Words and story by Yana Papaya.
Edited by Maryana Kirakovskaya.
Photo by Tanya Perova.
Special thanks to Urbanaut Brewing Co. for the warm welcome, hospitality, and wonders of craft beer.
What is GABS?
GABS Festival, Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular, is an annual celebration of all craft beer fans, their friends and family in Australia and New Zealand. No matter what your beverage and food preferences are, no matter if you are tapping the beer or waiting to be tapped on the shoulder, organisers managed to pull out the event that just feels right for everyone. And it looks like it’s not that hard to achieve. There are a few ingredients involved – get a large space, invite the best breweries, challenge them to brew the new flavour that they haven’t done before, organise yummy food stalls, cider corner, get an awesome live band and Silent Disco dancefloor. Mix it all up, stirring occasionally, let it brew. Keep it natural, just like what you would do while making the good craft beer.
Late in June GABS took place at ASB Showground in Auckland, New Zealand and beer fans had a blast. It’s a great festival to see how people can drink responsibly and behave well, have fun in between tasting sessions. We decided not to mess around and catch up with the main guy behind the scenes who makes it all happen. Steve Jeffares, a Co-founder of GABS, embodies a true entrepreneurial spirit. He is a bold, creative and active citizen of the world, who constantly pushes the boundaries to sustain the success.
Steve is a big dreamer and a big achiever. A filmmaker in the past, an entrepreneur in the present, Steve runs on creative energy. At his 47, along with the business partner, he co-runs three craft beer-related businesses – Local Taphouse beer hall, Stomping Ground (Melbourne Brewing company) and GABS Festival. One project inspired by another. And it doesn’t look like he is about to retire anytime soon. Ideas keep on brewing in his head, stress and pressure can also take over. Nevertheless, Steve minds the priorities; keeping the work-life balance and knowing the value of spending quality time with his family.
The story about Steve Jeffares is fueled with ideas, business drive, and ambition that radiate in his eyes and come with the handshake. We talked about his life journey, career change, passion for craft beer that took him to places and inspired to create a marathon of businesses that intensively lined-up one after another. We also talked about the importance of failure throughout the process and how not giving up on what drives you and let it push you further.
I was born in Germany. My father was an obstetrician and gynecologist in the British Army so we lived in a number of countries in Europe while I was very young. I recall that the decision to emigrate to Australia when I was seven was made at our kitchen table. My parents gathered my three siblings and me together and explained that we could either go to Australia, South Africa or Canada. They asked us where we wanted to go to. Australia won. I have no idea why they asked us to make that decision as we were kids, but they did!
It always felt natural to travel to me, so when I graduated from school I went to the film school I had been accepted into, deferred straight away and went overseas to explore. I ended up working in the film and television industry in Dublin for almost 7 years. By then the Irish weather had worn me down so I returned to Australia in 1996.
An Australian living in Dublin was a novelty. Back in those days, most Australians were going to London and I didn’t want to do that. It didn’t make sense to me to go to the other side of the world to solely hang out with people from your own country.
In 2000 I went to work in Los Angeles for the Australian producer of the “Fight Club”. I’d read a story about him in a film magazine and decided to get in touch. I found his email address and emailed: “Can I come and intern for you?” He came back saying: “No one has ever asked me that before. But yes, let’s do it.” After securing some funding grants I moved to Los Angeles and it was an exciting time, albeit too short for my liking. After just four months, and with things going well, I had to choose between the girl I was seeing at the time – who didn’t want to live in Los Angeles – and my dream of working on independent films in the City of Angels. Ultimately the heart won over the head and I moved home. We broke up shortly afterward!
Back in Australia, I opened a shabby chic bar (The St. Kilda Local) as I missed the neighbourhood bars in Europe. I hired a friend of my brother to manage the bar so I could continue to work in the film and TV industry. Young or old, gay or straight, the place was welcoming to all and quickly became busy. I had been introduced to craft beer in LA and my new bar also now allowed me to share my increasing passion with customers.
A new goal appeared – I wanted to open a world-class craft beer bar in Australia. So I traveled across North America and Europe to do my research. I visited at least 100 different bars and breweries in six weeks. I was making notes non-stop and still have that notepad. I divided the page into 2 columns. Left column for things that I liked about each place. Right column for the things I didn’t like. Using the research and my own ideas I went back home, partnered with a mate Guy Greenstone, and we opened The Local Taphouse. We were tapping as many as 450 curated craft beers each year. We created a new benchmark venue for beer fans that was a great pub first and foremost. The latter attitude really helped us, as we just turned 10 years old and were recently named the People’s Choice Best Pub in Melbourne by TimeOut readers for the second time.
We don’t pay too much attention to what our competitors are doing. We feel self-motivated, innovative, creative and travel a lot for inspiration. I think it’s one of the reasons why our business has had sustained success.
It’s always been important for us to have a diary full of beer events that appeal to a wide range of people. Our main events each year are mini-festivals called SpecTAPulars and each has a different theme. In 2011 breweries were increasingly releasing limited edition beers and we thought it would be fun to ask our favourite breweries to release a new beer at the same time at the same event. As a result, we had 19 brand new beers that were first launched at the first Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular. It was a massive success and a lightbulb moment. We felt the concept was a unique experience that would allow us to share our love of craft beer with many more people than we could fit into The Local Taphouse. That’s how GABS (now known as the Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular) came to life.
We are not afraid to take bold risks and fail and we’ve had our fair share of failures. While planning the second GABS, the first at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building, I came up with a bar design concept which was great in theory but not in practice! It was a similar idea to a canteen at school where you stand in the queue, get a tray and move along the line from one end to another getting beer samples you would like to try as you go. When the bar got quite busy the system couldn’t cope and, at its worst, it took 45 minutes for people to get beer. It was a disaster. We ended up losing $200,000 that year for that and other reasons. It wasn’t easy to recover, but Guy and I believed in the idea so we were crazy enough to try it again. 8,000 people came along the following year and it was the success thankfully. Since then we focussed on how we could improve the experience and festival from year to year. We are always trying to exceed people’s expectations with new and exciting things and the festival now attracts more than 35,000 people to events in Melbourne, Sydney, and Auckland.
Despite what some people may think, GABS hasn’t been worth it financially, yet at least. I think if GABS was managed by most other event production companies they probably wouldn’t have persevered with it like we have. The biggest reward for us is to know that we are consistently putting on a world-class event experience that is highly regarded by beer fans, the industry, and other festivals. All those things have helped us overcome those initial failures.
GABS isn’t about getting shit faced. It’s about tasting new craft beers and ciders, meeting the producers, learning something and having a uniquely fun experience. There is a whole variety of things at the festival to ensure people are not drinking for the entire session. That’s by design not by accident. It’s important for us to keep it this way. Drinking isn’t a priority at our event.
After spending a year in New York five years ago with my wife and young son, we returned to Melbourne. Guy and I launched Stomping Ground Brewing Co in inner Melbourne, along with Justin Joiner.
I don’t make films anymore and I miss that a little bit. But I get to be creative every single day in similar ways in my marketing role with the brewery. One recent creative idea was collaborating with Comic-Con (international comic festival) to produce the world’s first Comic-Can that had a great public response.
These days I feel I am more intense and less relaxed and fun than when I was younger. That saddens me a little. I think that is because of the pressure and stress of running my own various businesses since I was in my mid-twenties.
When you push boundaries, you are going to have setbacks occasionally. I am totally cool with trying new things and not succeeding. But when your idea works out, you understand that it was usually worth taking the risk.
I love what I do. I am a master of my own success and failure and I like that sense of freedom. It’s motivating and liberating. I am not drawn to people who work 9 to 5, do it for the paycheck and don’t enjoy their job.
Money has never been the key driver for me. Even if I sold my business and had financial security for my family and our future, I can’t see myself working one day per month and playing golf or cruising on the yacht all year long! I would create something else. I could do nothing.
I don’t feel limited. There are so many things that I can do, that I don’t think about the things that I can’t do.
Hugging is the future. If people hugged more the world would be a better place.
More photos from Papaya Storytime are available here.