“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.”
*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.
*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.