It was a whirlwind that lasted three days. Acrobats, mountain bikes, blindfolds, and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Beer ice cream, barrel-aged cider and mango lassi IPA. Plans were abandoned and “must-try” beers were overlooked.
Started in 2011, GABS is a festival that invites brewers from around Australia and overseas to brew a beer to be launched at the event. The first was held at the Local Taphouses in St Kilda (Melbourne) and Darlinghurst (Sydney), and featured 20 Australian beers. The following year they held it in conjunction with Melbourne’s Good Beer Week and invited brewers from New Zealand, dubbing the event The Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular.
Since then, Local Taphouse founders Steve Jeffares and Guy Greenstone have become a little more ambitious. It’s been renamed GABS Beer, Cider and Food Festival, for starters, and they moved it out of their pub and into the Royal Exhibition Centre in the heart of Melbourne. Instead of 20 beers, 2017’s festival showcased more than 170 beer and ciders brewed specifically for the event. Meanwhile, there were 65 stands featuring breweries, cideries, and more and 16 food stalls selling everything from beer-washed cheese to dumplings to Brazilian street food. And of course, there was a ferris wheel, right in the middle of the whole operation. It started on a Friday afternoon and ended Sunday—five sessions, each running for five hours.
And if that wasn’t enough, when it finished in Melbourne, they packed it up and shipped it to Sydney for the following weekend. After that? They took it to Auckland, New Zealand. GBH only had the fortitude to make it through the Melbourne sessions (and a couple days of prep work before them), but we took solid notes. Below is how a big time beer festival goes down in Australia. Welcome to GABS.
I arrive as a gang of construction workers wait outside Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition building. The historical building was the site of Australia’s first parliament in 1901. It has World Heritage Listing with Unesco and very soon a ferris wheel is going to be reversed onto the heritage listed floors on the back of a semi-trailer.
“Can we go in yet?” one asks, and we’re given the OK.
There’s gear of all sorts. Forklifts and pallet-jacks, trolleys, audio equipment, and everything else needed to start prepping the site. Already I’m overwhelmed by the sudden activity.
The first major operation of the festival is installing the container bars: 40-foot-long refrigerated shipping containers equipped to pour 60 beers from each side. Installing them is a two-forklift operation. The forklifts nudge and push and pull. It’s the ultimate three-point turn that takes about 30 minutes from start to finish. There are three to go in.
I spy Jeffares, who looks relaxed. He’s wearing a baseball cap from the brewpub he and Greenstone co-founded in Melbourne last year. Staring quizzically at a couple of long packages that have been left by the doors, he decides they should be bought inside. He asks how my week has gone.
GABS is still very much a part of Good Beer Week, a 10-day celebration that takes over pubs, bars, and just about anywhere else vaguely related to beer in Melbourne. GABS and Good Beer Week have been entwined since they both began in 2011.
Along with event director Craig Williams, he unpacks the long parcels and realizes they’re missing some sponsor banners. A problem when dealing with overseas suppliers, Williams tells me. It's soon resolved by a phone call to get some printed up in time for Friday.
The beeping of equipment and the flurry of activity is relentless and consistent. I’m reminded of the movie Cube, when Holloway says, “You do one little job, you build a widget in Saskatoon, and the next thing you know it's two miles under the desert, the essential component of a death machine!” I was surrounded by people building widgets, but not death machines to speak of. In fact, there’s no drama in a hundred or so people going about their jobs. I head back outside where the ferris wheel looms, and overhear this:
“So, do the adults go inside and drink and leave their kids to play on the ferris wheel?”
“What? No, it’s going inside.”
“The ferris wheel’s going inside? No shit.”
As it starts raining, I spot the second captain of the GABS ship. In the past Greenstone has remarked that his main job is to reign in Jeffares’ grand ideas, so it won’t surprise you that the ferris wheel came from the mind of the latter. I ask Greenstone how it’s going.
“Just the usual amount of fuck ups,” he quips. He doesn’t elaborate, and from where I’m standing no one looks particularly stressed. I’ve been looking for drama, but so far it’s all just stuff going into a building.
The ferris wheel is in place and waiting to be assembled. Jeffares is telling me about the stages they designed to sit atop the shipping containers. Every year the festival features all sorts of entertainers from acrobats to The Ale Capones, a roving band who play instrumentals versions of rock ’n’ roll classics. The first year I remember thinking they were a bit cheesy, but now I couldn’t imagine the festival without them. Jeffares says the finale of each session will be the Ale Capones playing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The festival skeleton is taking shape—bars set up, kegs wheeled in, and breweries arriving to set up their individual stands. The beep of forklifts, pallet jacks and scissor lifts continues. Greenstone’s spirits are high. The ferris wheel is done and he’s looking forward to going to the Australian International Beer Awards for the first time. The annual awards, and the infamous after-party, is what sparked the idea for Good Beer Week and, in turn, what led to GABS.
I find the crew from Young Henrys Brewing, cordless screwdriver working overtime as they construct the backdrop for their stand. Before I say anything, one looks up and says, “Don’t ask.” People are looking tired and weary, but the beeping continues and the festival is more or less ready to go. Kegs have been slowly wheeled into the container bars, plastic tulip glasses stacked, and the ferris wheel is just waiting for riders.
Everything’s in the building. The final flurry of activity is done. Beer is ready to be poured. Customers are streaming in waiting to be served. All that needs to happen is for the opening bell to be rung. But first, “O Fortuna” is played over the loudspeakers. As the drums and strings rise through the building, I ask Steve about his stress level.
“Stress is fine. I was here ‘til 1 am, got up at five. I’m running on adrenalin.” He pauses for a second. “But I always am.”
He’s not lying. He deals with some issues, we make small talk for a minute, and then, mid-conversation he announces, “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to GABS 2017!” The crowd cheers. “The bars are open!”
One of the biggest problems with a festival as big as GABS is the sheer overwhelming nature of it all. In addition to the bars pouring the festival beers, the individual stands are all pouring any number of tap or bottled product. Roughly 600 beer and ciders on offer at any one time. The main concern is crowd flow. Festival beers are served from the container bars and are numbered 1-180, and the temptation for many drinkers is to start from number one and see how far they get. While you can drink full glasses of the festival beers, the idea is built around tasting paddles of 85ml (or about three ounces) plastic samplers. Some drinkers always try to get through them all, and some succeed.
As the day transpires, the drink of the day definitely isn’t beer. Kaiju Brewing are pouring their Golden Axe cider, but in slushy form topped with pop rocks or chili flakes. I ask a friend what she thinks. “It’s fun,” she says. “It’s not going to be the best drink I’ve ever had, but it’s fun.”
Meanwhile, there’s a couple next to me.
“I’m right into the funk without the sour,” one says. “Should we try the New Zealand sea urchin beer?”
There are plenty of weird and wonderful GABS beers that grab headlines around the world. The term “GABS beer” has been adopted into the Australian beer drinker’s lexicon. I ask 2017 Australian International Beer Awards Media Trophy winner, James Atkinson, what he thinks defines a “GABS beer” and he tells me that with so many beers on offer, brewers will try outlandish things to stand out.
“What we’ve seen over the last few years are the headline grabbing beers which has been things like belly button beer, or whale vomit beer,” he elaborates. “It’s those examples of brewers coming up with something ridiculous.”
Greenstone looks far too relaxed. In fact, he looks happy because he has his two daughters with him. He tells me this is exactly the kind of beer festival they want. Sure, people will get drunk and people will get rowdy, but to think at 9 pm at a beer festival you can come across one of the founders enjoying family time is an absolute surprise. I desperately need something to eat and find solace in a big bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese with ham hock—perfect festival food.
Jeffares announces on the microphone: “Ken Grossman is speaking now at the Craft Beer College. Ladies and gentlemen, this is one of the most exciting guests we’ve ever had at GABS.”
Today is a sold-out session. I ask Greenstone if I’ve missed any major disasters. “The only disaster is that I got 3 hours sleep!” He was consolidating and counting tickets. “O Fortuna” is finishing up. Jeffares looks over the balcony, wide-eyed, still full of adrenalin. “We created this,” he yells over the noise. “THIS IS NUTS!” The bell rings to signal the start of the day. The crowd cheers.
I’m buying a Biggie Juice from the Feral Brewing stand. Like the rest of the beer world, the hazy, juicy IPA is taking hold in Australia. Last year there were zero of them at the festival. This year, there are 11 listed as official GABS beers and even more around the brewery stands. Like everywhere else, many include “Juicy” in their name. Notorious B.I.G. references abound. Feral’s is an absolute winner.
I take a whisky and my NE IPA back to a table. A friend tells me about a cheese stand. Barleywine-washed rind is the highlight. They are serving them on a beer coaster. “You just walk around licking cheese off a coaster,” he says. “It’s great.” I make a mental date with that stand in my head. If I’m not licking cheese off a coaster before the weekend is out, then what am I even doing with my life?
My phone rings. “Luke, I’ve finally got a crisis for you,” Greenstone says.
I drop my tasting paddles and hustle through the crowds. I find him and learn they are running out of tasting cups. The little plastic cups are made specially for the festival and are the key to the whole event, perfect sampling cups that fit right into their custom-made paddles. Without them, the whole thing falls apart.
“This year we got 500,000 and all of a sudden they’ve all run out. So we’re freaking out and looking everywhere,” he tells me.
But it’s not an immediate crisis—it’s Auckland’s problem. “At one point, we thought we wouldn’t have enough for Sydney,” he says. “We’re getting a whole bunch of tasters delivered straight to Auckland. We’re going to get them airfreighted.” Crisis averted. Sigh.
The session ends with the Ale Capones playing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as promised. It is a raucous sing-along. “Beer is awesome, isn’t it?” someone observes nearby. Can’t argue with their logic.
Queues for the second Saturday session are long, but I find a moment of peace watching a small possum gorging itself on leftovers outside the venue. It’s my fourth day in and around the festival and I have to admit, I’m flagging a touch. Soon after entering I find Stu McKinlay, from the Yeastie Boys. It’s been a few years, and we greet with a hug. He’s been in the UK building his brand for the European market. Their tea leaf IPA, known as Gunnamatta, was the first-ever GABS People’s Choice winner. What does he think of this spectacle after some time off?
“It’s still the best beer festival in the world,” McKinlay raves. “You could come to GABS, not have a single beer and still have an amazing time.”
One of the more noticeable things at GABS this year was the increase of American brands. While they have been present in previous years, having Blue Moon right underneath the ferris wheel, across the way from the Goose Island stand, while Ken Grossman is roving the floor says a lot about what’s happening in the Australian market. Aside from the heavy-hitters from the USA, the bigger Australian brands are definitely paying more attention to the festival.
The ferris wheel is sponsored by Yenda, a beer jointly owned by Coca Cola Amatil and Casella Brothers (Yellowtail Wines). Major partners include Little Creatures (Kirin) and Cricketers Arms (Asahi). The whole festival is co-sponsored by Dan Murphy’s, a big box liquor chain in Australia. It would be unfair, however, to say that GABS is undergoing some kind of corporate takeover. When you walk the floor, each stand has just as much chance as the next at gaining attention. More money might mean a little more space, but from where I stand, that doesn’t always translate to more crowds.
I’ve eaten some fried chicken and something called a Japa-Dogg from the Mr Miyagi stand. I have not yet licked cheese from a coaster, but there’s still one more session left. I return to the Craft College room where brewer chats and panels are held to retrieve my camera, and that’s where I bump into the host Pete Mitcham. Best known as “Professor Pilsner,” he’s been part of the GABS team since the start. Up next were Bill Savage from Goose Island and Keith Vieille from Blue Moon. I decide to stick around. It’s a nice, quiet relief from the barrage of noise and beer on the floor. It’s a small-but-attentive crowd for 10pm on a Saturday night.
The last session on Sunday is dubbed Silly Hat Day at GABS, because…listen, don’t ask too many questions, OK? Just know there’s a parade of the silliest hats.
I wander off to chat with Kirrily Waldhorn, who hosts food and drink tastings. Like the Craft College, these are also a huge part of festivities. They include blindfold tastings, food demonstrations, and cheese pairings. Kirrily is known as “The Beer Diva,” and has also been with the team since the start. Her main problem this year has been having to taste GABS beers live for the first time. With so many untested beers on offer, using so many unusual ingredients or processes, it can be a bit of Russian roulette. Taking that gamble in front of a live audience with a smile on her face is always a challenge.
“I just talk about the food when it’s a bad one,” she tells me.
Now is the time for cheese on a beer coaster. I find a quiet corner by myself and drink a Saison, feeling spoiled that I’m fortunate enough to be part of such an event. Where you can sing and dance and play carnival games, or you can sit quietly with a gorgeous Saison and Barleywine-washed cheese. I lick the last gooey remnants off the coaster with no shame.
“What’s that shit in your hair? Is that a pop rock?” someone asks me.
OK, so maybe I’m guilty of having a second cider slushy. Needing food, I convince a friend to join me for a French dip-style pork sandwich from a food stall. Hunger satisfied, I head down to the finale of GABS: the silly hat parade. The Ale Capones play while people in all sorts of headwear walk and dance to be judged the winner. Jeffares and Greenstone look on, smiling and laughing much as anyone, both wearing their silly hats. The winner has a replica of the brewpub that the festival co-founders own on her head.
My friends want to ride the ferris wheel to finish off the festivities, and while they do, I have one last encounter with Jeffares. He’s trying to throw a sparkly top hat and land it on his son’s head. Drinkers walk around them with paddles of beer. The grins on their faces say it all.