What happened to ‘craft’ beer festival-

In just a couple of minutes I’d be sitting at a bench, in the shadow of the 18-metre Ferris Wheel, chalking my selection on a fresh, clean beer paddle, listening to wandering house band, The Ale Capones.

Six years ago, when I first attended the Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular (GABS), there were 60 beers on offer and the crowd was made up almost entirely of middle-aged men. This year there were 146 festival beers brewed especially for the event, plus more than 200 being showcased by brewers in the Market Place stands scattered throughout the venue.

I spotted a healthy mix of young couples, Melbourne hipsters, families with children, possibly a hen’s party and, yes, middle-aged men like me.

The organisers make small changes every year in the hope of improving the event and appealing to a wider audience. This year saw the introduction of an electronic payment system — that was much-needed — and a new stage to house the expanded range of sideshow acts. The half-naked male entertainers in tight shorts didn’t add anything to my experience, but my wife seemed mesmerised for some reason.

Every year in the middle of May, when I excitedly tell people about my plans for the weekend, they ask “What’s GABS?” I tell them it’s a craft beer festival, but that’s not really true.

Another change I notice from year to year is the ever-increasing presence of large breweries stealing the limelight from the smaller independents. Cricketer’s Arms and Mountain Goat (Asahi), James Squires, Little Creatures and Malt Shovel (Lion) and Yak Ales (CUB) all make their presence felt.

But is that necessarily a bad thing?

“Mountain Goat is an open book and our ownership is not something we shy away from,” said marketing manager Zoe, referring to the takeover by Asahi in 2015.

“After the acquisition, it was business as usual. We’d hate for someone not to try our beers because of who owns us.

“Whether you consider us craft or not craft, for us it’s all about the beer. It’s no more complicated than that.”

And the beer really does speak for itself. Mountain Goat’s Blood Orange ‘Pulped Fiction’ IPA is one of the standout beers at the GABS Market Place this year. Despite being 7.8% alcohol, it is scarily drinkable, and in my opinion thoroughly deserved its gold for the fiercely contested Best IPA award at the 2017 Australian International Beer Awards.

But how are smaller breweries, producing truly craft beer but with small (if any) marketing budgets supposed to compete with the big investment that comes with corporate ownership?

Brisbane’s Green Beacon Brewing Co has been producing craft beer for four years and as I stood in front of their stand at GABS slurping on a deliciously fresh and fruity Windjammer IPA, the word ‘independent’ stared down at me from their branding.

Harrison, the brewery rep, explained that they will be spreading through to NSW, Victoria, WA and Tasmania over the next year, but I was intrigued as to why it had taken them so long to get out of the Sunshine State.

What happened to ‘craft’ beer festival-

“Everything just gets lapped up in Queensland, so it’s been hard to produce the quantity we need to get into the hands of people outside of the state,” Harrison says. “It’s tough because unlike others we don’t pasteurise our beer, so we need to refrigerate it while its being transported, which is expensive.

“Pasteurising adds shelf life and makes it more stable, but it compromises the taste, and we’re not willing to sacrifice that.

“Being independent, growth has been organic. We don’t have bottomless pockets. But every brewery here has a different strategy, and they all bring something to the table. At GABS, people see brands they recognise and that brings them in. When they’re here, they try other beers they haven’t tried before.

GABS Beer, Cider & Food Fest is in its new Sydney home, at Olympic Park, this Saturday 27 May.

If you’re overwhelmed by the choice, you can’t go wrong with a first beer paddle made up of the Little Ravens Mango Lassi IPA from 3 Ravens, Bone and Marrow Irish red ale from Aether Brewing, Citrus East Coast IPA from AIBA, Wheat Wine & A Three Day Growth from Athletic Club Brewery and Kiwi fruit Tart from Australian Brewery.

And whatever you do, find the Balter stand and sample their new IPA. It’s outstanding.

For more information visit www.gabsfestival.com.

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