If you've followed the GABS story closely since the festival's inception towards the start of the decade, you'll be aware the venture into Auckland was seen as a potential precursor to further international excursions. In one past chat, co-founder Steve Jeffares talked about having container bars in multiple continents and replicating the experience across the globe, turning the extravaganza into an almost perennial worldwide event.
Earlier this year, he and long-term business partner Guy Greenstone travelled to the West Coast of the US seeking to progress plans for a first American GABS. Yet it was on the return flight that things began to change.
With the pair – in conjunction with other business partners – also involved in running Stomping Ground Brew Co in Collingwood, which is set to open two new venues in 2020, as well as their first major venture in craft beer, The Local Taphouse in St Kilda, Steve had a realisation.
"I felt GABS was strong enough to bring around the world," he says. "For me personally, I really wanted to do it in the States.
"But on the flight back I started to have doubts whether I wanted to be away for another month from Stomping Ground and my family. [At the same time] Mike had reached out; it was all about timing."
And thus it was they began to consider this other option: a future in which they passed GABS on to someone else to run; they'd already been approached by two other large events companies, so the prospect was one they'd at least considered before.
"I was hoping we would take over the world and didn't want to sell," Steve says, but came to realise Mike Bray (above left with GABS team members Ruta Marcinkus and Craig Williams) offered a better chance of taking the event to the next level.
Now, taking on a beast like GABS and its associated Hottest 100 polls is no small task. But even the briefest of skims through Mike's past tells you he's not a man afraid of a challenge, nor one unfamiliar with success. In 2000, Mike founded a media and marketing agency, PenQuin, in his hometown of Johannesburg, building it to a 100 million-plus rand marketing and events business in just ten years (approximately AUD $15m at the time) before selling and relocating to Australia with his family.
He was also part of a team that took an Aussie favourite, Boost Juice Bars, to South Africa, winning the company's international marketing franchise award twice and, along the way, he founded and published Modern Athlete Magazine, which became Africa's biggest running magazine.
In Australia, he began by creating a new wing of PenQuin, a sports media marketing business, which he sold to oOh!Media in 2012, and has since built a fitness and nutrition business with Australia's original Bachelor, Tim Robards. Mike says he's has always had a passion for producing world class events too; one of his major clients in 2019 was the Rand Show, Johannesburg's equivalent of the Royal Melbourne Show. The event, now more than 125-years-old, was reimagined and brought to new relevance with Mike helming the marketing.
All well and good, you might say, but what's that got to do with beer? Mike's happy to admit he's been more an enthusiastic consumer rather than explorer or student of beer. But, having expressed an interest in getting involved in events once more – this time in the food and beverage space – some friends of his who are avid beer drinkers suggested he joined them at GABS in Sydney, an event they'd been attending ever since it first landed in the city.
"GABS was the first product we looked at, as such, and it just resonated," Mike says.
He attended this year's Brisbane debut "incognito" before conversations began in earnest with Steve and Guy, conversations that ultimately led to an agreement and November's announcement that festival and poll were changing hands.
"For me, the key thing in the process we went through getting to know Steve and Guy is a continuation of the capacity of GABS," he says. "And by that I mean really looking at ways to increase the touch points for brewers and consumers who are at the beginning or mature in their journey. Grow that experience and elevate craft beer from five or six percent to the 20 percent it's projected to reach."
He adds: "We shared that vision of where it could go to."
Now that ownership has changed hands – along with two of GABS' key figures, event director Craig Williams and event manager Ruta Marcinkus – the plan is not to change but "to tweak and grow".
Mike says: "There's a whole new world out there that's just beginning to discover our great Australian craft beers and have never been to GABS [so] we believe there's huge room for growth within the existing Australian event. Asia is also of huge interest and I've recently had some great experiences in the US."
As they expand, the intention is to take Australian brewers with them and give them a chance to showcase their wares to international audiences. Over the course of our conversation, he also talks about tapping into corporate markets, encouraging greater female attendance, and bringing agencies from the world in which he's spent most of his career to GABS with their clients.
And then there's the Hottest 100, an entity that's existed longer than GABS after it was first run as a bit of fun for Local Taphouse staff and regulars more than a decade ago. The decision was made to align the two around the middle of the decade, with the poll subsequently part of the GABS deal.
Mike sees it as "the barometer in the craft industry for retailers and consumers" and, again, has ideas to build upon a platform that this year attracted in excess of 30,000 voters. There's talk of mixed packs sold through GABS' major partner Dan Murphy's, packs that would be released in advance of the results being announced so drinkers could enjoy them on the day; they wouldn't feature the previous year's top beers, but instead a spread that might mix the most popular with the highest new entries or other beers with a story to tell.
And, while the founders are staying on in part-time consultancy roles for the next couple of years (and, in Steve's case, working through the various stages of grief), the sale frees them up to focus more attention on Stomping Ground and, at the same time, frees up Stomping Ground to enter their beers into the Hottest 100 now there's no longer a conflict of interests in ownership.
It can all feel like rather serious stuff for a poll that started out as a bit of fun and an event that started out with twenty brewers launching beers on a sunny February afternoon in 2011, but in many ways reflects the way the beer world has evolved over that time. The fun will no doubt remain central to GABS' travelling beer circus and the most serious side of the Hottest 100 comes when deciding which beers to vote for – then arguing over the results, of course.
And you can do the penultimate of those things now, with voting open for the 2019 poll, and the Kiwi equivalent to follow next week. Head here to cast your vote now.