The Melbourne and Sydney Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular, or GABS as it’s known, has really come of age. It’s still a beer festival, there’s certainly no escaping that fact, but the difference is that it is now also a memorable beer experience.
I was recently looking through some old cupboards and I came across several glasses I had collected from previous beer festivals. There was one from the Great British Beer Festival in London, two from Montreal’s Mondial de la Biere, and one from Melbourne’s own Beertopia, and I have to say that none of them were as memorable as GABS.
But what makes one beer festival better than another?
Everyone’s Beer Starts Out Equal
It’s often the case with these types of festivals that brewers will serve their tastings from their own stands, surrounded by their own promotional paraphernalia. What this often means is that the heavy hitters of the industry tend to attract the most attention, leaving the smaller breweries fighting to be heard. At GABS, while some brewers had stands you could visit; every beer tap was in one of two locations with no promotional material or favouritism to speak of. This may seem like a small thing, but it can really mean the difference between taking a chance and finding a new beer, and sticking with one you might have had before.
As we like to say, once in paddle form, reputations and scale go out the window and the the only thing to differentiate one beer from another is taste – which is what really matters at the end of the day.
The Queues Were Short & Efficient
Beer festivals work off timed sessions, so there is a finite period where as a seasoned drinker you can sample the beers on offer. This means it becomes imperative that the lines work efficiently, and so to do the staff. As anyone who has been to a music festival will know, efficient bar lines can really be the difference between a great experience and a lousy one. Thankfully, GABS did queues particularly well in two ways.
The first was to give patrons the opportunity to not only see the beer lists well ahead of time (they were in an extensive booklet available at pubs and bars across Melbourne and Sydney), but also to provide an app where patrons could prepare their tasting paddles. This combination meant that people could prepare in advance and minimise the number of queues that needed to be visited for a single paddle, and that the queues could be faster and more manageable.
The second was that the staff were well-picked and well-trained, meaning they were efficient and for the most part, accurate with what they served. They may not have known a lot about what they served, but as people were there to learn for themselves, they really didn’t need to.
There Was Something For Everyone, Even Non-Beer Drinkers
In some cases, a beer festival can be a like marathon, an endless stream of paddles and samples that slowly and surely whittle down even the most seasoned drinker to be nothing more than a blithering alcoholic. This is the case at a lot of beer festivals, and for the some of the craft beer only population, this can be perfect. However, there are always certain things that can make one beer festival stand out from another, and for me, that thing was to provide something other than beer.
Take the brass band for example, a group of jolly musicians wandering between the benches and playing popular songs to the masses, namely us. It may just seem like a distraction, but the band was something that really didn’t need to be there, but by being there, it helped to make the entire event something more than just a festival.
Adding to the community feel of the event was a ‘market area’ in the middle of the venue separating the taps at either end of the venue serving beers brewed specifically for GABS to the ‘beer nerds’ in attendance, where beer drinkers and non-beer drinkers alike could gather, chat, and even engage in a game of beer pong.
For the food, well full disclosure there, we didn’t eat at GABS, choosing instead to visit the excellent Belle’s Hot Chicken in nearby Fitzroy beforehand. However, from what we did see, there seemed to be ample food available at the festival for anyone who chose to line their stomachs as they went. The official app even contained beer matching options for a lot of the food that was on offer which was a unique and useful touch. Vendors this year included Uncle, Huxtaburger, Mr Claws, Meatmother, Milk the Cow, and B’Stilla just to name a few.
There were downsides of course, such as finding the token stands or finding the bathrooms. There was also the lingering fear that the beer you had chosen would, due to limited supply, have run out. But these are all relatively minor concerns and are easily overlooked when the event is considered on the whole.
In the end, GABS really does achieve everything that makes a beer festival great. It’s fun, it’s interesting, has a great atmosphere, and like us, sees that beer is far more than just beer, it’s an experience that should be shared with one’s friends, and we know we’ll be back for more next year.
Did you visit GABS in Melbourne or Sydney this year? What were your highlights? Let us know in the comments section below as we’d love to hear what you thought.