It’s the end of the world…and I feel fine

FullSizeRender

“I know a good hoppy beer when I drink one” – Luke Nicholas.

By now, you may have read the results for the 2016 New World Beer and Cider Awards. While the awards are surely, at some level, a ploy to make money, it is also great to have more things which can spark conversations about beer. Awards attract media attention, which presents people in the beer industry with a great chance to share the passion they have for beer with the wider public.

There has been an interesting trend in beer awards lately, which was continued with the New World awards. It seems that, no matter what competition it is, Epic Brewing Company overlord Luke Nicholas will walk away with the Champion IPA trophy in his hop-lined jacket pocket.

Take this for example:

  • BEST IPA – Brewer’s Guild of  New Zealand Awards 2015
  • BEST IPA – Australian International Beer Awards 2015
  • BEST IPA – Stockholm Beer & Whiskey Festival 2015
  • BEST IPA – New World Beer and Cider Awards 2016

He has won all of them in the past year with his 6.66 per cent ABV Armageddon IPA.

I called him for an interview a few days before the New World awards were announced, oblivious to the fact Armageddon had netted a fourth BEST IPA award within a year. Then he told me he had won, and his thinking behind netting four awards in less than a year.

“It has to be becoming a bit ridiculous, or it actually is a really good IPA,” he says.

“There are some days I drink Armageddon, and it’s so well balanced you can’t pick it apart. Not like ‘there’s the sweetness, the bitterness, dryness’. It’s just one whole experience on your palate from start to finish, and it’s pretty joyous. I just want people to enjoy it and it be really complex and seamless. Just one joyous experience.”

Armageddon first hit the market in 2008, and was put into bottles about a year later. But its genesis goes back further than the birth of its younger sibling, Epic Pale Ale. The first award-winning hop-driven beer Luke produced was Cock & Bull’s Monk’s Habit.

Monk’s Habit is confusingly labelled as a Belgian IPA by some, thanks to it allegedly started life as a Belgian-style abbey ale. But Luke describes it as being closer to an American amber ale, or a red IPA. Either way, it was damn good, winning the Supreme Champion award at the New Zealand beer awards twice.

“Armageddon has been around in 2008…but go far back enough and I was making the biggest, hoppiest beers in New Zealand back in 1999,” Luke says. “That’s a whole chapter that has been forgotten, or is not talked about, or is not known. I have had people saying Epic Pale Ale is a mainstream beer; ‘it’s always been around, so I’m going to be drinking new beers’. And people say, ‘I had Armageddon or Epic Pale Ale for the first time in ages, and it’s still great’.

“I have seen a number of brewers who seem to get the hops they have got, put in a hand and pick them out at random. They are not thinking about the flavours that marry together, but come up with one that work against each other and are quite unpleasant.

“Just because it’s new doesn’t make it good. I know a good hoppy beer when I drink one.”

Just like many beer drinkers, Luke graduated through a range of ever more hop-driven beers. While Sierra Nevada’s gorgeous Pale Ale – a brilliant showcase of US-grown Cascade hops, just like Epic Pale Ale – was the first hop-driven beer Luke tried, it was the same brewery’s Celebration Ale that really got him going.

“There was a lot more caramel sweetness, but it had that big burst of American resinous hop character. That had a big influence on Monk’s Habit and, years later, Armageddon.

IPA was not the insanely popular beer style it is now when Luke was first getting into brewing beers like Monk’s Habit and Epic Pale Ale. He says there were 199 beers entered into the New Zealand beer awards when Monk’s Habit took home a trophy under his brewing stewardship. However, there were 213 beers solely in the IPA category at the 2015 Australian International Beer Awards (which, FYI, included IPAs from Ballast Point and Lagunitas).

“Everyone wants to be making IPAs. It has the most entries in all the competitions you enter. To win that, it’s a big fucking deal.”

Luke has a rather interesting analogy for how his IPA brewing methods evolved – extreme sports.

“You can probably compare it to skateboarding or BMX or motocross. Until someone has done that triple flip, it hasn’t been done before. You’re the guy going up and down the ramp and then woah, someone does a 360 or 720.

“Over time, hops became more and more important. Now, it’s just stupid.”

But the key to a good IPA has not changed over time for Luke.

“Probably one of the things I learned very early on, back in 1999, was that the feedback [on his award-winning hoppy beers] was ‘very balanced’. It is not about ‘let’s make it brutally bitter’ or ‘massively alcoholic’.”

The other way to make a good IPA is really rather obvious.

“Just use the best ingredients you can. A lot of the time, that means you are going to have to pay a bit more. You can’t make good wine if your juice is crap to start with. It is the same with beer, and I think a lot of people get caught up with the romance of certain types of malt and hops. They have brought into it for whatever reason, but is that the best ingredient they can use? Do you want the cheapest or the best beer? If you want the best, why would you even make mediocre? I want to make the best, and if it’s going to cost more then that’s it. At this price point, I can hopefully provide your value.”

If a single beer like Armageddon keeps cleaning out awards, despite the fact those awards are being won with different batches of that beer, and you can pick it up for less than $10 a bottle, it appears you are getting good value for money. But there is one award Luke has yet to grab – a gold medal at the World Beer Cup. Unlike most beer competitions, which award multiple bronze, silver and gold medals depending on how beers conform to style guildelines, the World Beer Cup runs like the Olympics of beer: one gold, one silver, one bronze.

Luke is hopeful of a medal at the World Beer Cup, for the only beer he can realistically enter – Armageddon.

“All my other beers come back too hoppy for style, but if put above or beside that style, it’s not enough malt or ABV or something. Armageddon the only one in the sweet spot for the style we make.

“It’s probably got a chance, but a long shot. It is a 1-in-500 chance.”

 

He also points out the fact the Armageddon which will be judged in late April/early May will have been brewed in January. It then had to be shipped to Australia, then sent to the United States, then held until it is sent to the location where judging takes place. Luke acknowledges packaging is probably more important than brewing skill at that point.

But for him, it seems making delicious, hop-driven beers is his goal, regardless of whatever medals or trophies he wins along the way.

“As long as you are doing something you are passionate about, you are going to succeed. And I Just love pale ale and IPA.”

Further reading

*A Cock and Bull Story is a good place to discover the depressingly Capitalistic reason why you can no longer drink Monk’s Habit.

*This piece by former Epic Brewing brewer Kelly Ryan (now of Fork Brewing fame) gives a great insight into how important it is to pay attention to how a beer – Epic Pale Ale in this case – can change over time.

*luke.co.nz is the place to keep up with anything Luke Nicholas thinks is worth reading about.

Southtrack

*It’s The End Of The World by R.E.M. gave me the title of this blog. Get it? End of the world…Armageddon…I feel fine…because Armageddon is yummy…yeah. It’s also a banger of a tune.

Pilsner? Pale ale? Yeah? Right.

Godzone-PortRd

In the age of Twitter, being outraged has never been easier. Copy link, bash the retweet button a few times, use 140 characters to say FUCK YOU BRO and you are done. If everyone else on your feed seems to agree with you, you are vindicated. (Never mind the fact that you probably don’t follow people who enrage you). Back to scrolling the timeline, looking for another digital crusade, ready to retweet a loltastic gif.

It is easy, too, to get on The Right Side of almost any debate in the beer world. It is a community of people who tend to agree on almost all beery issues: misogyny sucks, open your wallet when friends need help, etc. The Kiwi beer community in particular appears has a rather good bullshit radar, which, combined with a low tolerance for anything that shows up, makes for mostly-justified social media pile-ons lively debate.

One issue that gets kicked every so often, like the tyres on the neighbour’s rust bucket that is slowly decaying on their front lawn, is DB’s continuous bullshit-slinging that is Tui – East India Pale Ale. It is the East India Pale Ale that is the issue, since Tui is always winning medals in the New Zealand Lager class at the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards. As much as I find it mildly entertaining to read reviews from people who drink it thinking it will do what it says on the tin, and using Tui’s tagline against it can still get chuckles from certain groups of people  (“East India Pale Ale? Yeah right.”), the joke became cringe-worthy long ago. The kicker is the fact Tui is a New Zealand Draught – a beer described in most judging notes as being similar to a sweet amber lager. But Tui is easy to go after, both because it says it is one thing when blatantly is another, and is made by a company with a track record of doing stupid things – most noticeably That Radler Thing.

At the 2015 Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards, a beer brewed with an ale yeast won the New Zealand Lager category, and a beer brewed with a lager yeast won the Pale Ale category. Since the awards, I have had a question banging around in my head: how the hell does that happen? It did not really make sense to me. Lager uses lager yeast, while ale uses ale yeast. That is how it works, right?

Well, no.

North End Brewing’s Kieran Haslett-Moore is doing great things with barrels and wild fermentation, but is also one of many brewers using an ale yeast strain – White Lab’s WLP001 California Ale – to make both ale and lager styles. He does it for three reasons: logistics, speed and taste.

“From a logistical point of view, it’s easier for breweries to use less strains of yeast, just for yeast management. It’s much easier to keep track of one strain or, in our case, two strains [American and English ale]. There’s only two beers [a lager strain] would be used for.”

While Kieran says the length of time it takes to make a beer with lager strains is often overstated, an ale strain is quicker. But it is his view on flavour – it is the main reason you drink beer, right? – that is most interesting.

“A certain brewer originally used a lager yeast, then went to a house ale yeast. I thought the beer improved a lot. Then they changed their mind and went back to lager yeast, and I didn’t like that beer for quite a while. Then they swamped back to the ale yeast, and suddenly won a big award with that beer.”

The fact Kieran finds it hard to name New Zealand breweries using lager strains to make pilsners, but spits out half a dozen using ale strains with no issue – he also laughs after saying “I don’t think there’s any problem with using a lager strain for a NZ pilsner” – shows many brewers think along the same line. But does that simply mean they are making New Zealand golden ales?

There is a distinct difference between the two, Kieran says. “Pilsner is going to be a wee bit drier. Maybe a little less emphasis on the dry hop character.” New Zealand pilsners are also stronger than golden ales, with the analysis done to create the style putting them as strong as 6.5 per cent ABV. Kieran says a good bridge between the styles is Three Boys Golden Ale – “super pale, one base malt, same colour as a pilsner” – but too weak to fit into the New Zealand Pilsner style.

“Emerson’s is obviously the classic [New Zealand pislner]…and they have always used house yeast for it. It was created to try and fill the void left over summer…when they couldn’t get Maris Otter, so couldn’t brew their golden ale [Maris Gold]. It was made to fill the slot of a golden ale that over summer they couldn’t produce, which was a big mover for them.

“Golden ales were brewed by English brewers to replace lagers, and then NZ pilsner, in some regards, was created in order to replace golden ale.”

The thing that makes it possible to make lager styles with ale yeast is, well, the yeast. Brewing yeast breaks into two general families: top-fermenting strains, know as ale yeasts; and bottom-fermenting strains which are often dubbed lager yeasts.

WLP001 is technically an ale strain, due to the fact it ferments on top of wort. However, it shares 70 per cent of its genetic makeup with lager yeasts. And it shows in the brewing process. Kieran says WLP001 and similar yeasts tend to behave like lager yeasts – “neutral, not much ester development, sulfur” – so they are a natural fit for a brewer wanting lager-like beers without the fuss of mucking around with various kinds of yeast.

“Historically, ale breweries used open fermentation and dish-bottom or flat-bottom vessels, while lager breweries used the conical tanks that we use now. We sort of brew all our beers like their lagers. Yeast reacts to the environment that it’s in. If we had it in open ferments and scraping the top so yeasts rise again…it’s going to react really different than if we put it in a conical, which encourages the yeast to drop out to the bottom of the tank. We force these yeasts to behave more like lager yeasts

“I think that’s what’s confusing about ale and lager. It’s both yeast strain species dictated, but also process. So it’s the process plus the strain makes a lager as opposed to an ale.”

But what if you flip this on its head, and get a brewer making award-winning pale ale with a lager strain? Well, you get Kelly Ryan of Fork Brewing making Godzone Beat. In a world where it seems everyone is sticking with some derivitive of WLP001 as a house yeast, he is using a California Common yeast – a bottom-fermenting strain which does not give off lots of esters at higher temperatures.

To him, the argument about yeast is mostly stupid. Case and point is the brewer Kelly knows who uses a Belgian-style yeast to make a clean lager.

“We don’t bat an eyelid at someone using New Zealand hops in a British IPA. For some reason, yeast is a little bit more sacriligious. It all comes down to that term ‘lager’. It’s only a type of beer because non-German markets decided it.

“The yeast strain doesn’t make the beer. It is how you, as a brewer, manipulate the variables you need to get beer with flavour and aroma you want. Everyone has their own modus operandi.”

At Fork and Brewer – the brewpub behind the Fork Brewing brand – people will come in wanting someone like Panhead Supercharger APA or Epic Armageddon IPA. Kelly says he makes beers similar to those (Base Jumper, Base Isolator, Godzone Beat, etc), and no one comments about the fact his beers were fermented with a lager strain.

It is much the same at beer competitions, which Kelly is often called to judge at. “When judging, we never talk about the yeast. It’s about flavour, aroma, bitterness, and certain specifics. It’s not about what was used to make the beer.”

A flick through the style guide for the 2015 Brewers Guild of New Zealand shows yeast is not an essential factor in almost all styles. There are mentions of esters, phenolics, farmhouse- and  Brettanomyces-type characteristics. But, apart from sake-yeast beers, there is never an expressed requirement for a beer to be made with a specific kind of yeast.

Fermentation temperature, how aerated the wort is, how much yeast is pitched – Kelly says they all play a part in getting the yeast to behave in a certain way, which will hopefully create the desired result.”Yeast is the workhorse, and the brewer can manipulate it.”

Kelly sure has created the desired result with Godzone Beat. At least, that is what a bunch of judges, and my own tastebuds, tell me. If his means, and those of many other brewers, are well justified by the ends, then we all may as well just keep happily drinking said ends.

Further reading

*’Do Beer Drinkers Get What we Pay For?from Martin Craig – now found at Beertown – is more of a rant about Tui. But this is a case where you should read the comments.

*’Trophies and truth-telling is, quite simply, Phil Cook doing what he does best.

Soundtrack

Severe by My Disco. You will either get it, or tell it to get in the sea.