Since its humble beginnings in 2011 at St Kilda’s Local Taphouse, the GABS beer festival has provided a stage for brewers to experiment and produce beer unshackled from the usual commercial constraints. Everything about the festival is a bit over the top, from Silly Hat Sundays to the giant ferris wheel in the middle of the hall – it’s made for pushing the limits.
Co-founder Steve Jeffares says that as a “platform for something left of centre”, GABS lets brewers be “absolutely free to do whatever they want”.
“They don’t have to be weird and wacky,” he adds, though brewers do have a tendency to get playful. Beers are embargoed until a bell rings to signal the start of the festival, so even Jeffares doesn’t get the chance to try them beforehand. Expect the unexpected and prepare your tastebuds for 10 beers unlike any you’ve tasted before.
Moon Dog Craft Brewery – Cherry Pie a la Mode (8.2%)
Melbourne’s Moon Dog has been brewing outlandish ales for GABS since its inaugural year, when the Abbotsford brewer served up a cucumber beer garnished with cucumber spears. Their shockingly red dessert-style beer for 2018 captures the essence of its pie-and-ice-cream inspiration. We may never know the secret technique used to extract vanilla ice-cream flavour but that’s part of the fun of these beers.
Blackman’s Brewery – Escargose (4.5%)
“Brewers can’t get enough of puns”, says Jeffares. “They’ll often start with the [beer] name first.” Torquay’s Blackman’s Brewery has clearly gone the pun-first path with this French-cuisine-meets-German-sour snail ale. This gose-style ale (gose is a recently revived beer style from Germany) is dry hopped and infused with Great Ocean Road snails, parsley, thyme and pine nuts, and is as bizarre as they come.
Dainton Brewery – Skittlebrau (7%)
Not for the first time, The Simpsons has predicted the future. In 1997, Homer Simpson imagined a beer made with Skittles called Skittlebrau, which didn’t exist, and left us to ponder the bizarre flavour combination that might have been. Enter Carrum Downs’s Dainton Brewery, with this New England IPA (NEIPA). Jeffares predicts that the NEIPA style will be one of “this year’s big trend”, and Dainton’s provides the fruity, juicy base into which a whole lot of Skittles and cherries have been added.
Coconspirators Brewing Company – The Belgian Breakfast (9%)
The first GABS sessions of the day begins at 11.30 am, but if drinking in the morning isn’t your natural go-to, make Melbourne’s Coconspirators your first stop. The brewery’s special Belgian quadrupel is a flavoursome beast –, rich and brimming with dried fruit and nut flavours, with the taste of waffles topped with golden syrup and figs added to the mix.
Foreigner Brewing Co. – Durian Durian (4.2%)
The Durian: a Southeast-Asian fruit with an aroma so noxious that it’s presence recently caused an RMIT campus evacuation. But don’t be put off by the hype around this unfairly maligned and much misunderstood fruit. While the ingredient may hardly seem fitting for a beer, Brunswick’s Foreigner Brewing knows that behind its wretch-inducing bouquet, durian’s subtly sweet and savoury flavour is a perfect match for the dry spiciness of saison.
Feral Brewing Co. – Shooter McGavin’s Breakfast IPA (7%)
Again with the breakfast and again with the NEIPA. Feral Brewing is a GABS mainstay but this might be the Perth brewery’s most inventive effort yet. Combining Weet-Bix, Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, All Bran, Nutri-Grain, and Cornflakes with the breakfast juice flavours of the NEIPA, this is a kaleidoscopic beer that brings the best part of being a kid (cereal) with the best part of being an adult (beer). Let your inner child loose, and don’t forget to quote your favourite Happy Gilmore lines when toasting Shooter McGavin.
Shifty Lizard Brewing – Lizard’s Dinner (4.5%)
Jeffares admits the only direction that GABS gives to brewers is to “brew a beer they’ve never brewed before”. Safe to say, this is a beer that neither Shifty Lizard, nor any other warm-blooded brewer on Earth has ever made. The Willunga, South Australia, brewing team has stuck as close to its namesake as possible, infusing its bitter ale with ground crickets. Cricket powder tends to impart a subtle nutty flavour, which actually is similar in flavour profile to an ordinary bitter. Plus, cricket and beer has always been a winning combination..
Colonial Brewing Co. – Violent Rumble (8%)
Port Melbourne’s Colonial Brewing’s core range is focused on drinkability and simple, clean flavours. The brewer’s GABS efforts, though, are what Jeffares describes as, “all about having fun … free from the constraints of the commercial”. Colonial has added the Violet Crumble byproduct and show-bag staple Bertie Beetle chocolate to its ale. With extra chocolate, honey and rum added to the brew, expect a rich, thick beer designed for sipping.
Bridge Road Brewers – Racer ‘Red Bull IPA’ (6%)
Half a pallet of Thai Red Bull has gone into this IPA from Beechworth’s Bridge Road Brewers. Half a pallet. That’s a lot of wings. It combines the intensely sweet flavour of Red Bull with the bitterness of an IPA. For those looking for a pick-me-up but who (rightly) fear straying from the snaking festival beer lines to get a coffee, this is your solution.
Little Bang Brewing Co – Sasquoctopus (20.2%)
There’s always one. Last year it was Moon Dog with its The Jimmy Laureys double-mash ale coming in at 22 per cent. This year it’s Adelaide’s Little Bang Brewing Co that has taken up the challenge to brew a beer of monstrous strength. Little Bang has taken its already very strong barleywine Galactopus (10.1%) and freeze-distilled it. Essentially, this means the original beer is partially frozen and the water removed, a technique developed in Germany for eisbocks. It will be rich, with a highly-concentrated malty ale flavour at the front. A sipper, to be sure.
James Squire – The Wreck Preservation Ale (6%)
A shipwrecked brew made from the yeast of one of the oldest-surviving beers in the world finally reaches its destination. After 220 years, you can taste it at GABS. James Squire has joined forces with Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery (QVMAG) to take yeast discovered in a shipwreck off Tasmania's coast to create this malty, spicy porter. David Thurrowgood, a chemist-turned-conservator at QVMAG, says the yeast strain used predates any known commercial strain and is “quite different” to anything else on record. This is a story for the ages - read all about it here.
The Great Australian Beer Spectapular (GABS) is at the Royal Exhibition Building May 18–20, 2018. Tickets here.