A few weeks ago I had the chance to interview GABS co-founder Steve Jeffares about the event for a story in the paper I work for. You can read that story here if you want.
But I had loads and loads of quotes left over from the interview and it seemed such a shame to have them go to waste.
So I wrote this thing too, about the early days of GABS – the successes and the risks – who goes and also what he thinks of the recent attacks on craft beer.
This year there are 120 beers being brewed for GABS – that’s 110 more than were expected for the first festival four years ago.
The event was dreamed up by The Local Taphouse co-owners Steve Jeffares and Guy Greenstone as a one-day event they’d hold at their Melbourne and Sydney bars.
And the GABS signature idea of getting brewers to make a beer for the first time? Well, that seems to have started as a bit of hopeful thinking in the guys’ part.
‘‘In the summer of 2011 we were thinking of a theme and we thought it would be kind of fun to ask some of our favourite brewers if they’d be interested in brewing a special beer and launch it at the event,’’ Jeffares says.
‘‘The initial plan was to get 10 brewers, thinking that would be a challenge, and then to fill up the other 10 taps at our venue we would pick our favourite Australian beers.
‘‘When we put the invitation out, all the brewers we invited snapped it up. So we went out to another 10 and they snapped it up as well.
‘‘We ran the event at both Melbourne and Sydney taphouses on the same day and it was a fantastic hit. It was a great fun day and we had queues for hours to get into both venues.’’
And so a little light bulb lit up over their heads. Jeffares says they’d been fishing around for a idea to base a bigger festival around and this spectapular thing was just too good to ignore.
Ultimately, they managed to get their hands on the lovely Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton with the aim of renting out a third of the building for one day and hoping for 300 people to turn up to the 2012 event. Then, in discussions with The Age about sponsorship (where they got waaaaaaay more than they expected) an idea was put to them.
‘‘It was at that meeting where they suggested ‘instead of one day why don’t you do it for two or three?’, Jeffares remembers.
‘‘We did the numbers and we felt that there wasn’t a huge difference between doing it for one day or three days. So we bit the bullet and rented out the entire exhibition building for a three-day event in 2012. We expected we’d get 6000 people and we got close to 11,000 in that first year.’’
They had 60 beers for that first ‘‘official’’ GABS. They also had a few teething problems; most infamously the queuing set-up which led to long lines at peak times.
Despite that, and even though they lost money on the 2012 event, Jeffares realised there was definitely something in the GABS concept.
‘‘People loved the idea of it, and with some tweaks and changes to the layout we felt it was something that would have legs,’’ he says.
‘‘That said, we’d lost a bomb on the first year and looked very seriously as to whether we had the fortitude and the courage to do it again.
‘‘I remember sitting down with my wife and Guy and his wife and having the conversation of were we prepared to risk everything and have another crack at it. There were very, very serious and frank conversations.’’
They decided to go round again, fixing the long lines for 2013 and also introducing exhibitor stands. The following year saw the layout tweaked again to improve the location of those exhibitor stands.
And more and more people came through the door and Jeffares says their research suggests most GABS-goers are far from your serious beer geek.
‘‘The vast majority of people who come to GABS are not hardcore beer fans,’’ he says.
‘‘Most people are coming because they’ve got a passing interest in beer and are there for a good time.’’
But they go away from the event having their horizons broadened about what beer is.
‘‘Our data suggests the average punter comes and has three or four paddles – that’s 20 different beers,’’ he says.
‘‘I would hazard a guess the majority of people would come away after tasting those 20 different beers with perhaps a new favourite beer or a new insight into other beer styles that they’re not commonly drinking.
‘‘So in the same way we’re encouraging brewers to push their own boundaries by brewing something new, we’re also encouraging the average beer drinker too.’’
When it comes to brewers pushing their boundaries, that has led to the expectation that GABS beers have to be weird and zany. Jeffares is keen to point out that’s not really the case.
‘‘Often I’m correcting people about the idea behind GABS festival beers – the idea that they’re weird and wonderful out-there beers,’’ he says.
‘‘A brewery tweeted about their beer and said ‘maybe it’s not out-there enough’ and I replied saying the only rule about GABS festival beers is it’s a beer you’ve never brewed before.
‘‘A bunch of brewers will brew something more traditional – sometimes with a twist – and there are some brewers who take the shackles off and brew something with creative ingredients or processes. It’s that mix of festival beers that I would never want to to lose.’’
He’s also noticed trends in the festival beers. For instance, he’s noticed the average ABV seems to be dropping year after year. Also, in the wake of La Sirene’s Praline and Bacchus’ Raspberry and White Chocolate Pilsner winning the people’s choice award in the last two years, he’s spotted an increase in the number of sweeter beers at the 2015 GABS.
Onto more broader beer issues, Jeffares reckons brewers, bar owners and bottle shop staff all need to get better at educating their customers about beer.
It’s a lesson the Local Taphouse learned a number of years ago when they had the Jamieson Beast IPA on tap. Perhaps because of the name, plenty of people bought a glass. Later that evening, Jeffares says staff discovered plenty of almost-full glasses of Beast left behind – because it was too strong for them.
‘‘They’d spent $6 or $7 on this beer and they’d wasted it [their money],’’ he says.
‘‘That’s not a good feeling for someone if you’ve just done that. You’re unlikely to take risks again if you’ve had that experience.’’
So now if the staff tend to offer a taste of a beer like Beast to customers, so they can see if they like it before handing over their money.
‘‘The industry needs to get better about educating people about beer,’’ he says.
‘‘When people turn up at venues or bottle shops or restaurants, a lot have such a wide choice that they don’t know what they are.
‘‘They find the choice overwhelming and when you’re overwhelmed and you don’t have helpful cues to how to choose a beer then it’s human nature I think to go for the safest route.
‘‘If we want people to try different beers and have a better beer experience we have to get much better at educating people.’’
Something else we all need to watch out for, according to Jeffares, is being snobby or elitist about beer. That’s just likely to turn people off the idea of trying craft beer.
It’s an issue that came to the fore after a rash of articles bashing craft beer and those who drank it. I’m not going to link to them, you know which articles I’m talking about. Jeffares read them and saw them for the clickbait they were. He also read the comments and saw some people who were passionate about beer.
But he also saw some people who poured scorn on those who chose to drink VB or Resch’s.
‘‘One of the biggest things we as an industry have to be very, very careful of is heading down the path of snobbery,’’ he says.
‘‘Most of my non-beer industry friends don’t drink craft regularly and I think it’s not a good move to judge people by what they drink. I think the last thing any of us want is to be judged in a social environment.
‘‘If we say some mainstream beers are rubbish beers then we’re judging people. I think there’s a bit of a backlash from people constantly being referred to as drinking pale yellow fizzy macro beers. I think people are defending themselves about that. If they want to drink those beers there’s nothing wrong with that.
‘‘What we can do in appropriate forums is encourage them to try other beers.’’