Garage Project has always been prolific.
When I first met Pete Gillespie and Jos Ruffell, in 2011, they were about to kick off the 24-beers-in-24-weeks project that launched their reputation.
Now, despite being a big grown-up business with a loyal following and a core range, they are even more prolific. “This year we’re on track to release almost 60 new products on top of what we already do, so we produce a lot of beers,” says Jos.
“We don’t enter many awards. We basically only enter World Beer Cup, Brewers Guild to support the Guild, and New World. We’ve now got years of judging notes coming back and some them are ‘Excellent beer, wrong category’. I remember last year’s judges’ notes on Cabbages and Kings said the oyster flavour wasn’t strong enough. Or we get told an experimental beer isn’t experimental enough. But in that full spectrum we have some delicious beers that are true to style.”
And being true to style has always been Garage Project’s biggest challenge in beer competitions. Those curvaceous, handcrafted, rounded pegs don’t fit easily into the judging guide’s neat square holes.
Back in 2011 Pete Gillespie told me: “I don’t like to be limited by style guidelines. The only crime in brewing is being boring.” He’s stuck to that philosophy and has been happy to watch other breweries pick up Champion Brewer at the Brewers Guild Awards – until last Saturday, when Garage Project collected the Big BGONZA for the first time.
“So this year we sat down with a group of us and tried to get entries into the right category,” says Pete. “We brew a broad spectrum of beers and they run from the really quite unusual, to things that are far more simple like Beer beer. I like all the beers, the whole gambit of them. Yuzu Pernicious Weed won a gold and it’s kind of fun, it’s unusual, but it managed to find a home in the competition.”
It wasn’t alone. Garage Project entered 42 beers and came home with 26 medals – four Golds, nine Silvers, and 13 Bronze – all determined through blind judging with an expert panel. It won the Flavoured and Experimental Beer trophy for Cabbages and Kings imperial stout, as well as the Champion Brewer gong.
Pete points out that it takes a lot more than an edgy recipe with rare ingredients to win a medal.
“A recipe is no use at all if it’s not packaged well and if you’re not paying attention to quality at every step. We had a few glitches this year when we installed a centrifuge and it threw a few curve balls at us. But we throw a lot of energy into making sure the beer is of very high quality and packed with very little dissolved oxygen. Brewers go up on stage and get the pat on the back, but it’s the people who are packaging the product who deserve a huge high-five because it’s down to them. Recipe is part of it but it’s down to the whole team to make sure that recipe is delivered.”
Jos says it’s too soon to know how the win will affect Garage Project’s finely-honed reputation. “We’ve never put medals on our packaging and I don’t think we’ll start now. We’ve had SOBA Brewery of the Year three years in a row and that’s always felt very special. It feels like it’s really nice to have achieved Champion Brewer and it’s a club that we feel very privileged to be part of, but it’s not going to change any part of the way we do what we do.”
Pete agrees. “If [our beers] fit a style, great, but we won’t start brewing to win more awards. It does feel good to win this year, because there are a lot of good breweries. Every year there’s more competition. I genuinely feel very privileged to win, and it’s great for the whole team to have that recognition, but we won’t consciously try to brew things to fit competition styles.”
Garage Project won it’s first trophy at the Australian International Beer Awards in 2012. “We sent one beer at enormous expense to us at the time, and then we got the specialty beer trophy,” says Jos.
“The thing I took away from the Guild Awards this year was the number of small new breweries who came away doing well. That makes it exciting. We know what it feels like to get that recognition when you’re starting out.”
So keep an eye on Hamilton’s Bootleg Brewery. This year it entered its first competition, with a single beer, and came home with the highly-coveted Strong Pale Ale trophy. One beer, one trophy. If Bootleg follows Garage Project’s spectacular trajectory, it could be Champion Brewer in 2022…