GABS Hottest 100 Craft Beers of 2020 – Divide and conquer

Consolidation by top breweries could see one of the toughest GABS Hottest 100 Craft Beer competitions ever.

by | Jan 23, 2021

It’s widely believed that the GABS Hottest 100 Craft Beers (H100) has played a key role in exposing craft beer to a wider audience and growing the craft beer market in Australia. The poll provides a snapshot of craft beer each year and a guide to where it might be going.

As the poll has grown, so too have the benefits for the breweries at the top. Campaigning by many is stronger than it’s ever been.

Historically, how beers would perform was difficult to predict. Almost any well-made beer was in with a chance. But there’s speculation that this year we’ll see further consolidation by those at the top and a dilution of votes for smaller breweries. 

The events of 2020 add an element of unpredictability to the poll not seen before, but whether it will significantly affect the results is difficult to tell.

2020, a year like no other

Honestly, I’d prefer not to mention the ‘C’ word. But, it’s difficult to look at the 2020 H100 without acknowledging it. Its effects have been felt by craft breweries all across the country. Its impact on production, availability, customer engagement and marketing may all come into play.

There could also be positives. A heightened focus on local has influenced many people to support breweries in their local community. Large bottle-shop chains have come to the aid of smaller brewers, ranging them in their stores and, in some cases, exposing them to new markets.

Promotion

All the breweries featured in the H100 undeniably make good beer. But consider that in 2019 there were 2,500 beers made by nearly 300 breweries, compared to only a small handful in 2008. With so many beers now vying for attention, success in the poll requires more than just well-made beer.

It’s been common for a few years now for breweries to actively encourage voting through social media posts and mailing lists. More recently, video content and even paid online promotion has appeared.

James Smith is founder of craft beer website The Crafty Pint, which comprehensively covers the H100 each year. His love of Australian craft beer began with pioneer brewery Mountain Goat when they were just a small operation in Melbourne’s inner east.

When I asked James for his thoughts on who might perform well, he highlighted the correlation between success and hospitality offerings.

“One thing that might be interesting to look at is whether breweries that have opened venues since last year’s poll, and thus can pitch for people to vote for them while at their bar, will rise up the rankings”

Few would argue any impropriety in staff encouraging regulars to vote for their favourite beers or posts on social media to the same effect. These forms of promotion are generally accepted, even if it does clog up our social media feed. But some have concerns about methods used in more aggressive campaigning.

Pete Mitcham is co-host of the podcast Radio Brews News. He’s been involved with the H100 from the beginning and is a staunch advocate to this day. He expressed some “concerns” about some campaigning in recent years.

He told me, “It used to be that brewers and their reps would post a link encouraging awareness and increasing the range of the poll. Now it’s begging, pleading and bribing.”

The appearance of ‘vote for us’ stickers and labels, ‘how to vote’ cards and publicly accessible tablets in venues for customers to vote on, has caused some to question whether these practices are in the spirit of the H100.

“Now a lot of breweries are basically distributing ‘how to vote’ cards in taprooms and social media, which is a bit gross to me,” says Luke Robertson, co-host of Ale of a Time and freelance beer writer. 

He’s also observed the changes in the H100 since its early days at The Local Taphouse in St Kilda.

“It’s interesting to see how ramped up marketing is getting for it each year. While I don’t begrudge any brewery for doing it, it’s a shame that it’s come so far from how it began, which was simply a fun poll to get a snapshot of the year.”

Another trend in recent years is for breweries to register only a few of their beers to funnel all potential votes for the brewery. Pete Mitcham expressed his reservations about this practice also.

“rather than list ALL their beers, they cherry-pick a handful to ensure they score higher than they perhaps deserve.”

GABS does not restrict the level of advertising breweries can engage in, but inducements are strictly prohibited. Incentives like ‘beer for votes’ can have a brewery disqualified from the poll. In an interview on Brews News’ ‘Beer is a Conversation’, administrators admitted to having a quiet word with a brewery and reminding them of the rules of the poll.

Despite their concerns, the people I’ve spoken to are not ignorant of the reasons behind the escalation of campaigning. They understand the realities of running a business in a competitive market. It’s an unfortunate side effect to the growth in popularity of the H100 and its capacity as kingmaker for those at the top. 

Pete’s optimistic it can be remedied if the breweries do what they’re known for and band together for the benefit of the industry.

“We all need to take a good hard look at ourselves before the admin of the H100 is taken away from the brewers entirely. [but] I don’t think it will happen and I believe the trade as a whole will reverse this trend.”

Consolidation

Whether or not the trend of aggressive promotion continues to increase in future, we’ll have to wait and see. What is clear to many though, is how it will affect this year’s results. Breweries with the strongest marketing and wide distribution will likely solidify their positions.

James Smith thinks the top echelons of the H100 will be almost impenetrable.

“I suspect we’ll see a consolidation across the 100 from bigger breweries, those with greater reach, and those with good online presence and marketing; thus it will be harder for any ‘surprises’ to make it into the upper reaches.”

It’s a trend foreshadowed by polls in the last couple of years. 

In 2018 the appearance of beers from Darwin’s One Mile brewery and Regional NSW brewery The Welder’s Dog, had many scratching their heads. But it was the strong entry by Sunshine Coast brewery Your Mates that caused many to take notice. They showed how parochialism could be harnessed by breweries to activate their local community.

But in 2019, One Mile and The Welder’s Dog were nowhere to be seen in the H100. Your mates improved it’s position significantly, but overall the strengthening of larger breweries was well underway.

Aiding this consolidation is a dilution of votes across specialty beers and limited releases. Ostentatious beers that captivate the imagination of craft beer drinkers, but hold little chance of polling in the H100. 2020 has seen a surge of them as breweries try to stand out in the market as a means of survival.

Pete Mitcham told me, “With more breweries falling for the trap of ‘One and Done’ beers and more breweries joining the fold, votes for limited edition beers and lame experimental ‘beer-like’ beverages will be further diluted and spread across a wider field.”

“beers like Furphy/GOAT/150 Lashes will do better because the poll is finally breaking away from the Kraftbier Klubhouse and being exposed to a broader audience with a narrower palate.”

Notably, the beers Pete mentions here are owned by much maligned multinational breweries.

Ownership

Ownership and independence has always been a hot topic in the world of craft beer. In the H100, the ‘buy out effect’ has impacted all breweries acquired by multinationals to some degree. How they are affected by the expected consolidation and dilution in the 2020 H100 will be interesting to watch.

It’s still a tricky one to call because the effects on breweries by acquisitions is somewhat relative. I’ve already written about Green Beacon in my beers to watch post. Their fall is indicative of what we’ve come to expect. But there is a brewery that could buck that trend.

In the 2019 H100, despite losing the top spot, Gold Coast powerhouse Balter, didn’t fare as poorly overall as some expected. Admittedly, the sale of the brewery to CUB in December 2019 was only a short time before the poll, but even still, Balter’s performance was the strongest it’s ever been and a surprise to some observers.

Their campaigning this year has been more subdued. Balter Marketing Coordinator Ben Trueman told me about the challenge they set for themselves for the 2020 H100. Opting not to use the word ‘vote’ in favour of the phrase ‘back your favourite beer’.

“You’ll see across our social media and digital spaces that we didn’t ask to ‘VOTE #1 this, VOTE #1 that’, we simply just wanted our community to back their favourite beers; whether that be for one of ours or one of the other 100+ Aussie craft breweries… At the end of the day, every vote is a vote for good beer.”

In addition to making great beer, a big part of Balter’s success has undoubtedly been its ability to engage with its customer base and build loyalty within it. The brewery is arguably one the strongest craft beer brands to come out of Australia and I suspect it’s attracted many newcomers to craft beer and even mainstream beer drinkers, in addition to traditional craft beer lovers. 

When I began writing this piece I was open to the possibility that the events of 2020 could have impacted participation in the poll. The theory had precedent, as Beer Cartel reported a drop in participation in their 2020 Australian Craft Beer Survey.

However, this week’s newsletter from The Crafty Pint reports that the H100 has seen record-breaking participation again. The figure will be interesting since the increase from 2018 to 2019 was over 4000. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that majority of this growth will be relative newcomers to craft.

If they’re anything like I was when I cracked my first Beez Neez, it’s unlikely they’ll have an awareness of independence or strong views on ownership. They could even be apathetic to it.

So, taking in all the elements: a consolidation at the top, dilution at the bottom and a customer base and H100 newcomers who may not care about indie. I’m not sure Balter will lose any ground at all in this year’s results.

You’ve changed man

The online debate that follows the H100 is as anticipated as the poll itself. Grumblings about this brewery or that being “not craft”, or how brewery X’s Chardonnay Barrel Aged Blue Heaven Milkshake IPA (not a challenge!) is superior to Pacific Ale, are commonplace.

“it’s the carry-on from people who really should know better .. and just serve to annoy those who want to participate in something genuinely fun once a year. ” says Pete Mitcham. 

The poll has changed, but it’s in line with the Australian craft beer market itself, as summed up by James Smith.

“overall I suspect we’ll see hop forward, widely available beers from breweries who’ve run dedicated marketing campaigns around specific beers dominate as heavily, if not more so, than before, much gnashing of teeth from people bemoaning how vanilla the top 100 is / has become, but only because it’s a reflection, for the most part, of what beers move in volume.”

“For all the noise made around stunt beers and some limited releases, the vast majority of craft beer sold in Australia is pale, hoppy, and around 5 percent ABV, and the poll – particularly as it’s grown – is the same, even if average ABVs of such beers in the 100 might be creeping up a little with the rise in IPAs.”

In years past Luke Robertson has written ‘A Considered Reply to GABS’ for his blog. It’s a lighthearted pisstake of the more inane commentary that follows the H100. He considers them par for the course these days and doesn’t let them overshadow its role in the growth of craft beer.

“While there will always be complaints and people moaning about the system or the sponsorship, what’s most incredible is that a beer poll that started in a small pub now gets mainstream TV and radio news coverage for small and independent brewers. So no matter how you look at it, what it helps achieve for getting great beer to a wider audience is always a positive thing.”  

Until next year

There are so many more aspects of this H100 that interest me. I’d love to have written about all of them, but as it is I’m running the risk of still writing when #1 is announced.

The possible rise of session sours, the resilience of hazys, even the possibility of zero alcohol beers, will all be things to watch for this year, and into the future.

I hope this story has given you food for thought and wet your appetite for the release of this year’s results.

If you’d like to see how I’ve gone out on a limb with predictions about specific beers, check out my Beers To Watch story.

For info on where to tune in, venues running events and other fun stuff, check out the event page on The Crafty Pint website.

I’ll be following along with the team from Brews News. Join us in the chat on Mixlr.

Categories: Craft Beer, GABS

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