Thursday, December 7, 2023

Tapping into change on farm leads to top craft beer

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A Taupō couple needed to diversify their farming operation, and a decade later it has paid off handsomely.
From left, Lakeman Brewing Co owners James and Elissa Cooper,celebrates winning the Supreme Beer Award at the 2023 New World Beer & Cider Awards, with head brewer Rory Donovan. Photo: Supplied
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Confronted with the challenges thrown up by changing farming policies, a Taupō couple looked for ways to diversify – and ended up raising a glass to their own on-farm craft brewery.

Since branching out into brewing beer James and Elissa Cooper haven’t looked back –  and this year their pilsner was named Supreme Champion at the 2023 New World Beer & Cider Award.

But where did the journey start?

Back in 2009, the Coopers were a young couple who enjoyed drinking beer but had absolutely no idea how to make it. Elissa worked as a veterinarian in a local practice and James had taken on a lease block and was farming sheep and cattle. 

There was a lot of change happening in the rural landscape at the time. Environment Waikato had found the freshwater quality of Lake Taupō was under threat and the amount of nitrogen reaching the lake from farmland and urban areas needed to be reduced to slow the degradation of the water quality. This meant the number of livestock in the lake catchment was capped, as was the amount of nitrogen fertiliser that could be applied.

Keen to own land, James and Elissa had the opportunity to purchase 100ha. The piece of land they bought had a low nitrogen discharge allowance and their farming business – due to its size and the regulations – was marginal. It became evident after the first couple of years that they needed another income stream. 

Despite their lack of experience, brewing beer was an attractive option, and through trial and error, and a lot of dollars later, they finally brewed a batch that was “drinkable”. 

With renewed hopes, Elissa conjured up the name Lakeman and the couple tipped the last of their savings into developing the brand.

For the first few years they did all the brewing and bottling themselves. James said starting from scratch was not so simple and sticking to farming would have been a lot easier. 

However, the quality of the brew slowly but surely improved until it was saleable, and in 2013 they launched Lakeman Brewery Co.

Fast-forward to 2023, and the Primate Pilsner of a company started in a shed in the Tukairangi Valley came out tops in the highly competitive 2023 New World Beer & Cider Awards.

“It’s a huge achievement for the whole team. They are always working hard to perfect our beers and try new styles, so for one of our core and original beers to win such a massive award is pretty cool and a recognition that with hard work and consistency it’s all worth it,” Elissa said.

The competition’s chair of judges, Michael Donaldson, had high praise for the pilsner.

“Their Primate Pilsner is a pitch-perfect example of a New Zealand-style pilsner, with loads of bright citrus and the hint of dank herbal note on a clean, slightly sweet palate. It came out on top of a taste-off against some of the bigger beers in this competition because of the outstanding execution. This win is a great story of Kiwi can-do attitude. Despite their remote location, rural farm setting and small team, Lakeman has gone from beginner to absolute winner in just 10 years,” Donaldson said.

The judging panel blind-tasted more than 700 brews, sipping their way down to the top 100, then the top 30 and ultimately selecting the overall winner.

“To be judged the supreme beer out of around 700 of NZ’s best beers and ciders from some awesome and a lot bigger breweries is pretty epic, especially as we head in to celebrating our 10th anniversary later this year,” James said.

But their story is also one of sustainability.

Wherever possible, everything comes back to the farm first.

“Every time we do something we try and think about how it will minimise our impact on the environment. Not only have we reduced animal numbers and fertiliser on the farm for less impact on the waterways, but we’re also always taking other steps to be more sustainable.”

This same environment-first mindset extends to the brewery, where they are constantly considering options to reduce their environmental footprint.

“All our packaging is cardboard and we have recently changed to aluminium cans, which can be recycled again and again. Aluminium cans are also lighter than glass bottles and this reduces the overall weight of shipments, therefore reducing the emissions on the delivery of our stock nationally.”

All wastewater from the brewery containing the old hops and yeast is irrigated onto the surrounding paddocks.

“To see the business evolving and the small way we are having an impact on local people and the community by way of jobs is one of the most satisfying aspects of the business for me,” Elissa said.

“As we grow I am really mindful of the impact we are having on our home. We would like Lakeman to be inter-generational, whether it is with our family or someone else’s. We will only do that by looking after this place and the water resource.”

“We see sustainability as the bones of everything, as part of every aspect of business, environment, community and most importantly our family and future generations,” James added.

More: For the full list of winners, visit the New World website.

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