Despite its diminutive stature and population of roughly 4.8 million, New Zealand boasts more than 220 craft breweries, with this figure growing at an average rate of 16% per year since 2008. That works out at 4.56 breweries per 100,000 residents, more than the UK, Australia and the USA. With those figures, it’s pretty safe to say, that Kiwis like their beer! Whilst only around 10% of beer consumed in the country is “craft”, this still leaves an incredible range of phenomenal breweries doing crazy, sustainable and delicious things with hops. One such, is Sawmill Brewery. We drop in on the rural taproom to meet co-owner Kirsty McKay and find out a little about their journey.
Perched just outside of the small town of Matakana, neighboured by hectares of sprawling wine country, sits The Sawmill Brewery & Smoko Room. From the outside, it doesn’t appear to be much more than a large shed-like structure guarded by an artistic, rusted green fermenter embellished with the unassuming Sawmill logo. However, as we enter, we realise that it is so much more. A long burnished brass bar lined with no fewer than 14 beer taps spans the length of the first space. Behind it resides the working brewery with its towering tanks, large hoses and busy staff members.
“We wanted the brewery to be really transparent. I always wanted people to see the plastic buckets and the ordinary stuff, along with hearing the occasional bit of swearing and things getting dropped. I didn’t want to close it away behind a glass partition like in a lot of wineries do. This is noisy and busy, but you’re here – you’re really in it.”
Long fluorescent strip lights angle along the roof, making the tanks glisten and illuminating all the way to the back of the building. Reclaimed, untreated timber slats made from storm-felled native beech covers the walls of the public areas, giving the venue a rustic yet modern feel that continues in the suntrap beer garden.
Kirsty goes on to tell us that when they expanded in July 2016, it was important for her and her husband/business partner, Mike, to be rural and not be pushed into an industrial site. As with their beer, place was paramount, from the stools made by kids in a trust in Northland, local light fittings and cushions that were dyed by a friend before being sewn up by Mike’s mum, to the quality, local and seasonal produce used in the Smoko Room’s food.
We brew all our beer on site ourselves, which isn’t that common in New Zealand,” Kirsty explains. “We therefore have control over the whole process. We harvest our own water and deal with all our own waste water on site (which is less waste every week than the average household). We also have the biggest solar power system of any brewery in New Zealand. When you’ve got your own place, you can make sure everything operates to your values. I think that’s important.”
However, whilst Sawmill’s sustainability is pretty exemplary, the team don’t feel the need to shout about it. They prefer to do what they feel is right and let their following figure it out for themselves. This gets brought up most in the Smoko Room where chef Will Mitchell (formerly of London’s The Providores, and Wellington’s Floriditas, La Boca Loca and The Fire Truck) uses bycatch and cuts of meat that would otherwise not get used. “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea”, admits Kirsty with a laugh.
“People think it’s fancy, but grouper isn’t fancy, it’s cheap and skate wing is usually thrown out or used as bait! We do things well with a lack of pretention and many people love it, which is great.”
And it’s not hard to see why the Smoko Room is such a success. The cumin and turmeric spiced hummus with slow-cooked curried goat, pumpkin seeds and flatbread is simple but delicious – perfect for picking at whilst enjoying a pint of the American Brown that, whilst having strong malty and hoppy aromas and a serious character, remains light and refreshing.
The Cured Market Fish Salad with an absolute revelation. Yellow pepper, shredded mint, lime, fleshy gourds and tiny ripe yellow tomatoes all dance on the palate alongside the incredible and plentiful strips of fish, seasoned to perfection. Thinly sliced celery completes the dish, adding a gentle vegetable bitterness and pleasing crunch.
As we finish our beer on the terrace in the sun, we understand why The Sawmill Brewery & Smoko Room has become a destination brewery for travellers and much-loved escape for locals. Whilst very much removed from the craft-beer hubs of Wellington and cities alike, it does what it does quietly, authentically and to a world-class standard.
The Sawmill Brewery & Smoko Room, 1004 Leigh Rd, Matakana 0985, New Zealand