The Trilogy MMXVI: Hops ft. Epic

silver beer can on bed of hops

Hops. Malt. Yeast. No beer of our eon is complete without each of these fundamental elements. Nourished by the sun and soil and siphoned through the brewer's vision, the alchemy of these ingredients spawns infinite spectra of flavour compositions that imbue each individual brew with its unique identity. As a privileged purveyor of these gifts to the most fervent enclaves of beer lovers in the UK and beyond, Northern Monk Brew Co. is proud to debut the annual Trilogy series in honour of Hops, Malt, and Yeast.

three silver beer cans
(photo by Tom Joy)

Each year henceforth, we will release a trilogy of special beers to showcase the beauty of each of these ingredients in its full glory. For each year, we will designate an umbrella theme that unifies the three beers together, marking a chapter amidst our odyssey towards the frontiers of flavour possibilities. In this inaugural year, we deem it opportune that The Trilogy MMXVI (2016) series would take it back to square one, trading cosmetics and pyrotechnics for unadulterated purity. In other words, we've pursued timeless beer styles that serve as the perfect liquid canvases for colouring upon with each ingredient's trademark flavours.

To assist us with each installment of The Trilogy MMXVI, we've invited world class brewers whose repertoires are the envy of any beer connoisseur: Epic Brewing from New Zealand (Hops), Brouwerij De Molen from the Netherlands (Malt), and Cigar City Brewing from the United States of America (Yeast). The first to grace the shelves is Hops India Pale Ale in collaboration with Epic.

Luke Nicholas, Epic's world-renowned brewer and owner, was generous enough to take a detour from his international excursions to lend his hop Midas touch to our Trilogy IPA. In between brewing duties, we treated Luke to a tasting session of our beers at our taproom The Refectory right above the brew house. We took this opportunity to interview him alongside our head brewer Brian Dickson about the first ever Trilogy project and more.

smiling man in epic shirt toasting beer
(Luke Nicholas, owner and brewer of Epic Brewing Company, NZ)

Q: This brewing collaboration is all about hops. So, which are your favourite hop varietals?

BRIAN: You don't make this easy do you? Well, Citra's fairly easy. It's unique, you can't beat it, and it just gives more than anything else. My other favourite is probably Chinook. It goes with everything. It's got spice. It's got citrus. It's got depth to it. It works in anything. I could add it to whatever, and it will improve it. I'm happy with those two.

LUKE: I guess my favourites at the moment... because it changes based on the beers you're brewing and the seasons and how they've changed - but probably for me, Columbus is quite a signature in our beers. But in the last 12 months or so, the Mosaic beers I've made have become really, really popular, probably because of the awesome fruit that that hop gives to a beer. So Mosaic for this big resiny, piney character and also Mosaic for the fruit.

Q: What is the vision that you guys had for the Trilogy Hops India Pale Ale?

BRIAN: As hoppy as possible! [laughs] We mostly spoke about just the hops.

LUKE: It's called Hops, isn't it?

BRIAN: Yeah, exactly. So we just went for that. From our end, we kept it pretty juicy. I put forth Citra and Mosaic, and Luke nominated all his favourite hops, Mosaic and Columbus. That's his favourite combination. It was as simple as putting the three together. It all came down to deciding what ratios to use them in to prevent one from dominating the other. Because hops like Citra, as I say, can just take over whatever it goes into.

LUKE: Just owns it.

three men drinking beer and smiling

BRIAN: Yeah, just owns it. So it's about getting the balance right. But the three hops, I think we decided on pretty quickly. The main thing is keeping the rest of the beer fairly light, not a heavy malt profile, and using the yeasts that really accentuate the hop character. Basically just getting as much of the hop flavour through as possible. And obviously, it should be drinkable as well. It shouldn't be strong. It shouldn't be dangerous. It should be crisp and packed full of hops flavour. You want an IPA, basically...

LUKE: I think keeping the malt really light is the key to it. It's supposed to be the theatre that carries and showcases the hops. It's not about the malt character. There'll be just enough featured as theatre to hold it all together, but it's not like the maltiness would come through. So it's going to be screaming hops, because it's good hops, right?

BRIAN: Yeap. It's all about showcasing the main ingredients.

LUKE: Hops. There's your interview. It's just hops. [laughs]

Q: Luke, since you've arrived in the UK, what are your thoughts about the beer scene here?

LUKE: I've only been here for a couple of days. This is my third or fourth day. All the beers I've tried have been really amazing. I had the Rainbow Projects, where they partnered with New Zealand breweries, and every single one of those beers were just really, really good. So it was pretty exciting to try all those beers and get to see the quality of those breweries. They're all outstanding breweries making absolutely amazing beers, so I think it's really exciting. I think for me, the UK is special because of the real ale and casks, which you don't get pretty much anywhere else in the world. You can find it if you hunt for it, but it's much easier getting it up here. And when you find that pub that looks after a cask really well, that is one of the best beer experiences you can have in the world... is having fresh ale from a cask that's in beautiful condition. So yeah, beer in the UK is amazing!

Q: Why is Northern Monk the right UK brewery for you to collaborate with?

LUKE: It was an opportunity, really. My friends from Beertique asked me if I'd be interested. I was going to be in the U.S. for a hop harvest and after that, I'll be going to China for a beer festival and also to meet some of our customers. So I had some time in between some key dates, and the opportunity came up to come here for nearly a week. I haven't done a collaboration for a while, but having tasted your beers and the World Beer Cup-winning [Eternal] session IPA, plus the fact that it's all about hops, which I drive my beers on, it just made a lot of sense for us to get together. It was a whole bunch of things. It was like, 'yeah, this is just right. It fits with me.' You guys seem to be doing pretty much the same thing that I do with hops, just getting crazy with it, and that excites me. And having tasted your beers, I thought these are really good beers! I'm really excited to be involved.

man pouring sack of hops into brewing tank

Q: Northern Monk's philosophy is all about learning from the past, staying relevant in the present, and looking forward into the future. What do you think is in-store for the future of hops in the brewing industry?

LUKE: I think people are going to use a lot more hops in the future. But I guess it gets to a point where it gets harder and harder for the smaller and newer breweries to actually get on the hop train and get their contracts, because everyone just wants so much more all the time. And it's really important for breweries to get contracts. There are many challenges for breweries to continue to grow at the speed that we have to actually get the amount of hops that we need for making the beers that people love. It involves a lot of planning and forecasting. There are a lot of risks, too, because over the years that I've been involved, certain hops have fallen out of favour, and other ones have become really popular. Also, trying to manage your contracts for the volume of the hops that you need going forward is always a challenge, because sometimes you think 'oh wow, this one's going to keep growing like this year after year,' but it sorts of reaches a plateau, and something else becomes popular. I mean, beer styles evolve over time. They change, and you have to change with them, because you can't force people to drink something of a flavour where they go 'yeah, I've had that before. I liked it, but it's boring. Now, I like this new exciting thing over here.' It's just the evolution of beer and what people like to drink, and the brewer has to keep up with that. But at the same time, you're leading, so you've got to think about what's happened in the past and at the same time, look towards the future about how you're going to make beer.

Q: Creatively, what's left to be done with hops?

LUKE: What's left? It's all been done! We all want to drink Boddingtons now. [laughs] No, I think there's always some inspiration that just pops out of nowhere. Sometimes, I think about... even in the last 12 months, the beers that I've made... I'm thinking if I look back 12 months, I would not have foreseen myself making the beers that I've been making. Because there's so much creativity within craft brewing around the planet, and I'm quite privileged to be able to travel around the world and see stuff at the local level that is different from different places. And you get really excited like 'oh wow, this is really different here,' and you don't go away to copy it, but you're inspired by it. To take something new and take it in a totally new direction, which is really cool. And someone might try one of my beers and do the same thing, and they go 'I'm not gonna copy it, because that's already been made, but you've given me a really cool idea, and I'm gonna go THIS way with it.' Craft beer is just exploding and going all over the place, and then certain people get lucky with their branding and the beer that they've made. And that beer will become their flagship and really explode. And other people might not get the branding right, even though the beer is really good. It's really hard, because you've got to get everything right. It's not just making really great beer. You've got to have the whole package and the story and the infrastructure and your hop contracts. It's not just like 'hey, I'm a homebrewer.' It's really, really complex to make really great beer and selling it, too.