It’s here again. Voting has closed, and on Saturday, the 22nd of January, the results of the GABS Hottest 100 Craft Beers for 2021 will be announced. Here are some of my general predictions for the poll and some specific beers and breweries.
It hasn’t been the easiest introduction for the new custodians of the GABS Hottest 100 Craft Beers (H100) and GABS Festival. Just a few months after GABS changed hands in November 2019, the Australian beer industry plunged into two years of unenviable hardship and uncertainty.
But like the breweries themselves, the team at GABS are resolute. The 2021 H100 organisers have invested in a national advertising campaign and a new voting portal to record the selections of the nation’s beer lovers.
Almost 40,000 people voted in the 2020 H100, and organisers are hopeful of exceeding that number for the 2021 poll.
From a consumer perspective, not much seems to have changed in craft beer since 2020. The entry-level craft brands, hype breweries and top indie breweries feel the same.
We’ll see the influence of independence tested once again. The impact of Lion’s acquisition of Fermentum is sure something many will be watching with interest.
Last year 41 breweries were represented in the H100. A decrease of 4 since 2019. The peak for the poll was 55 in 2015. The last time the poll featured less than 40 breweries was 2010, way back when Vale Brewing topped the poll with Vale Ale. I think we can expect further consolidation this year.
In the battle of the states and territories, Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales are likely to remain dominant. Canberra’s two powerhouses will keep the ACT in the middle of the field and South Australia and Western Australia will fight it out at the bottom. I doubt we’ll see any beers from the Northern Territory, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that Tasmania will make a return.
In 2020 QLD breweries had the most beers in the poll (27) but were only slightly ahead of Victoria(25) and New South Wales (23). In 2019 it was not so close (QLD: 29, NSW: 26, VIC: 18). The trend suggests shuffles of the state’s positions are possible in this year’s poll, although it will be largely dependent on which smaller breweries are edged out of the results.
Hazy pale ale will be a style to watch. Only two were featured in the 2020 results (Hawaiian Haze: 6, Lost In The Fog: 59). But it’s a well-established style now, and most popular breweries have at least one. Some are even core range. The more approachable, sessionable style has the potential to eclipse the NEIPA style that it evolved from in years to come.
At the top end of the poll, any changes are likely to be small. A few shuffles up or down one or two places, but nothing radical. I’ll go out on a limb and say no debut beers will enter the top ten this year.
There will also be relatively little movement as we go down from 11 to 40, but surprises will still happen lower in the rankings. It’s almost a shame these go by so quickly, leaving little time to ponder before the next batch. However, altering the format to anything else would probably become tedious.
So without further ado, here are a few beers, breweries and a couple of extra items I think will be worth watching in the GABS Hottest 100 Craft Beers of 2021 countdown.
Ok. Let’s get this one out of the way.
It’s difficult to predict the impact of Fermentum’s acquisition by Lion.
The ‘buy-out effect’ is different for each brewery. I’ve spoken before about the almost invisible impact on Balter, the decline of Pirate Life and the virtual erasure of Green Beacon from the H100. From Four Pines, Feral, Mountain Goat and Little Creatures all felt the effects of their sale through their H100 rankings to some degree.
But the fall from grace is not necessarily absolute. Little Creatures Pale Ale has never dipped below 70, and 4 Pines Pale ale hasn’t dropped below 40. Hop Hog (95) may be on the precipice, but Feral found new favour through Biggie Juice (12). Even Mountain Goat are still in the H100 with GOAT(60).
Aside from their initial post-by-out slide, perhaps the reason for the decline of these beers was simply due to being out of fashion and having nothing to do with independence.
As the Australian Craft beer market grows beyond a niche, the proportion of Inde advocates shrinks. The same can be said of the H100 poll. Dilution of votes from pro-indie consumers is a likely side effect of growth.
Another consideration is the ubiquity of ‘Pacific Ale’ as a style. Little Creatures and Coopers have one in their core range and Tinnies. There’s even a zero-alcohol NORT Pacific Ale.
Even if they don’t use the name, many Australian breweries now have a tropical, Galaxy-hopped, cloudy wheat beer in their lineup.
Four Pines Pacific Ale debuted at 24 in 2019 and rose to 20 the following year. To see one or more additional Pacific Ales in the 2021 H100 wouldn’t be a surprise.
Stone & Wood Pacific Ale will always be the original, but it’s no longer unique. Its legacy will live on, but the story is unlikely to be fueled with as much gusto as it once was by ardent indie supporters.
Independence was a significant part of the Stone & Wood story. For many, it was integral to their connection with the brand. The sting of their departure from the indie camp may have the potential to impact their results more than other, more recently acquired breweries. The question is whether other factors will offset it.
I think Pacific Ale will drop out of the top three for the first time in 11 years. 12 if you count when it debuted as Draught Ale in 2009. But it will remain in the top ten – for years to come, I’d wager.
It’s been over two years since Balter’s sale to CUB, and it’s pretty challenging to make the case that it’s taken much wind from their sails.
The brewery may not have the presence it once had in the upper reaches of the poll, but it still has a healthy number spread throughout (2020: 5, 2018: 8, 2018: 6, 2017: 5, 2016: 2). In 2020 XPA(3), Hazy(7), IPA() and Captain Sensible(24) were all above 30.
The brewery’s modest H100 campaign showcases 12 beers. With solid releases like Eazy Hazy and the pairs of Cryos and Wonderlands adding to their already strong lineup, they’re a chance to reach their old record(8).
G.O.A.T. and Hawaiian Haze
Queensland was a little late to the craft beer revolution. From 2008 to 2016, the rolling average for the state was five beers. In 2017, the same year Black Hops first polled in the H100, QLD polled 15 beers. The rolling average from that year to 2020 was up to 23.
G.O.A.T. and Hawaiian Haze burst into the top ten of the 2020 H100 at five and six, respectively. It’s not the only factor in their success, but being ranged nationally in BWS and featured in the retailer’s Local Luvva campaign was a coup for both beers.
The breweries behind them continued their growth in 2021, with Black Hops beginning a $3M upgrade to its production brewery and Ballistic acquiring two more breweries. But I think Black Hops has an edge that Ballistic doesn’t.
Whether it’s the influence of partner Mighty Craft is difficult to say, but Ballistic’s promotion and advertising, while still undoubtedly effective, consists of tried and true methods for the industry. It’s a polished brand with a lot of well-invested time and money.
The campaign for Hawaiian Haze in 2020 was well-publicised. But there doesn’t appear to have been a similar investment for the summer of 2021. Perhaps it was enough to get the brand where they wanted it and little more can be gained from a similar splurge. Nonetheless, it feels like they’ve taken their foot off the gas.
Black Hops, on the other hand, still has the pedal to the floor. They’ve been ranked in Business News Australia’s Top 100 Young Entrepreneurs list and “In 2021 we were named #24 in the AFR Fast 100, growing revenues to just under $16m in 2021,” according to the page for the equity crowdfunding campaign they launched – this week.
Black Hops feels like a tech startup rather than a brewery. They leverage digital marketing better than almost any other brewery in the country, delving into emerging tech like NFTs and using fledgling platforms like Discord to build their community.
And the founders are at the coalface, making for a strong, organic connection with their customers.
Yesterday on Linkedin, Co-Founder Dan Norris shared news of the EQF. When one commenter asked what type of investors they’d like to attract, he replied with this.
“We aren’t looking for strategic investors, especially for this round. We want people who love our business and that’s it.”
Ballistic’s Hawaiian Haze will drop one or two places. An influx of other hazy pales and the spread of votes for other beers in the brewery’s now extensive portfolio will hurt it.
But I’m tipping dual AIBA gold medalist G.O.A.T. for a top-three place this year. Could it topple Crankshaft from the top spot?
Yes, it could.
I’d love to see Larry (2018: 13, 2019: 5, 2020: 4) make the top three. It would mean more to the team at Your Mates than any other brewery.
Theirs is an endearing story of belief in what they do and proof of community strength. All despite a swathe of vocal cynics too.
I’d say the performance of Pacific Ale will be a deciding factor in whether Larry can rise further, but I think Black Hops G.O.A.T. will seize on any decline there.
I’ll be very happy if I’m wrong, but I don’t see it happening. Not this year, anyway.
Larry will hold its number four spot.
Beechworth Pale Ale has never missed out on a place in the H100 and has bounced around the top 20 since 2013 (11,9,15,13,9,5,6,8). It’s featured in the H100 more times than any other beer, including Stone & Wood Pacific Ale.
It’s been one of the top three Victorian beers for the last seven years and number one for four (2020, 2019, 2018, 2016).
Last year I predicted a continued decline. This year it will bounce back one, maybe two, places. As the strongest performing brewery in the history of the poll that’s still independent, it will fill some of the void left by Stone & Wood.
CBCo feels like something of a quiet achiever in the craft beer space these days. But everyone from hardened beer nerds to supermarket craft shoppers recognises the conservative yet smart branding and groovy lids(assuming they still do them?).
The brewery’s marketing strategy aims at the nexus between beer and sport. Despite losing a sponsorship deal in 2021 with AFL football club Essendon, they signed deals with Perth Wildcats and Cricket Victoria.
In my recent Who Owns My Beer story, where I analysed the craft beer fridge at my local BWS, I noted that Colonial was the only independent craft brewery to have more beers on the shelf than it did the year before.
The peak of CBCo’s success in the H100 so far is 29 (2019: Pale Ale) and the brewery has consistently had between two and three beers in the poll since 2015.
South West Sour was the highest-ranked sour ale in the H100 in 2019 (38) and 2020 (61) and has been the brewery’s second-best performer behind their pale ale for the last three years.
The most recent to hit the shelves, packaged in a shiny gold can, is their new XPA.
XPAs have increased steadily from just one in 2014 to eight in 2020 (1,1,1,2,3,5,8). The trend suggests we will see even more this year.
CBCo XPA will be one of them. I expect it to enter the H100 between 50 and 30. I’m not sure it can outperform the brewery’s workhorse pale ale yet.
Capital Brewing XPA
While we’re on the subject of XPAs…
Capital Brewing is another high achiever in the H100 but has never cracked the top ten.
In 2018 they polled six beers and had the most number of beers alongside Balter. In 2019 they were even with fellow Canberra brewery Bentspoke with six beers apiece, but were second to Balter’s eight. In 2020 they had seven beers in the poll and shared the honour of most beers again, this time with Black Hops.
In 2020 Capital XPA debuted at 13. Its chance at a top ten place is as much about the strength of support for the beers above it, as it is the support the brewery can muster. Some poor fortunes among last year’s top ten could see Capital XPA breakthrough.
10 or 9, I think.
This brings us neatly to one of the up-and-comers of Australian craft beer, Mountain Culture.
The brewery’s collab with Capital Brewing, a West Coast NEIPA, is a good chance at a place in the H100.
Capital’s omnipresence in the poll, coupled with Mountain Culture’s reputation for high-quality, attention-grabbing limited releases, is sure to earn the beer a lot of love. Being ranged nationally in Dan’s doesn’t hurt, either.
I’ll also mention Mountain Culture’s Status Quo NEPA. With a rating of 3.96 at the time of writing, it’s the highest-rated pale ale in Australia on Untappd. Of all the beers I’ve had from the brewery, it’s the one that impressed me the most.
Keep a lookout for Be Kind Rewind, a hype beer if ever there was one. Once the highest-rated Australian beer on Untappd, it also managed to take 5th place in the top NEIPAs worldwide.
The collab with Capital stands a good chance of a place above 40. Anything above 20 might be optimistic, though.
For the other two, they’ll be relying purely on the strength of the beers alone. There seems to be nothing in the way of campaigning for the H100 from Mountain Culture. I’m still tipping them for a place between 100 and 80.
Zytho, Colossal Brewing and Golden Pipes
Supermarket brands, contract beers, faux craft or phantom labels, whatever you choose to call them, they’re growing. Endeavour Group, the parent company of Dan Murphy’s and BWS, is putting more privately contracted beers in these stores under the Pinnacle Drinks label. Coles also seems to have struck a chord with its house brand, Tinnies.
Contracted brands are nothing new. But unlike beers made by subsidiaries of CUB and Lion, no brand contracted for a retail bottle shop or supermarket has ever featured in the H100.
Apathy for indie and some elusive origins in the products could see one or more of these beers in the H100.
Zytho Tropical Haze and Colossal Brewing Hopmosphere might turn up between 100 and 70.
Setting aside personal bias when it comes to predictions is always challenging.
Like anyone, I like to back the underdog. My motivations for liking this one are twofold.
Tasmania has been underrepresented in more recent H100 results. For a state with such a high concentration of breweries, it puzzled me at first.
But like many small breweries across the country, there’s a feeling of futility in competing against the more prominent players in the H100. I sympathise with this reasoning.
The team at Spotty Dog have put a lot of consideration into everything they do. Whether it’s the beer, branding or merch, nothing is an afterthought.
I also respect someone who consciously decides not to actively leverage their increasingly popular podcast to promote their beer. It’s an interesting contrast to another, much bigger brewery whose investors have been known to use their profiles to promote it.
Spotty Dog has thrown caution to the wind this time. I’m reminded of a quote from the maligned third film in the Aliens franchise. “Fuck it! Let’s go for it.” says prisoner Morse. Indeed!
The numbers and past trends don’t support it, but if they can rally their community, Spotty Dog can get Tassie back in the H100.
Mosaic for a place between 100 and 80.
In perhaps one of the sharpest declines post-buyout, Pirate Life went from having three top 10 beers in 2016 (IIPA:2, IPA:5, Pale Ale: 7) to one in the top 10 in 2017 (Mosaic: 6) and then nothing above 20 in 2018. They didn’t rank one beer in the hottest 100 in 2019.
But Pirate life has done its time in the sin bin. They’ve been quietly growing their range and putting out new and limited releases in mainstream bottle shops.
The Pirate Life of today feels different to what it was. The core range is less prominent, and it’s the newer beers featured in bottleshops.
Perhaps I’ve forgotten how young the brewery was when CUB bought it. This foray outside the beers that brought them to prominence may have been the trajectory all along. I wonder what things may have looked like in the H100 had the brewery not been sold.
It will be modest, but I expect Pirate Life to return in 2021 and poll at least three beers between 100 and 50.
Last year I highlighted Stone & Wood East Coast for future glory. I was wrong. It seems to have disappeared from the marketplace as quickly as it arrived.
I don’t think it’s the end of the low and zero-alc category, though.
Say what you will about the validity of stories heralding zero-alcohol products as the next big thing; there’s little denying several breweries are finding success in their ‘boozeless’ offerings.
Last year I found Modus Operandi’s early zero-alc craft brand NORT at 262 in the Aus Next List for the H100. Since then, the NORT brand has expanded to include two more flavours. Bridge Road Brewers even claim that Free Time is now the brewery’s second most popular beer.
But the one to watch is Heaps Normal. Available nationally, it’s frequently mentioned during discussions of “what’s the best zero alc beer?”
The team at Heaps Normal has teamed up with Hawkes Brewing in a joint campaign for the H100 in a move that’s even gained attention outside the craft beer bubble.
It’s a wildcard, perhaps. But a chance between 100 and 90.
“A revolution gets its name by always coming back around in your face.” – Under Siege(1992)
Craft beer was a rebellion against the mainstream beers that dominated taps and refrigerator shelves. With it came a disdain for anything remotely related to lager.
The average number of lager-style beers in the H100 is 6.6. The last two polls have been above that (2019: 9, 2020: 11), but the numbers still aren’t encouraging for lagers.
But Hop Nation’s Rattenhund is somewhat different to the lagers we’ve seen in more recent H100 polls. Made with the best ingredients and largered for eight weeks, it won the AIBA Best Pilsner Trophy in 2021. The first batch came out with little fanfare. The second batch sold out in less than 24 hours.
It’s been called a ‘hype pilsner’ in some circles. Not unreasonable, given it’s attracted the kind of attention usually reserved for juice bombs and dank DIPAs.
It’s been my favourite beer this year. It’s almost guaranteed I’ll buy some whenever I see it, just in case it’s gone forever.
I’m hoping this greyhound can take place between 70 and 50. I’ve heard it will be a regular fixture if it does.
See you this weekend
And that’s my take for the 2021 H100.
I do my best to back my predictions with some rationale. But really, though, with so many factors that come into play, there are many that I’ve probably missed. Some are elusive, and others are probably staring me right in the face.
It all starts with good beer. Good beer that people like to drink. Marketing, distribution, social media, etc, are the factors that simply put the beers over the line.
I’ve yet to see a beer poll in the H100 that’s objectively bad. But I’m sure every beer has at least one person, sometimes many, that thinks it shouldn’t be there for their own reasons.
Have fun! Don’t take things too seriously. And please, keep the social media commentary civil and reasoned.