For Matakana locals Kirsty McKay and Mike Sutherland, craft beer more or less happened to them.
The couple never set out to acquire a brewery, however since taking the helm of Matakana's newly-minted Sawmill Brewery, it's not hard to tell that these two are the perfect people for the job.
Upon arrival, you'll be struck with the history here. Overarching wooden panels enclose the space, as punters graze with ease around the lofty premises. On a crisp Saturday afternoon, the sky is blue and the sun is out, meaning that the Sawmill team are stationed behind the bar, serving hordes of craft beer-lovers an impressive range of homebrewed brilliance.
"We don't often make the same beer twice. We might make it again the same time the following year, we've just made our second batch of East Coast IPA in the last three months, but otherwise, when they're gone they're gone," says Sawmill owner Kirsty.
The team here are well aware of the craft beer revolution that's gripped many parts of the country. Wellington – a city pioneering in its own right – are engulfed in malt and barley, with a new craft brewery popping up every month.
Yet, there's something about craft beer that feels a whole lot more approachable than your traditionally elitist wine circles. You may have never sipped an APA or an IPA in your life, but you'd be damn sure willing to try one here.
"There's a number of different bars and restaurants in Auckland that have been really supportive," says Kirsty. "They're keen for their customers to try something different all the time, the feedback they've given us is that we've proven we make quality beer – they trust that it's going to be good. They're willing to try something they've never tasted before, and it's awesome for our brewers."
Anyone who's crossed the toll road from Auckland up to Matakana, will tell you that the sense of community around these parts is refreshing. Produce is power, with the local green swap an integral part of the community. While Kirsty admits the Sawmill team don't have too many oversized zucchinis or an abundance of lemons to exchange, their masterfully crafted local beer is always well received come trading day.
"Ike's mandarins are so good, so good. They're one of the best things about winter, so we made a beer with them, we made a Saison. We made a beautiful Baltic Porter a little while ago, and a Peach Gose, when the peaches were in season, a sour. So it's a really nice way to have heaps of locals in here all the time, they appreciate something new. You find you can go somewhere a few times, you may love it but after a while, it's the same-same."
The local influence infiltrates throughout the space, from the rustic chic interior, right down to the produce. The duo take pride in pointing out that the bar and industrially-inspired light fixtures are the handiwork of long-time local and experienced chef, Mike the Knife.
The foodie offerings are equally as impressive, utilising the region's endless bounty in the way of seafood, meat and fresh, seasonal produce. During our visit, we graze on the flavoursome Smoked Kahawai with Kohlrabi, Mandarin and Kawakawa, before moving on to the Spiced Taro with Kimchi and Tamarind Aioli.
Chef Will Michell (previously at the helm of Wellington's La Boca Loca and Floriditas) calls on traditional barbecue methods and under-utilised root vegetables like taro, to create hearty and substantial fare. The culinary food matches have been carefully paired alongside each and every nuanced beer on tap. In other words, if you're after a greasy bowl of hot chips and a Kiwi burger, keep on moving.
Sawmill is the perfect beer garden for a whole host of reasons but the drawcard, is without question, the beer. There's a refreshing "what you see is what you get" mentality up north. No sugar, preservatives or colour. Every beer on-site is unpasteurised, which means a shorter shelf life and more vibrant flavour. We're talking grass roots, pared-back Kiwi brewing.
Head up on a weekend, secure a spot in the sun, free up an afternoon and opt for the Tasting Tray – a selection of five different beers and a well-rounded Sawmill tasting experience. From sour beers with punchy, gingery notes, to stoic porters and stouts – wherever you fall on the craft beer connoisseur spectrum, you'll walk away with a soft spot for something entirely new.
Kirsty and her team will make a craft beer-lover out of you yet.
1004 Leigh Road,
The Smoko Room is open Wednesday to Sunday from 12pm until 10pm during winter.
From sour beers with punchy, gingery notes, to stoic porters and stouts – wherever you fall on the craft beer connoisseur spectrum, you'll walk away with a soft spot for something entirely new.