The biggest and best beer festival in the country is the Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular (or GABS). This year it stretched its wings beyond Melbourne’s three day event, to Sydney for just the one day.
Being occupied elsewhere for the Melbourne event, I spent some more time on planes to check out GABS Sydney. As I’ve said before, I love beer festivals. I’ve been going to, and running, them for over 30 years.
And this was one of the best beer festivals I’ve ever been to. Almost everything was perfect.
GABS Sydney was held at the Exhibition Hall at the grandly named Australian Technology Park, otherwise known the old locomotive works at Redfern. Which meant it was easily accessible by frequent public transport. An absolute must for any beer festival.
The hall was also perfect. It was large with plenty of space to house all the bars, and for me, the more interesting brewery stalls. Being indoor also avoided any weather related issues and means easier temperature control.
The concrete floor also makes for far easier set up of bars and stalls, and for the inevitable cleaning up. As well as a sound surface for the odd random bout of dancing to the wandering minstrel players.
Smartly set out around a centre circle, it was easy to get around with the two containers serving the festival beers at either end of the hall, bookending the brewery stalls.
My only gripe was that the “food market” felt cramped and shoved in at the back This caused some considerable queues at the end of the first session. And also resulted in some significant smoke filling most of the hall from at least one of the stalls. It would’ve been better to put this area nearer one of the large exit doors to allow for some ventilation. There also weren’t enough food stalls. A wider range would’ve helped keep queues to a minimum.
Beer Range and Quality
GABS is well known for its weird and wacky range of beers produced just for the event. There were 118 of them.
This is great for those that want to head into a frenzy of OCD beer ticking. But, is it really the best way to showcase Australian craft beer that will be available in bars across the country?
I don’t think it is.
Most of the beers are brewed in such small quantities, and are only available at GABS and the odd outlet each year. And with most breweries seeking to outdo each other in their interpretation of new styles and ingredients, there were some beers that were just plain awful and undrinkable.
For craft beer to move beyond its present niche, there needs to be far more “normal” beers on offer for customers that are just discovering craft beer, and want to try a beer that they can then buy when entering a bar.
Which is why the stalls saved the event, and it’s where I spent most of my time. The breweries here were offering their standard ranges that can be bought across bars and bottleshops countrywide. As well as most having the brewer on hand to answer any questions. And this is where the best beers were to be found.
I like the festival beer concept, but there needs to be a limit and more balance with beers that are more easily available outside the event.
Ease of buying beer
The inclusion of a proper sized glass as part of the entrance fee is one of the best things about GABS. Although it was a shame that none of the branded GABS glasses actually made Sydney, with a mix of half pint Coopers glasses and Local Taphouse tulips being on offer.
These glasses mean you can actually have decent serves to taste the beer. Whilst the 85ml plastic cups that are part of the paddles mean you can tick off a huge number of beers, I really don’t see how they allow you to really taste the beer.
It would be useful if there were some water fountains around the venue, first to help rehydrate but also to allow for glasses to be rinsed. Residue from a dark heavy stout doesn’t really go with a light pale ale. It would also be somewhere to pour the remains of beers that are not quite to your taste.
With plenty of seating placed around the hall, GABS really got this right. The amount and layouts were perfect with more than enough for everyone.
The communal table layout makes for some great conversations, with people comparing their views on the tasting paddles. This interaction helps extend the knowledge of craft beer, as I saw many examples of those new to craft beer being helped with selection choices by those with a little more knowledge.
This was subtle, yet enough to engage those that wanted to be entertained. I was particularly impressed with the band of musicians that took some quite obscure requests and played them. Towards the end of each session they’d attracted quite a crowd of dancing merry people.
It was really great not to have to compete with over amplified music coming from a big stage. Something that all other festivals should follow.
Overall, a great festival with some room for improvement, including the addition of a second day in Sydney.
I’ll definitely be back next year. Maybe even go to both Melbourne and Sydney?