Luke Nicholas will celebrate his 50th birthday in style with the opening of the long-awaited Epic taproom in his Onehunga, Auckland, warehouse tomorrow (February 2).
Reaching his half-century means Nicholas has spent half his life working in beer … and it probably felt like it took just as long to get his taproom licence approved by Auckland Council.
Epic ran the taproom under a series of special licences during the middle of 2020 but that was unsustainable in the long-term. Nicholas hoped to open the taproom last September, but the process took much longer than expected.
“It’s been really hard with the council – there seemed to be barrier after barrier,” Nicholas said.
Part of the problem is that its location meant the council had to approve a “change of use” for an area zoned industrial under Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan.
“There was a bit of an issue with getting the licence because of the Auckland unitary plan and the change of use. Council were a little bit reluctant to let us do it.”
One of the conditions for approval was a restriction of 120sqm for the licenced area but Nicholas said that could be a blessing as it will stop the venue overwhelming the work area.
“It actually works out because we still need the space to operate as a warehouse.”
The beauty of the taproom is the authenticity of the warehouse – it’s not a created or contrived space – and Nicholas said he was inspired by trips to Los Angeles over the years.
“The idea came from my visits to the States. I had friends in LA where I’d visit for two or three days before going to a beer festival or a craft beer conference.
“And I’d say ‘hey take me somewhere new’ and every time it was a warehouse in an industrial estate. I’d be saying ‘where are we going?’ And we’d turn down a driveway and they’d say `we’re here’.
“You’d be wondering where you were but you’d walk in and go ‘holy crap: it’s awesome’.
“It’s the exact same feel here – people walk down driveway and ask ‘is this the right place?’. It’s almost like a speakeasy because it’s in this industrial space that you wouldn’t expect.
“This is pretty much like those LA experiences – I went to dozens and dozens and they were literally like this. It’s not in a typical building or typical location, it’s a unique experience.”
To keep with the underground, hard-to-find aspect, the taproom has no signage: visitors just have to keep an eye open for the sign that says 230B Neilson St and then follow their nose down a driveway next to a chain-link fence.
One of the eye-catching features in the warehouse is a giant industrial ceiling fan that cost $10,000 and was imported from the United States. It’s designed to keep the heat-soaked space cool in summer and will spread the heat in winter.
One of the ironies Nicholas found when he was running special licences was that he didn’t draw the crowd he expected.
“When we first opened with the special licences we thought we’d attract the craft beer geeks – Epic fans and people who would travel because you could get all the Epic beers available.
“What we found is that during the week we’d get the local businesses coming in and at the weekend we’d get he people who lived in the houses nearby. The idea of what we set up and why we set it up was blown out the window.”
The taproom has also helped Epic form a relationship with the nearby Onehunga Sports Club. A cross-pollination of drinkers between the two venues has seen members of the classic workingman’s club asking management to put some Epic on tap.
As a result Epic’s core hazy, Joose Party, has turned into a top-selling beer at the sports club where it sits on tap alongside the traditional options like Lion Red.
The one fear Nicholas has it that the taproom becomes too popular for the current space restrictions but if that’s the case he’s hopeful of renegotiating with the council.
“If it gets more successful, we’ll just move the packaging and pay for storage somewhere else. We’re better off making money selling retail beer than storing pallets really cheaply.”
Nicholas said one of the other drivers for the taproom was to counteract a crowded on-premise market where it was becoming increasingly harder to keep Epic beer on taps for any length of time around Auckland.
He says Epic kegs tend to have a short tap-life – selling out inside one or two days – after which he finds it hard to get a new keg on because managers want to showcase an ever increasing range of new brands.
“It’s become harder to have your beer on tap for any length of time. In that way the brand has become detrimental to itself because when it goes on tap, it sells really fast and then gets swapped out for a beer no-one knows that might be on for a week whereas we’d be on for a day.”
In contrast, at the new taproom it will be Epic all day, every day.