Great Australian Beer Festival

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Great Australian Beer Festival


How times have changed. Walk into any half decent pub these days, and you’ll find at least a few boutique beers in the fridge; even the tap beers will probably feature a boutique-styled beer (Fat Yak, Matilda Bay, Little Creatures) owned by one of the larger brewers. Coupled with Australians’ evolving understanding of culinary matters, the craft beer market has experienced a major resurgence in recent years.

“It’s been similar with wine, coffee and food,” says Geelong promoter Michael Ward, co-organiser of the Great Australian Beer Festival in Geelong. “Businesses have gone out onto a limb to introduce something new, and people get educated. And then you start matching beer with food, and people love it.”

Like many Australians, Ward’s beer experiences and indulgences were limited originally to mainstream brews: “mainly CUB, Carlton Draught, that sort of stuff,” he says. When his business partner approached Ward to help out with the promotion and organisation of a Geelong beer festival, Ward had a crash course in craft beer. “Since I’ve been involved with the festival, it’s been an amazing journey,” Ward says. “There’s so many fantastic craft beers out there, and it’s still growing.”

Geelong, and the surrounding coastal districts have embraced craft brewing with considerable affection. “There are six other brewers around Geelong,” Ward says. “Southern Bay brews its own beer down here, and it also does beer under contract for other labels – which is a pattern that follows what’s happened in the United States.”

It was this local interest in craft brewing that made Ward realise Geelong was a natural location for a craft brew festival. “We had the inaugural event last year, and we got 4000 people coming along, so we got traction straight away,” Ward says. “We’re about five to ten years behind the US market, and a couple of years behind the New Zealand market, and both of those countries have got really strong craft brew festivals.”

While Ward says the Great Australian Beer Festival is fundamentally about appreciating beer – “people who don’t drink craft beer to get smashed,” Ward says – the festival’s focus transcends the simple tasting of beer. “We have five seminars, the first of which is how to taste beer – which is a good one to get started with,” Ward says. “And then we have a panel of local brewers, and a home brew seminar as well.”

Ward says the homebrew market – once the subject of snide derision, but now a thriving part of the brewing environment – is an important element of the craft brewing market. “We really want to foster the homebrew market,” Ward says. In addition to the homebrew seminars, the festival will reward the winner of the homebrew competition. “We’ve really ramped up the homebrew competition this year,” Ward says. “The winner will be funded to release their brew, which is a great prize.”

Ward is conscious of the logistical and economic problems that have befallen festivals in recent times. While the Great Australian Beer Festival is fundamentally about beer, Ward says to succeed the festival has to operate on multiple levels.

“That’s why we’ve also got entertainment, including music and also some quirky cabaret, as well as comedy,” Ward says. The cabaret comprises the aptly titled Beer Cabaret, while the musical acts featured include Owl Eyes, Tiger Town and Kylie Auldist.

Ward says the festival reflects a changing of attitudes toward beer. “Someone said recently that beer is a conversation, but wine is a lecture. And I think that’s spot on.”