HOW MIKE SUTHERLAND AND HIS PARTNER KIRSTY CAME TO OWN ONE OF NEW ZEALAND’S MOST ICONIC AND OLDEST CRAFT BREWERIES, WITH NO EXPERIENCE IN CRAFT BREWING, IS A TALE OF PERFECT TIMING. AS MIKE TELLS IT:
“WE HADN’T BEEN IN MATAKANA LONG, AND I RANG PETER [THE FOUNDER] TO ASK IF I COULD HELP HIM BREW FOR A DAY. I CAME BACK AND TOLD KIRSTY THAT PETER WAS INTERESTED IN SELLING THE BREWERY. IT ALL HAPPENED PRETTY QUICKLY, AND A FEW WEEKS LATER WE TOOK OVER.”
Peter and Decima Freckleton set up the brewery in 2004 (bear in mind, that’s pretty ancient for a craft brewery in New Zealand). Mike and Kirsty took over the reins right before summer 2010.
Full on, as Mike describes it, would be an understatement. Mike had no brewing experience but knew he wanted to make something with his hands and he and Kirsty both loved beer and the alchemy of how it is made. The timing of their move to Matakana and Peter and Decima’s decision to sell the Sawmill Brewery couldn’t have been more fortuitous. Eight years on the Sutherlands are still going strong. “Beer is a corner in that beautiful triangle of food drink and community, that’s why we love what we do.” We caught up with Mike to find out a bit more about this iconic Matakana producer.
DID YOU ANTICIPATE THAT WHEN YOU MOVED TO MATAKANA YOU’D END UP BUYING A BREWERY?
We had always wanted to make something simple that was part of the fabric of everyday life, like bread, in a way. Kiwi artist Grahame Sydney, once told me the people who are most satisfied with life are those making something with their hands. Coming from a background in exporting produce and shellfish, I’ve always had a love for factories. Big machinery. Noise. Concrete. Forklifts. For us, beer doesn’t exist in a vacuum or as an end in itself. That’s a big part of what makes Sawmill what is it – independent, resourceful and real.
BEING IN MATAKANA, HOW MUCH HAS THE LOCATION AND THE COMMUNITY INFLUENCED YOUR BEER?
How important is this to your business? Hugely important; our community and environment have a massive influence on everything we do here. People here are creative, and hardworking and we apply that ethos both to brewing and running our business as a whole. We collect water from our roof, which is really rare for a brewery in New Zealand (just under a million litres last year), and have a strong focus on keeping our landfill waste to a minimum and being conscious of the resources we use. We have reduced the waste we send to landfills by over 80% in the last year. Being environmentally responsible is a huge focus for us and it is an area where there is a lot of room for innovation.
WHAT’S THE SIGNATURE TO YOUR BEER?
Sawmill is really well known for making clean, crisp and drinkable beer. We brew a huge range of one-off beers now, too. People know we will deliver excellent beer whatever the style.
WHAT DO YOU THINK SETS YOU APART FROM OTHER CRAFT BEERS OUT THERE?
We’re always looking at the bigger picture and thinking about how to have a positive impact on our community, our environment and especially our team here. We are fiercely independent, in everything from the beer styles we make to the way we package it. We were the first craft brewery in New Zealand to use cans and we’ve always made great lagers, which have become a trend in the industry of late. I think that comes from being up here, away from the craft beer centres, we have different influences – this is a community with a lot of entrepreneurs. We have really learnt to think for ourselves.
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE SEASONAL ‘CUT OFF’ RANGES AND WHAT THEY’RE ABOUT.
These beers are about showcasing the creativity and talent our brew team has and giving our customers the opportunity to try something new. We really just make all the beers we have liked and want to try – the White Stout was massively popular last year and the East Coast IPA’s we have made have been some of the most popular beers we have done. Same with the Baltic Porter. If we are using ingredients other than the main four (yeast, water, malt and hops) then we use something in season. We’ve just made a wild blackberry Berliner Weisse and last winter we made a mandarin season.
WHAT CAN PEOPLE EXPECT IF THEY COME UP FOR A VISIT TO THE BREWERY?
They can expect to see right inside the place our beer is made. We set out to make it transparent with nothing to hide. Sometimes there is swearing, crashing, spills…it’s a real factory and that’s how it goes. In the Smoko Room they can expect amazing food that’s seasonal, local and really flavoursome. They’ll have a choice of 14 different beers made on site and a fantastic list of organic wines. They can also expect great hospitality and views of Mt Tamahunga. It’s our place and we are very proud of it and proud of our team. If you can’t make a trip to Matakana, you can find the range of Sawmill beers to try at your local Farro