The day broke, slightly sulphurous (we were in Rotorua after all) and we got the camper van cranking and headed towards Kawerau, the home of Aotearoa Breweries. The small shop frontage was somewhat deceiving and we walked in to find a small sales counter and glass bottle fridge in front of a row of gleaming stainless steel fermenters, glycol piping and a brewhouse at the back. The former butchers had been converted to a fantastic little brewery with the large cool store space utilized for stock and conditioning and bright beer tanks. The brain child of head brewer Tammy Viitakangas and partner Jaysen Magan along with Tammy’s parents, Jouni and Gloria, the brewery produce the fantastic range of Mata beers.
The first thing I noticed about the range was the striking packaging. These guys have thought long and hard about how their beer should look. As important as what’s inside the bottle is, I think that it’s pretty important to make the beer look as cool as possible. The Mata team have rocked this… striking black and yellow lettering, a simple, easy to pronounce word and a fantastic 4-pack box made me want to buy the beer without knowing anything about it. A win for sure.
We met head brewer Tammy and her father Jouni (originally from Finland) and began chatting about the brewery and the beers. Tammy had studied a Technology degree majoring in Bioprocess Engineering and had previously worked in the food industry before her and partner Jaysen decided that they wanted to open a brewery. Tammy began perfecting her home brewing technique before they leapt at the chance of buying a second hand brewery and beginning the challenge of running one. Tammy traveled around to a bunch of breweries and obviously asked the right questions and picked up bits and pieces of information before they put the brewery together, five or so years ago. They did it all themselves and self-taught along the way – from the brewery installation and commissioning, right through to brewing technique. An impressive feat.
The great thing about the Mata range is that Tammy really wanted to capture the essence of New Zealand. Something we’ve heard a lot along our Craft Beer TV route and something that New Zealand brewers should be proud of. From the artesian water that they tanker from down the road to use in the brewing process, through to the quality ingredients, everything is sourced from as close to home as possible and they even reflect other uniquely New Zealand flavours in their brews. We kick off the tasting with a lager brewed with Manuka Honey. It’s gentle and delicate and subtly floral. Tammy insists on keeping this beer light on hop and big malt flavor to allow the expensive and delicate honey characters to float around on the nose and the tongue. A difficult thing to do, but one she has perfected over multiple brews.
We then try the Artesian lager. A bit more hop forward this time, with a hint of dryness and bitterness and massive drinkability. We then move on to another uniquely New Zealand brew, the Mata Feijoa. Tammy sources her Feijoa fruit from a local fruit winery and has experimented a lot to get the flavor from this intensely perfumed fruit just right. Feijoa is really challenging to brew with. Not only does it have a massive perfume and sweetness, the skins also provide a tart, sour character and through multiple trials, Tammy has got the balance between Feijoa intensity, tartness and the character of the beer itself just right, resulting in something with great drinkability and just the lightest fruit character coming through.
With last years BrewNZ, the theme for a speciality beer was “Go Native” and with the Mata Taniwha, the team went all out. A traditional NZ Maori form of cooking is the Hangi, in which a fire is built, usually with Manuka branches and large river stones are heated in the embers. The fire itself is set in a pre-dug pit and the rocks retain the heat, effectively turning the earth into an oven. Prepared vegetables, meat and fish are wrapped, placed in baskets and lowered into the pit, then covered with wet sacks and finally with earth and the Hangi begins cooking/steaming. After a few hours, the dirt and sacks are removed and you have an amazingly smokey, earthy and moist character to all the food. It’s awesome.
What Tammy decided to do was actually put the malt for the beer into the Hangi pit, along with a bunch of diced Kumara (NZ Sweet Potato) and potato. This was then used to brew an incredible 7.3% Hangi-infused Reserve Ale. Luscious and smooth with the faintest trace of earthy smoke, this velvety beer is full of soft, dark maltiness and a lovely caramelized character. A well deserved Gold Medal winning beer and testament to the inventiveness of the Mata range.
We checked out their cool bottling facility, walking past fragrant bags of lemons and tangelos that were to be used in their wheat beer (Blondie), before finally tasting Brown Boy, a gorgeous Amber ale with hints of light coffee routines and a delicate spiced warmth from the use of the native tree, Horopito. Great beers, but it was time for us to hit the road again and head to Gisborne to check out the world’s most easterly beer producer, Sunshine Brewery.
The long, winding road was slow going in the camper, but we finally made it, passing numerous vineyards and orchards on the way. Amazing forest scenery, winding rivers, it was an amazing drive. We were met at Sunshine by brewery founder, Gerry Maude who told us of the brewery history. One of New Zealand’s longest running craft breweries (established back in 1989), their flagship lager, Gisborne Gold lead the way and had some great market share in centres such as Wellington, especially back in the 90s. The beer is a great example of a New Zealand lager, with lovely floral hop notes on the nose and a lovely, persistent bitterness, something that lacks in many of it’s mainstream counterparts. This beer has an almost cult status among craft beer drinkers that were sick of the mainstream and after a taste, I can see why.
We had a quick taste of the slightly more bitter, dry Gisborne Green, their Pilsner, followed by the more malty Reserve, which had great hints of toffee and hop and finally the impressive Black Magic Stout. At 4.5%, this punched well above its weight in flavor and character. A brilliant example.
We chatted about the challenges that the larger breweries posed for craft brewers and the hope that local people continue to get behind their local producers. As we talked a constant stream of regulars came through the door. Filling flagons and riggers with beer, buying dozen boxes and bottles from the fridges, sharing jokes with Gerry and the other workers, who had just finished a bottling run of Gisborne Gold. It seems to me that this brewery is well named. It’s a bit of sunshine for a lot of people who love the beer and really appreciate what the brewery is trying to do. Bring something great to this part of the world. This was the first time I’ve ever visited Gisborne. I’ll definitely be back for a couple of flagons of Gisborne Gold…