Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers Of 2020: The Stories

As with every year, the GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers poll generates much discussion and throws up its fair share of stories. There are others we'll follow up on in the coming weeks, but to wrap up our main coverage of the 2020 countdown we spoke to the people behind some of this year's standout performances: BentSpoke, Black Hops, Ballistic and Beerfarm.


BentSpoke: Richard Watkins

 

After three years in third spot, BentSpoke's Crankshaft finally made it into the top spot – one of five of the brewery's beers to hit the top 100 – following an impressive campaign to get out their supporters' vote. It's the first IPA to top the poll since Feral's Hop Hog (which has since been reclassified as an American pale ale) and breaks a five year run in which Stone & Wood Pacific Ale and Balter XPA claimed the crown.

Brewery co-founder Richard Watkins says they had as many people as they could at their Braddon brewpub on Saturday, after focusing on their locals in their bid for glory.

"We made sure all the people that had supported us and bought our beer this year, especially locally in Canberra, were just really aware [the poll] was on," he says. "We did a local campaign about 'The can from Canberra that can' and had a lot of media pick up, and [fellow ACT brewery] Capital did as well."

Richard has been brewing beers in the capital for a quarter century now, still spending a couple of days each week on the tools, and his drive hasn't faded one iota.

"I am competitive and it was a really good feeling to be up there with [Stone & Wood and Balter]," he says when asked about rising above two much larger breweries.

"You go back to when Feral won it with their IPA [2012 to 2014], and if you compare how many breweries there were back then to now, [Feral] were nearly at their peak, so it's very pleasing.

"It's been pretty inspiring the amount of messages I've had from brewers around the country. It does give breweries hope that you can take on the big ones."

He says the reaction since Saturday evening has been "amazing", adding, "a lot of people that had stocked our beer before are coming back and a lot of new beer are coming on too."

They've got a new packaging line arriving later in the year, and are hoping to "limp on until then", while still planning to get more limited releases out in cans. There's also an intention to get more beer into barrels, with a 50/50 chance a barrel-aged release will be part of that schedule this year.

You can read more about BentSpoke and the ACT scene in this article from last week.


Black Hops: Dan Norris

 

“Every year we go into it with high expectations and we end up being a little bit disappointed.”

That won't be the case for Gold Coast-based Black Hops in 2020 after they landed no less than seven beers in the top 100 and crashed into the top five with their G.O.A.T.

Brewery co-founder Dan Norris (in black shirt approximately sixth from the right above) told The Crafty Pint they'd been hoping for a top ten placement for the hazy IPA and tried to get their fans to vote for it via their eDMs and social pages, although without paying for any advertising or other promo.

“I think our organic traction is better than anything we do with paid ads anyway,” he says.

“I also thought it would be quite difficult to get top ten for a beer that has never made the list before. We always have the problem of having lots and lots of beers too.

“We had the hunch that G.O.A.T. would be the right one to back. Hazies have taken over so I really thought this year would be for G.O.A.T. It’s also our best-selling beer.”

Dan says the beer’s rise to the top followed the brewery gaining extra distribution through COVID-19, including in Dan Murphy's and BWS, with G.O.A.T. ranged nationally. 

“The business is twice the size and the audience is twice the size compared to last year," he says. "Online activity is twice as much as it was and distribution in bottleshops is about three times the size as what it was [a year ago]. We’re just getting bigger and bigger and we’ve still got a core group of people that really care about the brand.”

He says he was surprised by a lot of results, and was pleased to see Crankshaft take top spot.

Of Queensland's ongoing success, he says: “Your Mates just do an awesome job of their brand and marketing and Ballistic have just done a fantastic job with [Hawaiian Haze].”

Looking ahead, he says it's hard to gauge what their H100 performance will mean, especially as they aren't expanding massively interstate. 

“We’ve got our hands full anyway, we’ve got this big upgrade we’ve got to do with our packaging to be able to take on more distribution so we’re focusing on that,” he says, while there's a third brewery venue to oversee in Brisbane these days too, and the AWOL barrel program coming to life.

“Maybe we’ll try and get a barrel-aged beer in the list next year,” he says.


Ballistic: Lachy Crothers

 

Ballistic Beer put a lot of faith in their Hawaiian Haze last year and it's faith that's paid off as one of the beers leading the way for hazy pales scored sixth spot in the countdown. It was one of five Ballistic beers in the top 100, up from just one in 2019, which was the first time the Brisbane brewery made the list.

"We're thrilled," says head brewer Lachy Crothers (pictured above in pink Hawaiian shirt). "You always hope and you dream; I spent most of the past fortnight dreaming about it.

"We wanted to do well, and the beer has such a good following, but you never know. We were inspired by Larry [from Your Mates] last year – a little independent brewery in a similar position to us."

The brewery's marketing manager Julian Rooke says they ran a multi-faceted campaign, including a big push in their three venues and establishing a significant presence at the two Summer GABS festivals earlier in the month.

It was word of mouth, however, that Lachy believes also played a big part in their success, while drinkers love for hazy beers didn't hurt. As he points out, their Hawaiian Haze – now making up 40 percent of their output – was sandwiched between two hazy IPAs in the top ten.

"I think [hazy beers] do lend themselves to lower alcohol," he says. "Full-bodied, lower bitterness and a full mouthfeel.

"We just saw a gap in the market because no one was doing it at the time."

As for the success of their fellow Queenslanders, Lachy says: "There's a lot of energy and excitement about the scene. I feel it's going from strength to strength. Every brewer I talk to is busy.

"Brewers do work together and share industry secrets and and it's nice to see that extend to hospitality. It helps create a better industry."

Julian says people can look forward to seeing "Ballistic 2.0" in 2021 too.

"We're rejigging every aspect of the business," he says. 

This will include expansion of both capacity and their venues, with the plan being to "jump off our current growth curve and leap into a new one."

Their newest home, Ballistic Springfield, is the strongest performer of their hospitality side, bouncing back strongly after closing due to COVID.

"The community just wanted something a little bit different to what was on offer," Lachy says. "Everyone is so supportive; there's a lot of young families, people in my situation with young kids.

"I don't think there's anywhere [in Australia] that's not worth [opening a craft beer venue]. Most of our venues have 20 taps and we brew a wide range of styles so there's a beer for everyone.

"Craft beer doesn't have to be this double, upside-down, crazy whatever. I'm a brewer because I like going to the pub and having a pint; it doesn't have to be about shock value."


Beerfarm: George Scott

 

Royal Haze might have been the only Beerfarm beer to make the top 100, although their IPL, Asam Boi sour, and IPA all appear in the next 100. Their "Juicy Hazy IPA" didn't make the top ten either, landing at 18, yet this represented a rise of 243 places from 2019 and made it the highest-placed indie beer from WA (Feral's Biggies Juice came in at 12).

What's more, in a poll that has seemed to work against the states with smaller populations as it's grown in size – Tasmanian brewers haven't featured in the top 100 in years, while WA is down from a peak of 20 beers in 2016 to eight in 2020, and SA down from a peak of 12 in 2015 to just five, three of them from Coopers – seeing a beer like Royal Haze from a brewer based on farmland in the Margaret River region catches the eye. If Your Mates' performance with Larry can inspire fellow Queenslanders, then Beerfarm's might have a similar impact.

George Scott, "The General" at the colourful Metricup operation, says border closures preventing Western Australians from travelling ensured they spent more time exploring their own backyards, keeping the Margs region busy once they emerged from the lockdown into months of zero community transmission. And the pandemic's arrival also gave them a chance to review their business after five years of rapid growth.

"Although WA has been pumping, we've got staff in New South Wales and Victoria we had to try to manage in terms of support," he says. "We were proud with what we did. It paid dividends; we saw a positive response in Victoria and New South Wales seems to be coming up."

George hails from the South East of England, an area still suffering the ravages of COVID-19, and says eight members of his family in the UK have contracted the virus. As such, he says they feel "very privileged" to be in Australia.

"It's almost like it hasn't happened here," he says of WA, admitting: "We're still a bit nervous that it might come in."

Beerfarm took on Josh Quantrill from Capital Brewing as their head of sales based in Sydney, with their small but growing East Coast presence – 85 to 90 percent of their business is still in their home state – likely contributing to Royal Haze's top 20 showing.

"We really hope the weekend will help us grow in those markets," George says.

As for the beer itself, it's one of WA beer lovers' favourite hazy IPAs – which is saying something in a state with plenty of quality offerings in that space – and one George describes as a "labour of love".

"We really got behind it," he says. "All the team at Beerfarm – the marketing team, the technical team, the finance team – has had input in that beer. We did push it.

"We thought if we got top 50 with it, we'd be happy. Then when 50 went, and 30 and 20, you start thinking, 'Maybe we got 101.' Then it came in the top 20 and we were over the moon; it was way beyond our expectations.

"It's massive for us; four beers in the top 200, which is huge."

It follows a big 2020 in which they the took out the AHA's Best Boutique Brewery title as well as Favourite Brewery Venue in WA in the Beer Cartel survey, and managed to keep all staff employed throughout the pandemic. This year will see them expand their fermentation capacity, upgrade their packaging line, and install a centrifuge at the brewery too.

Within the wider WA scene, George says everyone he speaks to is enjoying strong home support. And as new breweries keep coming to the South West, including the imposing Shelter on Busselton's foreshore, he's very much of the opinion "the more, the better".

"Being from the south of England, I've never thought competition is a bad thing," he says. "It raises the awareness.

"WA is very parochial. The community is generally very good at supporting local. When people know a beer they're drinking isn't independent, they literally put it down."

Unlike Royal Haze, of course, which we imagine will have been raised in many a toast since Saturday.


You can find the rest of our GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers coverage here.

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