Gin IPAs, inside jokes and Rick & Morty quotes – welcome to Epic Beer, one of the New Zealand craft breweries that is taking the country by storm and securing a cult following from China to the UK. We head down to Epic Beer’s HQ on a Friday afternoon to chat with Head Brewer, Luke Nicholas, and sample some of their enormous range of products. Coming to the spot with certain expectations about the so-called “hoppy beer company”, we were delighted to have all preconceptions annihilated and certainly got A LOT more than we expected…resulting in us having the spend the night in the parking lot…
Located in one of Auckland’s southern suburbs, 10 minutes’ drive from the airport in an unassuming industrial estate, Epic Beer’s unofficial taproom (hopefully soon to be made official) is shared by a number of other brands, including Hidden World Gin (read about this incredible gin brand here) and East Imperial mixers. We park up and are greeted by Luke’s wife Wendy, who is busy putting together six-pack boxes and running around organising all manner of behind-the-scenes activity. She directs us to an impressive rough-hewn wooden table laden with empty glasses and beer bottles, which are quickly cleared away – at this point we probably should’ve guessed that a party is never far off at Epic.
We plonk ourselves down and start quizzing Luke on the basics whilst Wendy brings out a seemingly never-ending supply of different bottles and cans. With 22 years-worth of experience in craft beer, Luke is a man in the know. Effortlessly amiable, he tells us about how he and Wendy met at Sacramento State University and took many trips to Sierra Nevada brewery before returning to New Zealand and realising that there was nowhere quite like that in the country. Luke got a job as a brewer in a brewpub with the goal to eventually make a craft beer that would take the country by storm. This was Epic Pale Ale. 13 years later, the company is going strong, boasts countless accolades and an impressively diverse drinks portfolio.
We start at the beginning with the Epic Pale Ale (5.4%). Made using 100% USA grown cascade hops and English pale ale malt, it is an easy, rounded ale with a smooth hop character. We’re therefore shocked when Luke tells us that, “back then, this was considered too flavourful”. Shock turns towards disbelief when he informs us that there are 15 hop flowers crammed into the liquid in each 500ml bottle. Luke says:
“The thing I’ve always done and I guess it’s why I’ve won the awards I have over the years, is find that balance. It’s not just about chewing a hop palate; it needs to be balanced with malt and all the flavour needs to be integrated together to great a full and rounded experience.”
This is certainly the case with the Pale Ale, which holds a number of titles including 2006 Supreme Champion Beer, 2007 Best Pale Ale and 2008 Gold Pale Ale ay NZ Beer Awards, as well as Best Pale Ale at New World Beer Awards 2014 and 2016.
Moving on, Luke pours out a sample of Armageddon IPA (6.6%) – the first American style IPA in New Zealand. Very much West Coast in style with a dry bitterness and crisp American hop flavour, it’s light, refreshing nature disguises its ABV. Luke happily states that for two and a half years, this beer won best IPA at every award scheme is was entered into.
Our next drink is very different and comes in the form of a Coffee & Fig Imperial Oatmeal Stout (8%) that is meant for ageing. Each year, the team select a different country and coffee variety to create unusual vintage beers that their following collect and which change with bottle ageing. 2018’s release features Brazilian toffee coffee that comes through strongly on the nose and palate, seconded by toasted coconut, vanilla and dark chocolate. The fig is shrouded at present but will no doubt come into its own in a year or two alongside the chewy malt. All-in-all it is a gorgeous and incredibly rare stout that Luke reckons will be best drunk mid-2021 and, with previous vintage bottles selling in China for up to $300 a bottle, you best get in on the latest year’s release early on whilst they’re still under a tenner each!!!
China is very definitely Epic’s biggest export market at the moment with 40 different cities claiming the brand’s presence in one bar and one retail outlet per area. This exclusivity has bred a following to match, as the vintage beers’ auction prices attest to. One of China’s favourite Epic products is the dangerously drinkable Hop Zombie. With a big sweep of tropical fruit including passion fruit and pink guava, one happy customer perfectly described this easy-drinker as like “being massaged by fruit on a sun lounger”. However, be warned, with a secret amount of hops and at 8.5%, a few too many of these will certainly turn you into a hop zombie.
Looking at the table, largely obscured by the sheer quantities of beer, we ask Luke the dreaded question of which child is his favourite, to which he responds, quite understandably, that he can’t pick one. “The thing is with that is that I’ve never let anything go to market unless I’ve absolutely loved it. People can tell. If I’m not absolutely passionate about what I’ve realised, it won’t sell.”
And Luke’s passion is tangible and contagious. We romp through the catalogue of mad inventions, including the 7.6% Gin IPA (half hops, half juniper) with earthy notes of cinchona bark and fresh cardamom; the robust, smoky and moreish Beer Blanket (6%) made up of oats, caramelised rye malt and 1.5% heavy peated distillers malt; their joke beer Scottish IPA (6.3%) made for the 25th Anniversary of their friend’s bar; and the ridiculously exciting new experiment comprising Hop Zombie and an ex-Plantation Rum cognac barrel. With each beer we get more impressed by (and also, granted, more pissed from) the sheer scope and balance of all the concoctions.
Epic’s 10th Birthday Beer, 10 Year 1000 Celebration Ale (10.1%) is one of our absolute favourites. In the style of an English barley wine and with five different yeasts, this is a true revelation in terms of flavour and talent. Oats and a syrupy chocolate Hob Nob biscuit aromas waft through on the nose in a delicious display of ridiculousness. The taste is syrupy without being overly sweet, with toffee, butterscotch, dried fruits, vanilla, mild chocolate and hefty malt prevalent. Designed to age for 25 years, the sweet, malty character will oxidise into earth, leathery flavours. If it weren’t for the high ABV, we would happily sip this all night long.
We move away from bottles for a moment to crack open Epic’s first ever cans of Galactic Criminal (5.7%) – so named for its use of Australian galaxy hops – and Love IPA (6.4%). The reason for the change in vessel is that 50% of US craft beer is now in cans, with New Zealand’s scene moving that way. Whilst Luke is clearly not overly convinced by the benefits of cans, he has continued his acute attention to detail in their design. Galactic Criminal’s label contains quotes from Hans Solo and Firefly, as well as references to Millennium Falcon, baby Groot and C147 (the universe Rick & Morty are from), whilst they went through considerable time and expense to make Love’s transparent label holographic and shiny. “A lot of my stuff has layers and layers of stories. The beer and the label come together to create a unique personality. Each can has its own sub-domain that takes you somewhere, be it to a Rick & Morty episode or a quantum physic blog. Some connect back to others and others connect to things I’m going to make in the future.”
We finish on a high with The Observer – a 9.7% ale with 3% peated malt and references to Schrodinger’s Cat, quantum entanglement and Breaking Bad. The peat is present but smooth, more Ardbeg’s syrupy, back-of-throat warmth than Laphroig’s smack-in-the-mouth reek. Balanced yet complex with malty richness, this is an old ale with a new vibe that perfectly sums up Luke’s ability to thwart expectations and nonchalantly disrupt a category.
We stumble out of the Epic HQ amazed by what we’ve sampled. We came with the expectation of being hit in the face by hops and leave with the knowledge that with great hops comes great responsibility and that the Epic team certainly take their mission with a jovial Mad-Hatter-y born out of serious passion.
Epic Beer can be purchased online here.