Australia's biggest and best beer and cider festival gets underway today, with some outrageous beers to excite the punters.
GABS (otherwise known as the Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular) began at The Local Taphouse in Melbourne in 2011, built around the idea of inviting the best breweries around the country to brew a new beer, all to be released on the same day at the same event.
That year, 22 breweries took part. This year, close to 170 unique beers and ciders have been brewed especially for the event by breweries and cideries from Australia, New Zealand and around the world.
Thankfully, there is nothing quite as ridiculous as 2016's infamous 'Bellybutton Beer', but there are still beers on show featuring all manner of strange ingredients.
New brews at the bar
This year's front page grabber is 'Escargose' from Blackman's Brewery in Torquay. It's a gose (a lightly tart German wheat ale) with additions of Great Ocean Road snails, parsley, thyme and pine nuts.
Melbourne brewery Dainton has put forward Skittlebrau, which combines the sweet juiciness of a New England IPA with actual Skittles and a big whack of cherries.
Tasmania's Ocho Beer has brewed 'Eucalyptus', a smoked beer featuring Tasmanian Blue Gum leaves, gumnuts, and pure essential oil.
"Ours is a mishmash of a few beer styles, notably Sahti, which uses juniper branches (and sometimes berries) and bakers' yeast," says Ocho's Stu Grant.
And Canberra's Pact Beer Co has contributed 'Nomihodai', a lager with sourness from lactobacillus bacteria and some unconventional ingredients.
"We're using Victorian grown organic black rice to give that quintessential rice lager crispness with a hint of creaminess, and to introduce a discombobulating colour that defies the dry light salty sourness below," says Pact's Kevin Hingston.
"We're also using Tasmanian farmed seaweed to bring a touch of salt and a ton of umami."
The only rules
But as festival organiser Steve Jeffares is at pains to stress, not all of the festival beers need a gimmick. As in previous years, some may even go on to become permanent fixtures in the brewer's range.
"The only rule for festival beers is just that you have never brewed it before. There is pretty good balance on the list, there are certainly some beers which go creative to the extreme, but there's also some really interesting beers that I think can lead to some longevity after the hype of GABS dies down," he says.
With so many brewers pushing the boundaries, there have been some late scratchings from the festival beer lineup.
Jeffares says this speaks to the maturity of the event, and Australia's craft beer scene generally.
"In the old days, seven years ago, if a beer was not up to snuff they probably let it go through because GABS was much smaller then," he says.
"Now I think that if a beer isn't good enough, I kind of like the fact that the brewers have enough respect for our event as well as their own brand that they'll pull it."
Tasting something different
While the GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers continues to be dominated by hoppy beers, Jeffares says beer drinkers are clearly not as discriminating when they attend the festival itself.
"One of the big drawcards with GABS is, because you've got those tasting paddles, you can try anything and take lots of risks," he says.
"I'm sure there'll be beers that you don't like or even dislike greatly but there will be beers that surprise you in wonderful ways as well.
"That's the thing I love and I'm most proud of is that we've created an environment where people can feel very comfortable and enjoy the process of just stepping outside their regular boundaries."
A spirited introduction
This year is also noteworthy for the introduction of spirits. Two of Victoria's best distillers – Starward and Four Pillars – will be serving up barrel-aged whisky, gin and cocktails in Melbourne; while in Sydney and Auckland, Irish distiller Jameson will be highlighting its Caskmates program, where whisky is aged in beer-seasoned barrels.
Now with spirits and the festival already having expanded to feature cider alongside beer, will it eventually add wine and become an all-encompassing celebration of drinks generally?
"No," Jeffares says firmly. "The beer will always be the hero. It's always going to be a beer festival but it's important that we innovate a little bit every year to keep it interesting to ourselves as much as punters."
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