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Epic in name, epic in hop content (by 2008 beer drinker standards) (Design: Tina Tiller)
Epic in name, epic in hop content (by 2008 beer drinker standards) (Design: Tina Tiller)

BusinessAugust 23, 2023

Hoppy days: Epic and the New Zealand craft beer boom

Epic in name, epic in hop content (by 2008 beer drinker standards) (Design: Tina Tiller)
Epic in name, epic in hop content (by 2008 beer drinker standards) (Design: Tina Tiller)

Duncan Greive looks back at the rise and legacy of Epic, one of the first of the new wave of independent brewers in Aotearoa, which is now facing liquidation.

I first encountered Epic when they agreed to sponsor a party we were planning for Real Groove, a magazine created by Real Groovy records. This was 15 years ago, when there was a plausible financial case for a chain of three (admittedly massive) music stores founding a monthly print publication to try to sell more CDs. It was also an era when New Zealand’s beer market was a simple and fairly boring place, dominated by Lion and DB, the two long-running giants of our brewing industry. The idea that a small indie brewer could just start making beer seemed enjoyably weird, as was their willing support of our fun but niche publication.

It was 2008, and we didn’t know it then, but that magazine was not long for this earth. The GFC was just around the corner, and I was already starting to download as much new music as I found on promo CDs. The iconic “burn and get burnt” anti-piracy campaign was already understood to have failed. Technology came for music before it came for any other pop cultural form, with Apple implicitly saying “now that you’re getting your music free, spend the savings on an iPod Touch”. Fifteen years on and Apple’s valuation has risen from US$80bn to $2.7 trillion, while companies selling culture are mostly buckling under huge debt loads, with some unlikely to make it out.

Yet while the music industry consolidated into ever fewer companies as culture was eaten by hardware and distribution, something magical seemed to be happening in beer – it was the same situation in reverse. We saw the rise of a vibrant and often fiercely independent craft beer scene, much of which could be read as an implicit critique of the rise of technology giants which tried to eat whole markets, and flatten all experiences into something blandly accessible to all. These new brewers were making things with their hands, experimenting with small batches, making strong and strange beer and selling to you directly from their fledgling bars and cellar doors. 

Epic was right at the beginning of that wave. While Emerson’s had been around for years, and Renaissance and Three Boys beat them out of the gate, Epic brought a different sensibility to the New Zealand craft beer scene. It felt informed less by the English real ale tradition than the rise of a rebellious brewing scene in the US. I felt like there was a natural kinship between the anti-establishment posture and DIY approach favoured by both indie record labels and craft breweries. While one group was being challenged, it gave you hope to see another scene rising.

It didn’t happen all that fast. Epic gave us 10 cases of its pale ale for that party, and at least half came home with me when the bold flavours proved a step too far for many colleagues and friends. Nowadays it would be considered a restrained, balanced craft beer; back then it was semi-revolutionary. 

Photo: Epic/Instagram

Luke Nicholas, Epic’s brewer, had just bought the brand from its founders, and it was he who really forged its reputation for hoppy, flavourful IPAs with OTT names like Armageddon and Hop Zombie. He became a spokesperson for the nascent craft scene, evangelising for it in the press as other startups like Garage Project, Tuatara, ParrotDog and Panhead grew, some of which would dwarf Epic in scale.

A few of those would also end up being bought by the very giant breweries they were disrupting. But Epic stayed the course independently, largely staying true to its IPA base even as other trends like sours and particularly hazies created huge opportunities within the market. It also largely kept to its distinctive design style, with its logo screaming from each can, even as much of the market followed Garage Project to lean into a different illustrative feel for each variety. This could be viewed as an admirable desire to stick to your core principles, or as failing to keep up with a fast-evolving category. Either way, the net effect was the same – the brewery marooned between the neighbourhood micro-breweries and those which achieved meaningful scale.

Still, its beer was almost always excellent. Its core range remained among the best in their categories, and something about their reliable, consistent quality felt reassuring and vaguely stoic, compared to a broader market which seemed in excess motion at times. When the major breweries came in and started to compete hard on price, it held firm, or even raised prices, betting that its customers would stay loyal. As Michael Donaldson noted in his exceptional survey of the industry’s travails for The Spinoff, Epic has not been the only brewery to discover that its adherents’ loyalty only stretched so far as escalating costs flowed through into supermarket prices.

When news broke last month that it was entering liquidation after a capital raise fell through, it sent shockwaves through the industry. For years brewers had warned that lockdowns, excise tax raises, CO2 shortages, aluminium price rises and steep increases in labour costs were making brewing uneconomic. Aside from a few smaller breweries, there was little concrete evidence that this was really biting. Now with Epic falling over, closely followed by Brothers Beer being put into voluntary administration, that reality is unavoidable.

There is a sad reversion to historical reality happening, whereby as the consumer becomes more price-conscious, they tend to shift back to beers put out by the very major breweries that brands like Epic existed to challenge. And in so doing they wear away at the spirit of innovation which helped fuel the craft brewing movement. 

Still, as Donaldson notes, for all the panic, most of the other 200 or so craft breweries in New Zealand seem to be hanging in there. Not long after the bad news broke I came upon Epic Pilsner at the Beer Spot near our office, and ordered it on sight. It came out crisp, flavourful but not overpowering – truly crafted in a way many more recent arrivals could learn from. It’s sad to think that absent the right buyer being found, this could be among the last of its kegs to roll out. But it was one of 40 beers on tap that day, representing dozens of different independent breweries. Whatever happens to Epic, that is its legacy – a rich, vibrant beer ecology that it played no small part in starting.

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