Auckland earned a big spot on New Zealand’s craft beer map last weekend, with the first Auckland GABS Beer, Cider and Food Fest, and the first Auckland Beer Week.
GABS is a big deal, and getting bigger every year. Now rated as one of the best beer festivals in the world, GABS began in Melbourne in 2011. It expanded into Sydney last year and Auckland this year.
There’s a proven format to GABS. One distinct element is the tasting paddles and a broad range of exclusive Festival Beers. The other is the roving entertainment, providing a fun way to bring strangers together and – without even noticing it – spend ten minutes not drinking beer.
Both of these elements were brought to Auckland in their full glory. The same serving systems, paddles, furniture were packed into containers and shipped to Auckland from Sydney. The containers may even have included the contortionists, at no extra cost.
The entertainers were also the same ones who performed in Australia this year, with gymnasts, a band and the ever-sassy Hula Girl bringing the full GABS experience. GABS isn’t just about beer and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
I have to give a shoutout to the GABS house band, the Ale Capones. They are obviously musically talented and work well together, slinging out snappy Second Line influenced versions of crowd pleasers. Their other skill is in working the crowd, keeping them wanting more and circulating through the room to spread the love (and non-beer attractions) through the session.
GABS' distinctive tasting paddles, serving stations, and Festival Beers are an important part of the experience. Festival Beers must be unique to GABS Fests, and so brewers get experimental and, sometimes, plain silly. But there’s plenty more on offer, and other beers and ciders available from exhibiting brewers, so it’s not a problem.
The first session, on Saturday afternoon, was the full GABS experience. The evening session suffered from smaller numbers, tighter security and the unnecessary distraction of some televised rugby thing. This broke the momentum of the event, punters left early, and, from my observations, very little beer was served in the last hour. I hope guests and exhibitors have a better second session next year.
A word on the licencing restrictions. Organiser Steve Jeffares told Beertown.NZ that the Auckland authorities placed stricter conditions on the event than did Sydney or Melbourne. Auckland restrictions included limits on serving stronger beers – no tasting glasses were to be served, and only two serves were allowed on a single tasting paddle. This complicated a system which has been simple, elegant and trouble-free in Australia. It also created frustration for guests, and for the staff left to repeatedly explain why serving sizes and prices printed in the programme did not apply at the bar.
I spoke to the sole police officer after the first session, and she reported it had been very quiet. Security and police had a stronger presence in the second session but I certainly didn’t witness anything that looked like trouble. There was a drink-drive checkpoint operating outside the venue and I sincerely hope this was standard Saturday night policing, rather than an opportunity to gain advantage over any future licencing applications.
There were two beer highlights for me. Emerson’s Mexican Chocolate Porter (8%), with layers of malty, then chocolate, then chilli flavours coming in succession, much like Ballast Point’s Victory at Sea. My number one was Kereru Brewing’s Black Ruby Imperial Stout (11.1%) – dense, lush, complex and doing an umami/balsamic/soy sauce thing I couldn’t quite figure out, despite trying several times.
And there was plenty of beer-related fun happening in Auckland outside GABS last week. Local SOBA volunteers pulled together Auckland Beer Week very quickly, using their connections and goodwill with local brewers, distributors and venues. There was plenty to do and out-of-town visitors had lots of opportunity to visit new pubs and meet other beer fans.
It was an excellent effort, and I’d bet a beer that next year it will be even better, with more time for planning and a closer relationship with GABS itself.
GABS and SOBA’s Auckland Beer Week created a unique event in Auckland’s calendar. It will certainly give Beervana a run for its money as New Zealand’s premier craft beer event. Definitely one to look out for next year.