting trophies on a regular basis – led by the XPA that, more than any other beer bearing the name, has helped make those three letters nigh on ubiquitous in the Aussie beer world. That beer stormed the top five in the 2016 poll and this year knocked Pacific Ale – a beer Scotty used to brew when at Stone & Wood – from top spot and was joined by all four of the brewery's other canned beers in the top 100.

Now recovered after a Saturday spent hosting the Brews News live podcast and then celebrating at the brewery with his surfing business partners and 200 of the brewery's friends and fans – a recovery hastened by the need to head into the brewery on Sunday night to transfer more XPA into Brite tanks ready to be packaged – he told The Crafty Pint: "It was pretty mad, mate! I woke up to 90-odd text messages on Sunday wishing us the best, from the Pirate Life boys, Rich at BentSpoke, the Stone & Wood guys, Jayne from Two Birds, the Feral guys. It just reminds you what a good industry it is.

"Stirling [Howland, Balter's brand director] said the other day a podium spot would be great and one of the boys went around and said if we got three beers in the top 20 that would be better almost than winning because of that consistency. So having two in the top ten – that can't be dismissed."

Since launching its first beer two years ago, the brewery has been undergoing rapid expansion and has already ordered another half dozen tanks in the hope of being prepared for next summer's demand. 

"We were going like maniacs up to Christmas and now we're smashing back into it," says Scotty. "Saturday's results have revved up [demand]. That's the real value of the Hottest 100 – the awareness it creates not just around us or the other guys at the front end of the poll but better beer in general.

"It's opening people's eyes: 'Shit, is there a hundred good beers? Oh, there's several hundred!' Being in our bubble, you can forget that something like 97 percent of the population don't know about it."

Scotty now has four brewers working with him, including those he's trained as brewers who've brought other skills to the operation: an electrician and a builder's labourer among them. The latter turned 50 last year and, on Saturday, was in tears when the realisation he's part of a team brewing one of Australia's best beers hit home.

Given their success and the spate of breweries that were snapped up by CUB/AB InBev and Coca-Cola Amatil last year, you have to imagine that Balter would be of interest to any multinational looking to add a local craft brewer to its fold. But it's not on the agenda.

"It would be like bringing a virus into the industry I love," says Scotty. "That was never the intention with the guys who wanted me to be part of it. We've proven that we're doing this for the right reasons.

"Someone said to me the other day that everyone has their price; that's not in our discussions.

"I got into this because I'm compelled to brew – it's part of my DNA. It was never a good financial career choice. I'm starting to catch up now but I did torpedo my family's finances for a while there!"

As for the success enjoyed by the Gold Coast's brewers as a whole – ten beers in the the Hottest 100 from Balter, Burleigh and Black Hops – he feels there's been an element of launching at a time when the region was starting to change.

"You've got to build something where it's just about to get going," he says. "And that's sort of what we did.

"It starts with coffee. There was one coffee shop on the front and now there's five or six and some of it's as good as Byron. Then good food and then artisanal businesses like furniture makers moved in. With better food, people look to see where's the beer component and there becomes an interest there as well.

"With the Gold Coast, there's plenty of people here and it's progressive and outward looking these days. Maybe it took a bit of a cue from Brisbane too, where the beer scene exploded and there was this acceptance and willingness to try new things.

"When you've had the pioneers go before, it can make it a bit easier too – [breweries like] Stone & Wood and Mountain Goat have paved the way and opened the gates."

Richard Watkins – BentSpoke

Hottest 100 of 2017 Placings

3.  Crankshaft IPA (up 5)
24. Sprocket IPA (new entry)
27. Barley Griffin (down 8)

Richard Watkins (pictured above with partner Tracy Margrain) is a veteran of the Australian craft beer industry. Prior to launching the original BentSpoke brewpub in Canberra (and subsequently a second production facility called The Cannery), he was head brewer at the capital's longstanding Wig & Pen brewpub, where he won two AIBA Champion Brewery titles more than a decade apart.

The Wig & Pen beers were legendary among the country's beer cognoscenti, with Richard serving up everything from imperial stouts to gueuze long before most drinkers were aware sour beers were a thing. Yet it took the launch of BentSpoke to bring his beers to wider attention, initially in Canberra but, more recently, across Australia (and on Singapore Airlines flights). 

As Scotty Hargrave said when discussing this year's poll: "He'd built himself this gilded little prison, making great beers and being innovative." Yet finding their way into the hands of relatively few.

It's a different story now and demand is only likely to increase on the back of Crankshaft's podium finish.

"It's pretty awesome," said Richard from the brewery on Saturday, surrounded by people all clutching a celebratory IPA. "It was really hard to know what was going to happen to the breweries that got bought out based on their supporters still being supportive. We didn’t know if they were going to be affected, but obviously there’s been a big effect.

"Being independent is a really big thing. For us, it’s also the local thing - we support our local community and the wider scale local [beyond that] is Australia."

He describes this year's results as "sort of a changing of the guard" and reveals he had another aim of his own: to score the number one IPA.

"We make hop forward beers, so having the best IPA was a back of the mind little goal and we’ve achieved that and that’s really great."

He also enjoyed seeing Coopers in the poll (Sparkling Ale landed at 97). 

"They’re independent and they tick all the boxes," he says. "They weren’t big back in the day; they’ve had to come from somewhere and have had it hard. It just goes to show that if you do work hard results will come eventually."

For the BentSpoke team, the goal now is to get the beer further afield.

"We dream about being a national beer brand. We’re not there by any stretch of the imagination," says Richard. "If we go to WA or go to Queensland, it’s really a big pride thing to see our beer in a bottleshop. A lot of people want our beer and we’re letting them down and we need to change that: to get beer to people that want it.

"You’ve got to have balanced growth and we’ve done that to date. We’ve controlled what we do rather than going 24 hour a day shifts because the brewhouse isn’t big enough to cope. That’s really important and we’re ready for expansion."

He was also keen to give credit to a brewer whose beers were excluded from the poll. With Stomping Ground sharing many of the same owners as GABS, they took the decision last year and this to step aside.

"Ashur [Hall] at Stomping Ground makes really good beer and, in some ways, it’s really disappointing not to have them in the poll to celebrate his great achievements," says Richard. "Hopefully at some point, the GABS thing gets resolved and his beers can be in there."

Sam Hambour – Hop Nation

Sam Hambour (left) with Hop Nation co-founder Dunc Gibson (top) and members of Big Shed and Exit at a collaboration brew day last year.

Hottest 100 of 2017 Placings

8.  Jedi Juice (new entry)
81. The Punch (new entry)

New England IPAs were one of the big stories of 2017 and it was Hop Nation's Jedi Juice, originally launched as a GABS beer, that was the highest placed of the seven that made this year's list, despite limited availability outside Victoria. The Footscray brewery also scored one of only two sour beer styles to break the 100, with The Punch gose at 81.

“We hoped we’d do alright," says Sam, "but this is fantastic for how much of it we made and how far it went.

“It shows people are excited about the style and the 'drink fresh' and 'drink local' vibe from it. It’s something which really supports independent and smaller breweries."

As for whether the beer's success would see it appear more widely – in particular through the major retail chains – Sam says: “We aren’t big enough to mass produce [Jedi Juice] but that’s fine, we’ll just keep brewing it and keep producing new ones too. 

“It’s a hard one [as] we don’t want it sitting on shelves. If it sits in a back warehouse for three or four weeks, then by the time the consumer drinks it’s not going to be what it’s meant to be.”

Michael "Govs" McGovern – Black Hops

Govs (left) with Black Hops co-founders Dan Norris and Eddie Oldfield.

Hottest 100 of 2017 Placings

20. Pale Ale (new entry)
55. Hornet IPA (new entry)

Black Hops achieved the highest position of any brewing company making their debut appearance in the Hottest 100. Their two beers also helped the Gold Coast supply ten percent of the list.

“We are absolutely stoked," says head brewer Govs. "We’ve been working so hard in the past eight months since [the Pale Ale] had been released to try and make it one of the top 100 beers of the year and to make number 20 is almost unbelievable. Credit to everyone here at Black Hops, not just the brewers but to the sales and marketing and everyone in between.

“We wanted to make sure we were 100 percent happy that it was going to be able to stand on its own two feet in such a competitive style. We love the beer and are just super stoked to see that Australia obviously does as well.”

He believes part of the region's success is down to the fact "everyone underestimated what we could do".

"I’ve been brewing on the Gold Coast for the better part of a decade," he says, "and the beers coming out of the local breweries now are just world class. We’re in amongst some really good neighbours and we’re pretty keen to show off – especially to the southern states – that we can make good beer too.”

The team at the brewery is hopeful their top 20 placing will act as a springboard to even bigger things in 2018.

"You look at the years gone past and the Hottest 100 has been such a big influencer to get recognition outside your normal distribution area," he says. “2018 is going to be a huge year for Black Hops – we’re looking at some big expansion and increasing our reach into Sydney and Melbourne, which is something we’ve been really pushing to pull off.”

You can check out the rest of our H100 coverage here.

Additional reporting by Will Ziebell.

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