Epic Brewing Company founder, Epic Brewing Company managing director and Epic Brewing Company social media guru Luke Nicholas has just created a beer called “Epic Message in a Bottle IPA.”  Both will be launched in Wellington on Thursday 2 August 2012 from 8pm at Malthouse.  The noted author and the impish brewer will be in attendance. [1]

Michael has been writing about beer for a while now after a long career in sports journalism.  I certainly admired his forthright columns on key sporting events over many years.  When it was announced that he was leaving the sports desk to become the Sunday Star Times’ regular beer columnist, I was initially sceptical.  It seemed like a big stretch. 

I imagine that if I suddenly tried to become a sports writer, my report on New Zealand’s bronze medal in the Olympic three day eventing would read something like “then some toff kicked his horse and it totally knocked over part of a tiny, flimsy looking fence which they could have easily walked around.” [2]

It is fair to say that his first columns contained a few noticeable errors and there was some angst among the anoraks.  Those early wobbles were followed by rapid and sustained improvement – in style, accuracy and beer selection. [3] I believe this lift was based on research, interviews and tastings.  These days, Michael reads up on the style, talks to the brewer, tastes the beer and expresses a firm opinion.  It is a simple recipe but it works. Given the large readership of the paper, what Michael Donaldson says in his columns about beer has a significant influence.

My confidential sources close to Fairfax confirm he spends a lot of time researching his beer writing and this book is clearly the result of considerable hard work.  It charts his development as a beer drinker and how the New Zealand beer scene has fluctuated dramatically from colonialism to The Swill to duopoly and then into a craft beer renaissance. 

In the introduction, he sets out the key beer event in his life:

“Apart from my month away from drinking, which was for a newspaper story on the benefits of abstinence (none that I could see), the other time I endangered my relationship with beer was when I moved to Australia in the mid-1990s.  In Australia I came close to becoming a wine wanker. [4] I blame it on my friends and the poor quality of mainstream Australian beers.  Falling in with a group of people who knew and understood wine lifted my appreciation and I started collecting the stuff. My salvation lay in a return to New Zealand in 2005 – back to a beer culture that had changed dramatically.  It was January and my brother handed me a Monteith’s Summer Ale. 

Hello, this is different!  I probably wouldn’t drink it now but back then it was another step towards the realisation that I’d first had in Belgium ten years earlier: as much as I had once loved Speight’s, there more to beer than 4% brown lager. 

My intermediate steps were courtesy of Mac’s Hop Rocker, Monteith’s Winter Ale… but I took a fork in the road one Christmas Eve at the Martinborough Hotel, where Emerson’s Pilsner was on tap.  To say it was a religious epiphany is a bit extreme, but it was a revelation.  All the small steps that had taken me to this place seemed suddenly like a giant stride.  That sudsy, fruity, tangy, fragrantly hopped and very moreish pilsner consumed in the heart of wine country was transformative… I’d crossed the line and had become a beer geek.”

This story certainly reflects my personal beer journey and what I have observed running many tastings over the years.  Very few people go straight from drinking pints of Tui to chalices of Chimay.  There usually have to be some intermediate beer steps on the way and – while they may be embarrassing in retrospect – they are absolutely necessary. 

After all, the late great Michael Jackson said “Let’s all work to get people to drink more good beer, so if someone walks into your office and says he drinks Corona, don’t immediately call him a dickhead.”  Similarly, if people had dissed that young-ish returning Kiwi in 2005 who was drinking the Summer Ale [5] he might never have gone on to write the most significant New Zealand beer book of the year.

At a broader level, I was taken with his characterisation of the four waves of modern brewing in New Zealand.  First, there was duopoly (Lion, DB), then The Holy Trio(Middlemiss, Emerson and Pink), the Regional brewers (Sunshine, Harrington’s, Tuatara, Epic, Three Boys) and then the fourth wave of nano breweries (8Wired, Liberty, Yeastie Boys). 

There are also chapters on history, beer and food, brewing, women and beer as well as appendices, an index, a bibliography and, brilliantly, a list of all the beers drunk during writing. [6]

There are plenty of photographs, many sourced from the brewers’ own collections so readers get to see what many of them looked like 10 years ago.  The best photo is on p.144 (if Carl Harrington was any more chilled out in his private keg bunker he would be clinically dead) followed by p.207 (a wild eyed Stu McKinlay on the day – I believe – he unleashed Rex Attitude on an unsuspecting public and had their incredulous reactions captured on film) then p.128 (either a twenty year old Richard Emerson or an eight year old Chuck Norris, I can’t tell).

The new beer, Epic Message in a Bottle (7.5%, 50 IBUs), is a brew which pays homage to the early New Zealand IPAs inspired by the originals from England.  It is made with original yet outrageously expensive imported English malt, hops and yeast with local Burtonised water.  Michael says “it is fantastic – literally bittersweet; caramel malt, rounded bitter character, alcohol warmth – love it.” 

Try the beer and buy the book – from 8pm at Malthouse on Thursday 2 August 2012. 

For those hopheads wanting even more Humulus Lupulus, Colin the Handsome yet Softly Spoken Scottish Proprietor has indicated there will be isomerised hop oil available.  People simply have to ask at the bar…

[1] There are also launches in Auckland (O’Carroll’s – tonight), England (undisclosed location – tomorrow) and Christchurch (Pomeroy’s – 6 August) – see Michael Donaldson’s blog for details.

[2] Mind you, my first newspaper beer article was 500 words long and it basically consisted of me saying fifteen times that all the Parrot and Jigger beers smelt fruity, were sweet in the middle and then bitter at the end.

[3] I read a newspaper column some time ago which could have been accurately headlined “I got free samples of four disparate beers and they did not fit into any other articles so here we go.”

[4] Rumours that John Saker has applied to IPONZ to trademark this term could not be substantiated by the time of publication.  I probably should have rung them…

[5] It must have been tempting, let’s be honest here.

[6] Tellingly, there are over 110 beers listed and only 23 from Lion, DB and Independent put together. 


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