- Venue – surely the world’s greatest beer hall. (The Royal Exhibition Hall) What foresight from the residents of 19th century Melbourne.
- The concept – original, festival beers from an enormous number of Australasian breweries.
- Paddles with five 85ml serves in plastic cups.
- Queues – taking the pragmatic step of only offering a subset (around 15) of all the beers on offer at any single bar made all the difference. A little patience was needed during the Saturday afternoon session, but nothing for anyone to get worked up about.
- 50% more festival beers. Up from 59 to 89, a sprinkling of them from outside Australasia.
- Caterers were inside at booths instead of being outside in their caravans.
- There was no VIP lounge.
- Brewery stands where a brewery could serve the rest of their "non-festival" range.
As I worked my way through in numerical order (which was effectively alphabetical order by brewery name) being pulled from one radical style to another, completely different style, a particular impression emerged. Now it’s important to allow for the fact that this was a festival of previously unreleased beers, which is an invitation to brewers to be adventurous (with the constraint that they might be left trying to sell the rest of whatever size of batch they made for GABS). So pretty much every beer contained one or more characteristics that were intended to set them apart from their brewery’s normal range, and ideally from everyone else’s range too. But just how experimental a brewery was prepared to get varied a lot.
Now by the time I had got through the 16 beers from the first bar, I’d had:
- an American Black Pale Ale
- an Imperial Black IPA
- a Dark Imperial IPA
- a Black 19th Century IPA
- an English IPA
- a Barrel Aged Amber Ale
- a Barrel Aged Belgian Black IPA
- a Barrel Aged Black Ale
- an Imperial Black IPA Aged on Rum Oak
- a Black Rye Witbier
- a Spiced Imperial Chocolate Stout
- a Belgian IPA
- a Shiraz Barrel Aged Farmhouse Ale
- a Black IPA
But this is a festival and 89 brewers were trying to do something original that was different from every other brewer’s original idea, without knowing in advance what everyone else's idea would be. It’s not strange that they clustered around a few related concepts. So congratulations to those who succeeded in doing something that left them right out on their own. In that category were:
- Birra Del Borgo’s Myrtle’s Bunga Bunga Party. A lemon myrtle infused British/Belgian pale ale that shone in the 85ml format, but by the end of a full glass might have outstayed its welcome. And what a great name.
- Bacchus’ White Chocolate Raspberry Pils. I gave it a low score but the flavour matched the description and it won the People’s Choice.
- Brewcult’s Acid Freak – Balsamic Baltic Porter. Rather than mess around souring their beer these guys simply added balsamic vinegar. Kind of worked.
- Young Henry’s Divine Manchu. They called it a “kombucha beer” – low alcohol, sweet/sour beer made with tea and fermented with a SCOBY – symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. I couldn’t finish 85mls of it but it had its defenders. Probably great for the colon though.
- True South’s Killer Python Kölsch – a Kölsch with Killer Pythons (the chewy sweets) added. Surprisingly pleasant but don’t ask me why I approved of this but not the White Chocolate Raspberry Pils.
Finally, aside from the grumbles about what constituted originality, there were some truly great beers. Arguably quality won the day, regardless of originality, but this list probably just reflects my own biases as much as anything else:
- 8 Wired Merge Like a Zip – Imperial Black IPA
- Blue Sky Golden Ale
- Feral Barrique o Karma
- Garage Project Death From Above
- Liberty C!tra Junior
- Sierra Nevada Return of the Red Eye IPA
- Summer Wine Brewery Warthog American Porter
- ParrotDog BloodyDingo Imperial Red IPA