Need…Better…Hops!

By BeertownNZ Fri, 30 Oct 2015 Auckland

Epic’s Armageddon IPA is on a roll.

This year alone Armageddon has won top IPA trophies in Australia, New Zealand and Sweden.

It seems like Armageddon wins a trophy each time a Baptist preacher predicts an Apocalypse. That’s three countries, three competitions and three different batches of Armageddon. Epic brewer Luke Nicholas must be doing something right.

In the novelty-obsessed craft beer scene, Armageddon stands as a classic. It was first brewed in 2008 to go head-to-head with HallertauMaximus in the first Malthouse West Coast IPA Challenge. Since then it’s won numerous awards in domestic and international competitions, making it New Zealand’s most successful IPA in blind-tasted competitions.

Epic Brewing is famous for its generous use of hops – the slug line for Epic Hop Zombie is 'Need…More…Hops’ after all. But Luke says Armageddon’s success comes from the quality of the hops used as much as the quantity.

For Luke is a member of a tiny elite of brewers who are invited to select which batches of hops they use each year. In a process called the Selection, about 100 brewers from the USA and around the world are invited to choose which specific batch of hops they want, before the rest of the crop is blended and processed.

“They present me with a selection of different growers’ hops within a hop variety like Cascade. So I’ll be presented with six, eight different growers’ lots. I get them, rub them, smell them, prioritise them and decide which lot I want, so I get to pick out the characters that I like.

“I like the spicy character you can get out of Cascade at times. It changes from season to season but I’ve got to the point now of consistently choosing particular growers from certain parts of valleys that I just keep going back to in blind selections.

“Once the Selection brewers have chosen the lots they want, the rest gets blended together and processed – I refer to that as vanilla Cascade. I know when I smell our selection and compare it to vanilla stuff you can really get the difference. I used to laugh at the whole terroir thing but it’s absolutely correct, and to pick the same grower blind year-on-year is pretty cool.”

Luke has been involved in the Selection for several years. He says he is the only New Zealand brewer invited to Selection and the only one allowed to directly import US hops. Last year Epic imported 17 tonnes of hops from the US, and he is currently negotiating a larger order for this season.

Luke was in the States in September, choosing his favourites from this year’s crop of Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe, Citra and Mosaic hop varieties. The first shipment will arrive in reefer containers in late December – Happy Christmas!

“Being involved in Selection certainly contributes to Armageddon’s success, because every year you’re going to have a difference in hops because of the growing season. Some varieties suffered this year due to the drought and water shortages, other varieties thrived.

“When new season’s hops come in in its like starting from scratch with new ingredients. The really special thing is you can pick out peaks in the aromas that you won’t get from the vanilla blended hops.”

Luke says the next challenge for Armageddon is to medal at the World Beer Cup. “I’d given up on that a number of years ago because of the cost, but based on the recent three best-in-class it would be silly not to give it a go. It would be going up against 400 of the world’s best IPAs and there’s only one gold, one silver and one bronze. Winning a medal would just be an absolute coup.”

Check out this year's Malthouse West Coast IPA Challenge here. For best results, drink an IPA while viewing. Beertown.NZ takes no responsibility for anything at any time, etc etc.

By BeertownNZ Fri, 30 Oct 2015 Auckland