Neil Miller on Epic Pale Ale

Epic Pale Ale

American-style Pale Ale
First Brewed
Dec. 14, 2005
Malt Varieties
Golden Promise, Crystal Malt, Caramalt
Hop Varieties
American Cascade hops
Wyeast 1272
Dark Chocolate, or Indian Butter Chicken with chilli naan bread
Neil Miller on Epic Pale Ale

E pic Brewing Company from Auckland has won dozens of medals around the world for its American inspired Armageddon IPA. Rightly so in my opinion, as the 6.66% beer is simply a brilliant showcase of hoppy goodness. However, I would contend that its precursor – Epic Pale Ale, which comes in at a comparatively modest 5.4% – has had more of an impact on the Kiwi beer scene.

By “more of an impact,” I actually mean a seismic shift. In 2004, Epic Pale Ale essentially introduced American hops and the associated flavours and bitterness to the New Zealand drinking public.

Certainly, the lauded Emerson’s Brewery from Dunedin had produced an American Pale Ale a bit earlier, but it was a very limited edition. Fortunately, I procured two and they were literally the brews that gave me my enduring love of U.S. hops. Epic Pale Ale let me find those flavours at the bar, in the bottle store and on supermarket shelves. By 2007, it was already my Beer of the Year with my notes stating it was full of flavour with vast reservoirs of drinkability.” I also produced some slightly more thorough tasting descriptions including:

“Epic Pale Ale has an immaculate balance between the rich malt body and lashings of summer fruit and citrus notes. It finishes with a lingering, almost oily, bitterness that leaves you anticipating the next drop. The impish brewer admits to using a “shed load” of hops and says that while others might consider that to be ‘insane,’ he calls it ‘flavour’.”

It almost did not happen. When it was first produced, Epic Pale Ale was the hoppiest ale on the market and boasted a robust 5.8% alcohol. Some drinkers, used to more insipid styles, found it too confronting. I loved it. Despite that, brewer Luke Nicholas decided to tone the hops and the strength a little in order to establish a market. Epic Pale Ale was still ahead of its time, but the tweak worked and it remains one of New Zealand’s best-selling craft beers.

Astute readers will note that Luke Nicholas was referred to earlier as the “impish brewer.” I coined this nickname, which he has long embraced, because he is small and mischievous. Tiny cartoon images of imps appear on most of his beer bottles and he has actually released a session IPA called Epic IMP.

Epic Pale Ale was the vanguard of the hop revolution in New Zealand. It unleashed a gloriously heavy handed approach to hoppiness and bitterness which has caught the imagination of many Kiwi drinkers over the years. Today, Epic Pale Ale is mainstream – an always tasty pale ale – but only because our palates have become more adventurous.

Even though it was the hoppiest beer of its day, people soon wanted more hops. So Luke created Epic Mayhem IPA. That was followed by Epic Armageddon IPA, so named because Armageddon is bigger than Mayhem. When pushed for an even stronger double IPA, Luke mused about what would survive Armageddon. The answer led to the creation of Epic Hop Zombie IIPA – a glow in the dark bottle of 8.5% punchy pale ale the brewer describes as “lupulin ichor oozing from ravaged legions.” That is a sentence I doubt has been previously uttered in human history, but it is right on the mark.

Neil Miller

Evolving from a flavour revolutionary, Epic Pale Ale is more of a session beer now, the sort of thing I would drink while watching Test Match Cricket (which, for the benefit of international readers, goes for five days). The beer has not changed – the drinkers have. They often want new beers with more of everything.

This was beautifully demonstrated when Emerson’s, seeing the success of pale ale, bought back their American Pale Ale, the first American style pale ale I ever tried and one which influenced my life and writing career profoundly. I had a pint with brewer Richard Emerson and our conversation went something like this:

Me: “It’s good, but why did you change the recipe to make it less hoppy? I loved it the way it was.”

Emerson: “The APA is literally the same beer you first tried. It has not changed – but your taste buds have.”

New Zealanders love hops, including our own unique varieties like Nelson Sauvin and Riwaka, as well as hops from America, Australia and the United Kingdom. Stephen Beaumont, following a visit to New Zealand in 2014, famously wrote that hops were “the key to the present and future of New Zealand craft beer.”

As usual, he was right, and Epic Pale Ale was the key that opened the door.

Neil Miller has long been one of New Zealand’s leading beer commentators He has run well over a four hundred corporate or club beer tastings and has written for Beer and Brewer, The Shout and Cuisine, and is Head of Content for New Zealand Liquor News and a weekly blogger on the Malthouse website. He is a former Brewer’s Guild of New Zealand Beer Writer of the Year.

Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.

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