Epic Larger – Imperial Pilsner, 8.5% abv., (Auck., NZ). $11/500ml bottle.
So, finally, here we go. And what better place to start than with a beer recommended by a complete stranger over the internet from half a world away? As it turns out, this is by no means a bad beer. In fact it’s very good, and if you’re a fan of other beers in Epic’s range, you’ll know what to expect and probably find it even better than that. But there is something that bothers me about it, though it did take me a while to figure out what it was.
The term “Imperial Pilsner” was pretty new to me, but apparently it has been a popular enough genre in the U.S. for at least 5 years or so, and as the Epic blog itself makes clear a number of these have provided direct inspiration for the Larger (go check out larger.epicbeer.com, it’s worth it). It also destroys the illusion that Epic are a bunch of mad brewers bastardising perfectly good Pilsner recipes just to ramp it up to absurd and undrinkable strength. This is a beer crafted with precision and subtlety, though it does reinforce what those who have experienced the Hop Zombie have known or at least suspected. Epic is all about the hops, man, and there’s a carefully managed range of both NZ and U.S. hops going into this one.
It pours a light, golden colour and is much clearer than it probably appears in the photo, with a definite citrusy, zesty aroma and a white, medium (one finger) head that clears reasonably quickly. Taste is crisp and clean with a dry and nicely bitter finish, and what I thought was a reasonably high carbonation. Certainly the body was not as thick as I would have expected. The hops don’t overpower the taste but they do dominate, and I found it very difficult to pick up any of the malt character – I wrote down “biscuity” towards the end but now I’m not so sure. It’s a very nice, refreshing beer that would almost be sessionable for hopheads but it packs a punch if you let yourself forget it’s strength.
And there’s the problem. An Imperial Pilsner is a weird idea to start with, a superstrength version of something supposed to be an easy drink. Marketed almost as an extreme beer, devoid of “subtlety” and a “delicate touch” (check the label if you don’t believe me), it’s nothing of the sort. It’s nowhere near the strongest beer out there, not even close, and neither is it the hoppiest. Given that it’s Epic and a Pilsner, you could argue they’ve even been restrained in this one, or perhaps I was just scarred by their Hop Zombie, I don’t know. Reading the label leaves me with the impression of a high quality beer with an identity crisis and yet, what better brew could there be to seduce mainstream drinkers than something stronger, more refreshing and far, far better than (but still oddly familiar to) what they are used to drinking. Especially if it’s still affordable and they can feel like they are skirting the boundaries of the possible while they are doing it. Reading the Epic blog assures you that this beer is crafted with professionalism and sincerity but for me there’s a fair bit of disconnect going on.
The second part of this blog is about matching a beer with a soundtrack, and here the choice is clear. It’s Green Day’s Dookie. No wait, hear me out. This was their major-label debut, one of the albums that launched the pop-punk wave of the mid 90s, and has sold something like 15 million copies (a demi-semi-Dark Side, if you will). Yet it is full of musically unadventurous rehashings of old progressions played twice as fast and twice as loud, repackaged with manufactured attitude for the masses. Yes, Billie Joe swears a bit but this isn’t the existential angst of Damaged nor the spitting venom of Holiday in Cambodia. The harmonies are tight, the guitars compressed, nothing is out of place and there’s no real mongrel, no mess, no genuine rebellion or danger. Listen to “Pulling Teeth“, imagine the guitars with no distortion and tell me it would sound nothing like the Everly Brothers, I dare you. And yet there’s something there (for me, in songs like “She“) that promises something deeper, that hints at the stronger stuff to come. Something that reassures us that these aren’t snot-nosed kids cynically exploiting trends but actually are trying to articulate…well, something, no doubt, and that is what makes the record valuable. I’m sure that’s why Kerrang! named it as one of the 100 albums to listen to before you die. So you should probably do that while drinking an Epic Larger which was, it seems, designed at least partly as the perfect beer to help to escape from the mainstream, and then move on to something that may not be as good but does actually give you a peek at what is possible. You never know, you could end up drinking Mikkeller Black and listening to Meshuggah, which can only lead to good things.
Verdict: A very good beer especially if you like your hops up front and have no interest in marketing strategies. 72/100.