Brew Hui Meets: Luke Nicholas

In my day-job, polarising personalities are a dime-a-dozen.

Academia seems to attract people who have a thirst for jousting with others over matters of interpretation – with little thought given to the face behind their opponent’s mask. And that’s fine, if not expected – since ability to separate the personal from the professional are hallmarks of any academic worth their salt. The example that proves this theory is the fact that I’m rubbish at it.

Luke Nicholas – founder of Epic Brewing Company – would be the first to cop to being a polarising personality; in fact, he was the one who brought it up.

Not long into our hui, he reeled-off some of the brewer’s names who just won’t talk to him anymore because of what he’s said about their produce. And one glance at his blog – which has taken social media by storm since starting at the beginning of the year – gives you some insight into why he might occasionally rub people up the wrong way. He’s certainly not afraid to chuck grenades; but rather than hiff-and-hide – or parry, to return to our jousting metaphor – Luke prefers to stand in No-Mans-Land and wait for return-fire.

And I’ve got a lot of time for someone with that sort of courage of their convictions.

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Like many (if not most) polarising personalities, the quality of Luke’s work shines with rare incandescence. His success is not the result of magic; rather, it’s the natural product of toil, commitment and risk. Case in point: within 48 hours of returning to New Zealand after living in California for several years, he arrived on the doorstep of a newly-formed brewpub called the Cock and Bull – head brewer: one Ben Middlemiss. He offered up his services, and worked unpaid for a year before demand for Ben’s fledgling beers created an assistant brewer role. Over the course of that year he cleaned tanks, painted floors, whatever – all the while learning his trade from one of New Zealand’s greats.

Here’s a wee taste of our discussion around this topic – which begins with me trying to gleam homebrewing tips, but eventually leads to a discussion about the birth of Epic Pale Ale, the rise-and-fall of the Cock and Bull and the awesomeness of Ben Middlemiss:

We sampled some tasty treats as our hui drew on – I even took along a bottle of the inaugural Brew Hui pale ale for a taste. (Luke’s first words were “F**king awesome” – I kid you not. There may have been some additional words in the sentence, such as “for a first effort”, but I’d stopped listening by then.) I also took along a bottle of Leigh Sawmill’s The Doctor – a biscuity doppelbock that won high praise from Luke (and me too, of course – but that’s like shooting a big fish in a small barrel with a bazooka.) But the tastiest treats of all were the ones that Luke pulled from the Epic fridge – some of which only exist in said fridge, and so I had to cross my heart to not talk about them. (Wives that aren’t really listening anyway don’t count, right?)

In true Brew Hui style, the Just One Hour that I’d promised him quickly turned to Three; but he didn’t seem to mind. I even jumped in my car with some tasty parting koha – which I had gratefully accepted, as long as Luke understood that I was going to say nice things anyway. But that’s not just because my writing style only comes in positive; it’s also because – polarising personality or not – Luke is an important piece of New Zealand’s craft beer furniture.

He’s seen bubbles burst and businesses fold – but rather than hope for the demise of his competitors with blood-thirsty glee, he’d rather wave flags and warn of rocky times ahead. He thinks no-one should have to drink diacetyl, or DMS, or oxidation; and when he tastes those things in a competitor’s beer, he tells them so. That kind of frankness might occasionally ruffle feathers; but if doing so creates an expectation of excellence from brewers, retailers and everyone in-between, then Luke: ruffle-away.

I’m sure there are other sides to the They Won’t Talk To Me Anymore stories – there always are – but I can’t help but wonder how much of that is clash of personality rather than objective dissonance. Sure, he’s a relentless spade-caller; but from what I can gather, he rarely does so without backing it up with possible solutions. Perhaps such a personality is more easily camouflaged in the world of academia than it is in brewing.

Twitter: @jasegurney | Facebook: www.facebook.com/brewhui

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