This coming weekend sees GABS return to the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne for the seventh time before heading to Sydney and then Auckland. Despite the founders' best intentions and the fact they seem to approach programming in the same way Jon Hopkins approached Everything Connected – "Is this too much?" "Nah, keep layering it on. They'll love it." – even after all this time, much pre-event coverage seems fixated on one aspect: the weirdest of the ingredients and approaches taken to the Festival Beers – those made specially to debut at the event.
Yet, while there is wanton silliness at play amid the cavalcade of sweet stouts, sours, barrel aged beasts, hybrids and so on, there is also a chance for brewers to try something new, whether to test the water with punters or experiment with new techniques. The success of particular beers might lead others to give that style a go or help open brewers' and drinkers' eyes.
So we thought we'd approach the winners from the past six years* and reflect on the beers that won the People's Choice, ask where they took them and where they think success at this unique event will be found now and in the future.
*Yes, we know there was a pre-GABS GABS at The Local Taphouse in 2011 – we filmed it – but the GABS that most know today is the one that made the big leap to the REB on the opening weekend of the second Good Beer Week.
The Past Winners
With Bacchus claiming two titles to date, our panel featured five brewers, each with very different stories to tell.
- Stu McKinlay – Co-founder of New Zealand's Yeastie Boys, which won the inaugural GABS People's Choice Award in 2012 with Gunnamatta Earl Grey IPA. Stu has since relocated to the UK to launch Yeastie Boys over there, while also having beers brewed locally at Nomad for the Australian market.
- Ross Kenrick – Owner of Bacchus Brewing, the only brewery to date to take out the award twice: first in 2013 for a Raspberry and White Chocolate Pilsner and again in 2016 for its Peanut Brittle Gose. He oversees a unique setup in Brisbane that knocks out scores of beers every year in a wild array of styles.
- Costa Nikias – Head brewer and founder of La Sirène, which won in 2014 for its now regularly brewed Praline, a beer that has spawned Imperial Praline plus a couple of barrel aged spin-offs, including one released this week.
- Steve "Hendo" Henderson – Formally of BrewCult, which has since ceased to operate. Hendo won the award in 2015 for Milk and Two Sugars.
- Sascha Percuoco – Head of marketing and operations at Stockade Beer Co, which took out the award last year for its maple soaked imperial stout The Mountie.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the beer
ROSS KENRICK: I’m thinking up and exploring new beer creations every week so, to be honest, our entries have just been the pick of what’s in my mind at the time we’ve needed to brew them.
COSTA NIKIAS: The inspiration was to bring together the best of Belgium for us which was – and still is – beer and chocolate.
STEVE HENDERSON: For GABS 2015, I wanted to create a coffee beer and, if I recall, I already had the name "Milk and Two Sugars" in my mind, so maybe part of it was to create a beer for a beer name.
Was there any intent to create a beer with a People’s Choice win in mind or were you just keen to brew something good?
STU MCKINLAY: It was definitely just an idea for a good beer that we'd like to drink as all our beers are. We wanted it to be special, of course, because the festival is such a fantastic idea and an honour to be invited to. The next step was to build a concept and a story that linked into Australia, which we got with the link through surfing to Gunnamatta in Victoria.
RK: Three out of the four years we’ve entered, we brewed to win. This resulted in two wins and a second place, so pretty chuffed with our efforts. On the other occasion, we just decided to brew something different and out there, which, though good, was never going to fair well in a popularity contest.
CN: We used the GABS festival to try something left of centre from the classic Farmhouse Ales we are known for. The Praline was a license to get a little crazy with exotic ingredients, such as whole vanilla beans and cocoa beans. We had no idea this would resonate with the public as it did; I would put it down to pure luck combined with a well thought out recipe.
SH: When you brew a beer for GABS, you always want it to do well but, in 2015, there were 120-odd beers so winning People's Choice was getting tough. Now it's even tougher with some 170-180 odd festival beers to try at GABS.
BrewCult had enjoyed a Top 10 standing at GABS since 2013 with Acid Freaks and Pepper Steak Porter. To be honest, maybe brewing a GABS People's Choice winning beer was not the priority. My priority was to never release a pale beer for GABS... but not many people know that.
SASCHA PERCUOCO: We always brew to the best of our abilities and generally we make beers that we want to drink and hope that others want to come on the journey with us. That’s not to say we don't like winning stuff but we don’t create products with just that in mind. We were pleasantly surprised by our win for The Mountie at GABS 2017.
[For 2018], we toyed with the idea of creating something that would appeal to GABS voters but the likelihood of us taking the gong two years in a row seemed pretty slim given the odds. So we chose to create a beer which is in keeping with one of the main pillars of our new venue in Marrickville – a barrelhouse, where we age and blend all manner of interesting beers and give people access to limiteds and collabs they can’t get anywhere else.
Why do you think your beer stood out in the year it won?
SM: I think we really caught the IPA wave (excuse the Gunnamatta-related pun) but did so in away that appealed to the off-centred nature of the typical GABS attendee. From there, it was a combination of a little luck and a really lovely beer.
RK: I think our beers have stood out by being very full flavoured (important if you want to stand out from the crowd) and for tasting exactly how they’ve been described.
CN: I think the Praline won as it represented a great "Sweet Chocolate Stout" that perhaps had not been seen before in Australia.
SH: There was a great lineup of beers in 2015 that made it into the Top 20. This was in the era of awesome beers like Big Shed Golden Stout Time, KAIJU! Betelgeuse and Moon Dog's Spotted Dick with Custard, so there was a lot of competition for people's paddles and palates.
I think Milk and Two Sugars stood out because it simply did what it said on the tin (as well as a tiny 80ml plastic cup).
SP: The base beer was our previous award-winning imperial stout recipe, so we had a great place to start from. We figured adding maple into the mix would complement the original flavours and enhance an already decent beer. Maple has such a distinct profile and none of us knew anyone that didn’t love maple syrup with their pancakes. I think this was the biggest drawcard for most: a beer that tasted like pancakes doused in maple syrup.
Once we worked out The Mountie name and label imagery, we felt this one would be kind of special.
How successful has the beer been outside the festival?
SM: It’s our biggest selling beer, worldwide, and dominates our sales in NZ and UK. It’s also a flagship for us in regards to the press attention it gets. It preceded the whole flavoured IPA trend, and was a lowish bitterness offering long before the NEIPA thing took off, so in some ways it was ahead of its time.
We’ve made a dark version of the beer, Dark Matta in 2015, and last year’s GABS entry was a double earl grey IPA called Royal Tanninbomb (a fifth anniversary version).
RK: All our GABS beers have been extremely successful for us and are available for most of the year from our brewery and online store.
CN: Yes, we do the Praline as a core range beer now and we also produce the Imperial Praline that is higher in alcohol with double chocolate and 50 percent extra vanilla as an annual release.
SP: The Mountie was originally planned as one of eleven limited release beers for 2017. We’ve never brought back one of our limited releases but, with the overwhelming response we received after GABS, we decided that The Mountie will ride again in Winter 2018. Look for it in June in bottleshops and venues around the country but, of course, we’ll have some on tap at GABS this year too.
Has your winning beer inspired or influenced other beers at the brewery or helped you develop new understanding of techniques or ingredients?
SM: I’ve lost count of the tea beers we have done since then: 17 or 18, I think. We’ve used fruit teas/tisanes, black teas, green teas, smoked tea... We have another core range beer – White Noise – which uses Egyptian chamomile. We're really into using unusual ingredients but in a way that's thoughtful towards the classic beer style that's influenced us in some way.
RK: Every beer we make helps develop our understanding of brewing techniques and ingredients; exploring new styles and flavour combinations is what keeps us on our game.
CN: Creating the Praline has definitely helped us to understand how to best use cacao beans, hazelnut and vanilla in a beer so that it's bold yet still in check.
SH: Not really. At the time, BrewCult was focused on creating a core range of four beers and that was consuming much of the production capacity. I've always been a creative brewer and I'm not afraid to experiment with new and interesting ingredients and processes.
SP: Not really. We based it on a previous imperial stout so, in a way, it was the original brew which influenced The Mountie. This year, we’ve produced a 5.5 percent ABV Bourbon barrel aged dark ale called Rockafella. Similar to our Old Money Imperial Stout but with a much lower ABV. Sessionability was key with this one.
What makes a winning GABS beer? Has that changed over the years?
SM: I really have no idea – the public choose that and I've long given up trying to read their minds! We've made GABS beers that I thought were brilliant and they totally flew under the radar.
RK: My philosophy has been to make a beer that hopefully has mass appeal and whose name lets you know exactly what you’re getting and then attempt to exceed people's expectation with the resulting taste. Without a “Wow Factor” you’re unlikely to win people over.
GABS Festival Beers used to be voted for only by the people at the event and the results awarded on the last day of the festival. Unfortunately now, it runs for weeks afterwards, which allows many other factors to come into account. Plus, with many of the Festival Beers now pouring from the brewery stands, entries just pouring from the containers are severely disadvantaged. So, to answer your second question, no, the same principles apply, it’s just got a lot harder for the little guy...
SH: Lots of punters and brewers think that you need to make a dessert beer to be successful at GABS but I don't necessarily agree with that. For example, there's Feral Watermelon Warhead, Two Birds Taco, and Yeastie Boys Gunnamatta. All outstanding beers in their own right and not really dessert beers.
SP: The easy answer here would be to say, based on the majority of previous winners, if it’s seemingly sweet it’ll have a good chance of catching people’s attention. If it’s well made, it’ll go on to win. It seems easier for most to judge a shot of beer with a lot of flavour and associate the sweetness they get from it with dessert and let’s face it, the majority of us love dessert/sweet things!
What beers do you think will dominate the People’s Choice top 10 this year?
SM: The weird, wonderful and metaphorically colourful. A good name really helps!
RK: I guess variations of the New England style are likely to dominate the top ten, but I think it will be something quite different that stands out from the pack that will ultimately win.
CN: Sour beers and NEIPA styles I believe.
SH: That's a difficult question to answer but on my paddles this year, you'll see my "must-try" beers which are:
- 7cent Quiet B4 The Storm
- Black Hops Trolley'd In Tijuana
- BentSpoke Here We Joe Again
- Blackheart Brewery The Start Heart
- FogHorn Brewhouse Gin Street Saison
- Mountain Goat Nitro Burnin' Funny Cars
- Newstead Ante-Collaboration Ale
- Revel Brewing Dark Nights Espresso Martini
- White Lies Choc Star (see below for more...)
- Stomping Ground Orange Mocha Frappucino
- Tallboy and Moose Chocolate Milkshake
SP: To be honest, we think there’ll be a couple of NEIPAs, possibly a sour and the rest possibly made up of sweet things.
Fast forward to the year 2022, the tenth year of GABS (at the Royal Exhibition Building). What kind of beer do you think will be the winner?
SM: I can't remember what was happening four years ago and I certainly have no idea what will be winning in 2022... perhaps, in keeping with my #FreshIsNotBest tagline, something that has already been brewed today?
RK: I think the principles of winning GABS are unlikely to change and “dessert” style beers will always have mass appeal, but who knows what craze might be sweeping the brewing world in four years time. Bring it on!
SH: 2022 will actually be the 11th year of GABS so I think every brewer should make an 11 percent ABV beer in 2022. How fun would that be!
SP: Wow, that’s a few years of progression and things can happen fast in the Australian indie beer scene but, given the changes in the last four years, we'd hedge our bets on a beer with big flavour, equally big ABV and an association with a popular food item. It’s almost a sure thing it won’t be a run-of-the-mill ale or lager.
Not only do many brewers look for new ways of standing out from the crowd with their beers and names, many go to extra lengths with their stalls and outfits for the day. And, in 2018, one brewer, Lee McAlister-Smiley from Brisbane's White Lies has even gone and produced a promo clip. Enjoy!
Find out more or book tickets for GABS here.