This must be the most-launched beer in recent memory. There was a first launch at Pomeroy’s in Christchurch, and then another at the Malthouse in Wellington (occasionally referred to as the “North Island launch”, in a weirdly straw-clutchy way). A week later, during Good Beer Week in Melbourne, at the delightful Cookie (a former occasional haunt of mine), there was an erroneously-billed “world premiere”, at which the beer itself was accidentally referred to by its in-house project codename: “One Trick Pony”. Then, back in the Little Country there were release parties in Auckland and Hamilton — a full calendar month after its first “first appearance”.
That’s not really a criticism; it’s more (or at least also) a nod to the tireless promotional efforts and getting-among-the-people that the Epic boys are willing to do. And they always throw a good party (as much as Luke may wind up inevitably whinging for more head-bang-worthy music), and manage to grab headlines without any manipulative or deceptive bullshit1 — as I said when I was rambling about beer and marketing, a certain amount of brashness and swagger may be their m.o., but it’s unquestionably authentic and genuine. Unlike, you know, some people. And that, I think, counts for a whole bunch.
Malthouse couldn’t match Cookie’s astonishing record of a keg emptied in 40 minutes — one pint every twenty-four seconds, on average; that’s pretty-much just a tap left open, with glassware conveyoring along beneath it — but we blammed through four-and-a-bit kegs on the night and four more over the next five days. That’s 400 litres in a touch under a week. Which translates (for those not in the business / lacking a head for numbers / both) as rather a lot. Epic’s devotees are always eagerly awaiting a new release (or even just the return of a seasonal), and this one was pitched cleverly enough that it seemed to lure a whole heap of other people in, too. Masses of them obviously liked it, and in the gap between it running out and its any-day-now reappearance,2 it’s probably been our most-asked-after absent beer (with Yeastie Boys ‘Rex Attitude’ in second place, I’d guess).
Most of us were expecting a straightforwardly embiggened ‘Armageddon’ — especially after the product codename somehow made its way out of the brewery. I think One Trick Pony is a fucking excellent name for a big-hoppy-something from Epic, though I perhaps have a conflict of interest, here: I’ve personally levelled that phrase at them in the past and been quick to congratulate them for ducking out from under the shadow of their own stereotype. When NZ Craft Beer TV (i.e., mostly-Epic-but-with-collaborators-of-a-sort) ‘Mash Up’ came out, the Spectre of the Pony was clearly on their minds, and people like little old me might’ve helped put it there. But, to their credit, they just keep doing their thing; the fatal point against O.T.P. as a beer name is probably just the simple truth that, as funny as they can be, self-deprecating humour just isn’t quite their style.
Returning to the beer itself, it’s definitely not just Armageddon Plus. It’s fairly radically different, actually; as I poured the first pint of it — with Rob Zombie up loud on the Malthouse sound system at about 3a.m., just for the occasion — the gorgeous pale gold of it was striking enough to induce a cartoonish double-take. On paper it’s bigger and wallopier than Armageddon, but in person it’s much sneakier than that. It’s officially more bitter, but the extra booze brings with it an undeniable sweetness that compensates — and while the hops-per-litre have gone up, in this the best word for them is lush. The varieties used and the sheer freshness of the local ones, make for an intense-but-gorgeous aroma of fruit salad shoved forcefully up the nose. The surprising deftness of it made it quaffable, but the booze provided a warning warmth, politely hinting that you probably shouldn’t down it as quickly as you happily could.
Hop-forward as the beer definitely is, that pale malt body was perfectly put together and matched to the other components, and since that’s a quality it shared with its ‘Mash Up’ brother, it probably has a lot to do with the relatively-recent hiring of Kelly Ryan. It’s way too simplistic to think of Kelly as the Malt Guy balancing out Luke the Hop Nut, of course — you can see Luke paying better attention to his malts way back in June 2009, if you know where to look — but something excellent is happening as a result of having those two brains working on the same problem, even as they stick within the confines of the Pony Enclosure, for now.
Just-about the only thing you could say against it, I thought — since I do think like that — is that it was too unexpectedly nice for a beer carrying the name Epic Hop Zombie. People were expecting a proper hop-resin-stained axe handle to the brain, and instead they got charm and something bordering on gorgeousness. Hearing the pitch — 8.5%, 80 IBU IIPA — they expected a rhinoceros but got a unicorn.3 But later occurred to me that it totally works, if you have the right kind of zombie in mind; you need the classic, shambling sort — more Shaun of the Dead than Resident Evil, you want to be picturing the ones from something like ‘Left 4 Dead’ (seriously, if you haven’t played it, you should; it’s a fucking masterpiece of the genre, cheap as chips, and will even run on your accursed Mac — if you’re one of them). Those zombies — just like Hop Zombie — are individually basically entirely harmless, but if you’re silly enough to take on a group of them on your own and underprepared… Well, then you might just be in trouble.
Verbatim: Epic ‘Hop Zombie’ IIPA 12/5/11 8.5% launched (North Island) here @ MH tonight, and the absurd busy-ness relaxed the New Staffie Regime. Unexpectedly pale gold, really. Lush fruitiness; some inevitable sweetness, with a little bit of building boozewarmth. I still prefer the ‘other name’, but this works in old-movie terms; individually harmless — but if you get a group, you’re dead. Worryingly quaffable, you’d have to say.
1: Naturally, I’m assuming (provisionally) that the multiple “launches” weren’t a case of deception. Wellington, Auckland and Hamilton were locally-true “release parties”, and I’d imagine that the “first ever public tasting” language of the Melbourne announcement was a case of communication breakdown / crossed-wires / changed timing / overzealous or carried-away promo writers, rather than trickery.
2: He says, writing this up on 6 July 2011. I am very gradually closing in on the value of t.
3: An easy confusion to make, if you think about it. Older-school myths reference unicorns as beasts of strength and power and terror, rather than sparkly foresty bordering-on-Twilighty things of wussiness.