Late last week, the story suddenly broke that Epic1 had gone into liquidation. As one of the best-known names of the early craft beer scene in New Zealand, and likely the “gateway beer” for a sizeable chunk of the subculture, the news was received with shock and sadness, labelled a tragedy, and many wondered what it foretold for the wider industry as they praised the legacy of founder Luke Nicholas. But a lot of the reaction has mistaken historical influence for current relevance or viability,2 and overlooked some real problems that should have been more obvious to all concerned.
The failure must’ve been a long time coming, its apparent suddenness something of an illusion like a structure finally toppling after years of hidden rot. Epic were apparently on the brink of announcing plans to at last build their own brewery after sixteen years as a contract-only brand with no production capacity of their own.3 But when the (as yet unnamed) investor behind that project pulled out, they went within days straight to outright liquidation instead. In Michael Donaldson’s article that broke the news, Luke is quoted saying that the contract brewing model “doesn’t work anymore” — but way back in 2017, with his company already a decade old, Luke had previously given Michael a quote cautioning others that starting a brewery wasn’t viable “unless you control the production and a big chunk of the supply chain”.4 Just why he was so slow to take his own advice (or admit to himself he wasn’t exempt from his own observation), I’m not sure. My point is just that Epic’s precarious position in 2023 was very much the result of Luke’s own choices over the years before. So — what else has been going on?
The question of beer quality and its relevance here is slightly complicated by Epic’s existence as a contract-only brand. Their beers have always been brewed at Steam, who have won the Brewers’ Guild award for Champion Manufacturer every year but one. So that side of things seems credibly reliable, but it is fair to say that Epic’s own performance at the awards hasn’t been much to boast about, lately.5 Maybe some of that is recipe design, or storage, or something else, but this is not a brand that is currently riding high in blind competitions against its peers. Consider also that Epic rather-predictably won the People’s Choice award at the Malthouse West Coast IPA Challenge last Friday (the day after the liquidation announcement), but wasn’t on the podium as ranked by the judges. And they’ve dropped off precipitously in the “best of” lists of popular beer-rating sites like Untappd and Ratebeer — which do, of course, measure hype a lot more than quality as such, but ideally you want both, and it’s very hard to get by without either.
The one thing Epic did make ‘in-house’ — and their sole concession to their founder’s own advice about controlling the supply chain — is their relatively new taproom. And that looks like the kind of minimally-viable offering that a startup brewery could maybe get away with ten years ago; a huge warehouse space, with pallet racking full of packing material and plastic picnic tables laid out each week once the work is shuffled away. I’ve never been, and I’m willing to believe anyone who tells me they had a nice time there, but the idea it’s any kind of homage to experiences at breweries in Los Angeles seems extremely generous,6 or simply outdated.
And that sense of a timewarp, of a throwback to the days gone by of “craft beer”, is what struck me the hardest when I looked at Epic’s recent releases for the first time in ages.7 They just launched a beer called Snakes On A Plane, referencing a movie that came out in 2006. Last winter, and again last month, they put out collaborations with A.J. Hackett — the man / company known for commercialising bungy jumping in the 1980s and 1990s. Arguably worst and weirdest is Root Red, pitched as the first in a probably-now-doomed series to be based on the seven chakras derived from Hindu tradition, popular in various yoga practices — and just really rather awkward8 to see used, by a fifty year old white guy, to market a beer.
It all hardly feels capable of appealing to a new cohort of beer drinkers; the originals are overfamiliar and in dire need of a refresh, the newer releases look cheap and shoddy.9 Both factors would make it extremely easy to pass them over when scanning the shelves. Epic may have been a gateway beer for an earlier demographic (mine), but how true is that lately? You might not like the fact that branding is relevant to success, but it is. The public has come to expect a level of effort that Epic just aren’t providing — in a crowded market, they don’t seem to be doing anything much to earn a continued share.
Finally, you simply can’t discuss Epic without focusing on Luke himself. He was New Zealand’s version of Greg Koch from Stone in the U.S.; a loud, evangelizing presence, arguably a key catalyst in the fledgling subculture — but who became extremely tiresome as his schtick grew stale and the industry moved on. It’s striking that writers who are otherwise being very general and objective often take the time to point out how divisive he is, introducing him as “one of those outspoken, polarising, love-him-or-hate-him types”10 or noting that “his personality is as big and brash as his beers, and he is both liked and loathed for his cheeky, mischievous nature”.11 That just doesn’t happen with other prominent people in the beer business. He was infamous, in my days at The Malthouse, for being a real nuisance during busy events, to the point he had to be managed and monitored — and, honestly, he got away with the kind of behaviour that would’ve had anyone else barred and should’ve seen him barred. Bar staff witnessing that side of him would easily become less inclined to stock his beer,12 and I have to assume (hope, even) that at least some customers would feel the same. Certainly, when your company’s brand and your own personality are so entwined, it’s probably bad business strategy to let yourself become known as a bit of a dick.13
In the end, liquidation is a weird process. Maybe someone will buy the company mostly intact and keep it running.14 They might even get Luke to keep running it. Personally, I would advise against both. Being sold for parts and consigned to history might be the kindest thing that could happen to Epic, at this point. I won’t mourn it.
afterthoughts, 4 September: Well, someone did buy Epic, and kept Luke on. I guess we’ll see how that goes. The new owner looks to be a joint venture between some construction company and Hancock’s — a liquor distributor who were listed as one of Epic’s creditors in the liquidation documents (but I’ve no idea to what extent they were owed money) and who had one amazingly inept and hilarious and ill-fated previous foray into contracting their own beer a decade ago which is well worth revisiting. I’ll be curious to see how much effort goes in to addressing some of the problems outlined above. It still seems wrong that the sole director and majority shareholder can just get bailed out and given a new job doing (mostly) the same thing, while who knows how many tens of thousands of dollars of debts just get written off. Company law sucks in many, many ways but the lack of consequences for directors is particularly grim. I hope Epic’s other creditors put some pretty punitive terms into any dealings with the new entity; they should be able to take a compensatory slice out of Luke’s salary directly.
- The one based in Auckland, not the one from Salt Lake City — which seems to be going strong, and now might not need to worry about a trademark clash ever looming.
- Which is easy to do when the timeframe is less than two decades, but some things move fast in this business. (And other trends ebb and flow over centuries. It’s complicated.)
- It’s a peculiarly common business model in New Zealand, used to great success by a few familiar names (like 8 Wired, probably most famously) as a way to get going, with a view to establishing their own brewery after a few years (and in turn often helping fund the expansion of already-existing operations). It’s such a core part of the scene here that it’s discussed at length in Tim Webb & Stephen Beaumont’s World Atlas of Beer, as least in the 3rd and 4th editions on my shelf. But only Yeastie Boys have tried to go contract-only remotely as long as Epic, and that has been occasionally fraught and required them to significantly change their approach along the way.
- Michael Donaldson, Beer Nation (2ed, 2017), p336
- Their participation is a little patchy, too, but the last year I’d say they did “well” (in terms of my usual analysis of medal percentage of points-per-entry) was 2018 (MPC 80, PPE 1.6). Epic didn’t contest the awards in 2021, but 2019 and 2022 were decidedly average overall and their flagship beers haven’t snagged a trophy (or even a gold) in a while.
- And they would have nice stainless steel to look at.
- Going by Untappd, the last time I drank one of their beers was 2015; the last time anything warranted an entry in an actual Beer Diary was 2011. My options for photographs to illustrate this post where thereby drastically reduced.
- And possibly in breach of alcohol marketing rules? Luke would have to hope that his quasi-spiritual claims were too vague to be actionable.
- I had assumed that the clipped-off logo on the Root and Summer Nights cans on their web store was an artefact of making a mockup but photos from Untapped show that no, they look that bad in person.
- Michael Donaldson, Beer Nation (1ed, 2012), p149 — which is very first sentence about him, and which survived verbatim into the second edition (p169) and again leads the section about him, despite the rest of the narrative getting a pretty strong overhaul.
- Jules van Costello, Brewed (2ed, 2017), p107
- I certainly was, years later as a beer-buyer over here in Melbourne.
- And also just, you know, bad. But we’re talking about the failure of his company, here, not doing an ethics 101.
- postscript: Just after publishing this, I noticed a post from Deep Creek encouraging someone to try to buy the brand and recipes and suggesting they brew it under a licensing agreement to “save the beer that inspired us all”. It is extremely telling that they’re not planning to try to buy it themselves…