What it's really like to spend a weekend at a craft beer festival

By Greg Bruce

The art of ale appreciation takes on new meaning for Greg Bruce at a Melbourne festival dedicated to the amber liquid.
Roving bands, like the Ale Capones, provide entertainment during the festival.
Roving bands, like the Ale Capones, provide entertainment during the festival.

Towards the end of the first Saturday session at Melbourne's GABS Beer, Cider and Food Festival, at about 4.30pm, I joined an enormous queue for the toilets, so long that a security guard had been assigned to look after it. It was a potentially testy situation: a bunch of guys, after four hours of beer drinking, forced to wait to fulfill their most basic and pressing needs, and an authoritarian official offering a potential target for displaced aggression.

As the queue inched forward, the urinals straight ahead, there was a flush from our left and a cubicle came free. But the guy at the front of the queue didn't just plunge in, according to his right; instead, he waited a second or two, turned back to the line of guys and said, thoughtfully, "Anybody need the shitter?"

It was such an unlikely gesture amid the grot and odour of a male public toilet at a major event that it was impossible not to feel affected by it, and to feel just generally good about life.

You might say, "Okay, but that was just one man and a single, chance event, that good people can and do appear at random and that this one toilet anecdote tells us nothing about GABS," but there's more to it than that.

GABS started five years ago in Melbourne and has become a behemoth, with a second incarnation starting in Sydney last year and a third starting in Auckland next Saturday. GABS is a terrible name, obviously, but before it became an acronym it was called the Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular, which is much worse.

The Melbourne event took place at the grand and elegant Royal Exhibition Building, a beautiful setting in which to place the two large, refrigerated shipping containers that were the event's central attraction, and which between them contained 120 beers that had been produced specifically and exclusively for GABS. Some 55 of these beers will make it to Auckland's ASB Showgrounds next week, along with 11 more that have been made exclusively for Auckland.

Most serious craft breweries from Australia and New Zealand produce such beers. The most ridiculous ones have been well-documented: one made with yeast cultivated from the brewers' belly button lint; another made with whale vomit. Beers came with names like "Jean-Claude Flan Slam", "Funky Pineapple Hand Grenade" and "Raspberry Ring Sting". They contained flavours of meringue, seaweed, chocolate, meat, coffee, that sort of thing.

Jos Ruffell from Wellington's Garage Project mixes a brew at their 'Freak Show' stand. Photo / GABS
Jos Ruffell from Wellington's Garage Project mixes a brew at their 'Freak Show' stand. Photo / GABS

It was fun, in other words, although it would be wrong to say the beers were always completely wackadoodle, sometimes they were just vaguely experimental twists on regular beer. Generally, though, they were relatively crazy. New Zealand brewery Garage Project had produced a beer it described as a "Persian-inspired Rose Pashmak Fairy Floss and Omani Ale", which appears to be a collection of unrelated words, randomly ordered.

The spiritual centre of GABS is the wooden paddle. You get one of these paddles, use chalk to write the numbers of five beers on it, then bar staff fill five tiny glasses from the refrigerated container and slot them into your paddle. The glasses contain 85ml each so if, for instance, you don't like the taste of pork broth or squid ink in your beer, nobody has to listen to you complain about it for long.

In Melbourne, the queues moved quickly, although both the Saturday sessions were sold-out, with about 4000 people at each. There was always a seat, usually at a table already heaving with people, but that was part of the attraction. Printed guidebooks with notes on all the beers were everywhere, so you always knew what you were drinking. Paddles and chalk were omnipresent.

Everything was so comfortable. Light flooded through the high windows and the suited brass band of hipsters drifted around the hall, loudly playing hits and bangers from the 70s, 80s and today, laying the emotional foundation of the whole event. Minutes after doors were opened, they were standing on a table to play Bohemian Rhapsody, surrounded by happy punters not yet drunk but still delightedly uninhibited.

Almost 500 beers and ciders are on tap at the event. Photo / GABS
Almost 500 beers and ciders are on tap at the event. Photo / GABS

Beer is often correlated with aggressive, hyper-masculine behaviour and bad dancing in the presence of people we find attractive, but it doesn't always have to be like that.

Giant games of Jenga were scattered around the hall. At one stage, I watched a boy of 6 or 7 take on and defeat a team of three full-grown hipsters. Spectators became emotionally invested, the vibe was happy and friendly, and the final crash of blocks and resulting high fives provided a heartwarming sense of community and shared purpose.

The first paddle I tried was made up of the following beers: Assault Trifle, Gingerbread Maniac, Lambshank Redemption, Pavlova-Lova and a beer from New Zealand brewery Deep Creek that tasted like a kiwifruit tequila, and evoked feelings of home so strong that on trying it, my friend Jeremy described it as "like the outgoing tide at Pt Chev".

Twenty years ago, 10 years ago, men would sneer at each other for drinking things like this, and for talking like that. Even today, you've got to be pretty confident of your audience before unleashing phrases like "full malt flavours and toasty or nutty accents and hints of dark stewed fruit", as the GABS official tasting guide does. But GABS was a safe space for the exploration of such thoughts and feelings.

Jeremy and I each had a second paddle. I can't remember exactly what was on mine. By the time that was gone, it was 2pm and I was starting to feel a little toasted. We went upstairs to the food section and I ordered a burnt ends sandwich from Meatmother. I didn't know what burnt ends were - and still don't - but they tasted great with a cone of fries, eaten in a light, mid-afternoon booze-fug.

An 18m Ferris wheel was constructed in Melbourne's Royal 
Exhibition Building for Gabs. Photo / GABS
An 18m Ferris wheel was constructed in Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building for Gabs. Photo / GABS

One of the guys sitting opposite us was trying to get the brass band to come over and play something for his friend's pretend birthday. "Happy birthday!" we said to him. "It's not my birthday!" he said, pretending to be embarrassed.

"It's his birthday!" the other guy kept yelling out, and eventually the band came over. They stood so close to us that the trumpeter could easily have spilled on me the beer he held in his non-trumpeting hand. "It's not my birthday!" the guy said, hopelessly. The band didn't care. They were already playing Sexual Healing.

There I sat, the full brass of Sexual Healing in my face, eating burnt ends and hot chips and drinking a dark beer that tasted precisely like a Cherry Ripe, the world's leading fruit-driven chocolate bar. This, I thought, is a well-done event.

Two or three years ago, not long after Jeremy and I first admitted to each other that we enjoyed craft beer and began to test out phrases like "malty backbone", we went to a beer festival called Beervana, in Wellington.

Midway through our third or fourth tasting paddle at GABS, Jeremy said to me: "What do you know now about beer that you didn't know before Beervana? Do you feel like you know a lot more?"

"No," I said.

"Neither!" he replied. "I know what I like and I like certain beers from certain breweries, but I don't feel like I know a lot more about beer."

Inside one of the refrigerated containers providing on-tap beer for the festival. Photo / GABS
Inside one of the refrigerated containers providing on-tap beer for the festival. Photo / GABS

This seemed a relevant and interesting point about the craft beer movement and about these types of events and the people that are attracted to them, so I started making notes. Seeing this, Jeremy said, "Nah, don't write that. It makes me sound like a dickhead."

Did it though? It is easy and attractive to see the craft beer world as a den of faux-intellectual pretension, but GABS seems to offer other values: fun, novelty, community. GABS co-founder Steve Jeffares told the West Australian newspaper this year that, "People who attend GABS aren't serious beer drinkers, they're just open to new experiences in general."

It was exciting, sitting there among the gathered thousands, everybody with their paddles of bright amber, honey-yellow, black, red, sour, sweet, chilli, savoury beers. It was beautiful.

At about 7.30pm, we went back to GABS for the night session, which in retrospect was probably a bit of an over-commitment. By the time we finally left for the night, about 10pm, we had each drunk around 30 different beers. The human body can only take so much novelty.

On our way out, I went to the same toilet I had been to at the end of the first session. I faced a queue of not dissimilar proportions.

As I got to the front, I peered over the low wall into the urinal area, trying to establish if there were any spaces. A man, in his late 20s or early 30s, roughly 2m tall and clearly having drunk some beer, made eye contact with me. As with any time you look into the eyes of someone doing a wee, it was awkward, but it was also potentially tense. He looked like he had probably done both a lot of weights and a reasonable amount of speed work.

But after eight or so hours at GABS, I wasn't too afraid and nor was I surprised when the guy gestured with his free hand at a free spot obscured from my view and said, in a loud but kindly voice that filled the small room: "There's one here, mate - a pisser."

- Canvas

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