Michael Donaldson takes a look at the ever-expanding success of Epic beer with Epic's brewer and owner, Luke Nicholas
When it comes to celebrity, brewers are not the first people who come to mind as fitting that tag.
But as Epic brewer-owner Luke Nicholas found out recently, there is a degree of fame to be found at the bottom of a bottle.
“I was coming home from somewhere recently and rocked up at customs … and my customs form says 'brewer’ and the guys asks me who I am and says: `Epic, yeah I’ve drunk some of your beer – it’s got a lot of flavour hasn’t it’.
“And then all of a sudden there’s another guy running at me from across the room and I’m thinking 'what’s going on here?’ … and he says to me: `You’re Luke Nicholas from Epic right?’.
“Yeah.” “I love Hop Zombie”.
“They were both so excited and wanting to chat and I’m thinking 'I have to go and get my bag’ but they were just so passionate.”
For Nicholas, the thought that some random blokes at Auckland Airport might be fawning over him because he makes delicious beer was almost unthinkable 10 years ago when he started Epic.
Back then he was brewing beers he liked for a market he wasn’t sure existed. Even five years ago he reckoned the craft beer market was only around “10,000” people.
“That was a realistic guess at the size of the market based on sales and how many people it would take to consume that amount of craft beer.
“Back then there were a lot of people who were transient, who would come in and sample but they wouldn’t really stick to anything; they’d go back to their green bottle lager.”
And the number now?
He thinks 100,000 might be underestimating it. That’s another way of saying the craft beer market has grown at least 10-fold in five years.
And it’s not so much that the market has exploded – there’s also the fact the drinkers are so passionate about the beer, they’re prepared to chase brewers across an airport to talk about that beer.
“It’s about being able to tie a personality to that brand – that’s been the success of craft beer, it’s about that brewer, or that lead person who’s out telling the story and people connect with that person.
“And in an age of social media, you’re able to have an even closer connection to the brand or the person.”
As well as recently celebrating 10 years of the Epic brand, Nicholas has also been celebrating a huge amount of success for his flagship Armageddon IPA, which is close to being New Zealand’s most-awarded beer.
In the past year, it’s taken out four major trophies in the ultra-competitive IPA class.
“It has to be becoming a bit ridiculous, or it actually is a really good IPA,” he says of Armageddon.
“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.”