We’re a fickle bunch. In the occasional clamour to try the newest fresh hop hazy or mango-laden milkshake IPA, there’s a risk we’re overlooking New Zealand craft beer pioneers who’ve been consistently turning out excellent brews for more than a decade.

I first met Tammy Viitakangas back in 2015. Inspired by European travel, and especially influenced by the diversity of Belgian beers, she started Mata Brewery in her hometown of Kawerau in 2005. Ten years later, a visit to the brewery co-owned by her father Jouni and mother Gloria was to experience the country’s quirkiest brew-place.

Three separate shopfronts had been cobbled together – a dairy, a menswear shop and a butchery – with limited interior access linking the distinct former retail spaces. Despite the logistical challenges, brews like Mata’s honey-infused Manuka Golden Ale and the award-winning Taniwha – a hāngi-inspired Kiwi spin on a traditional rauchbier – became innovative milestones in New Zealand’s beer scene. Referencing her father’s Finnish roots, Tammy even brewed a Sahti in 2015, an ancient Finnish style traditionally made with juniper twigs. In her local version, manuka tips were substituted to blend with spicy rye malts and juniper berries.

Opened in 2017, Mata’s new brewery and taproom on the eastern outskirts of Whakatāne couldn’t be more different from Kawerau. Bright, airy and modern, it’s a popular community hub for the town, with regular live music and quiz nights drawing loyal locals. Jouni and Gloria are both still involved; “dad’s often here tinkering with the brewery” confirms Tammy, and Tammy’s mum is always up for an authoritative chat about the New Zealand beer scene. From a compact kitchen, Tammy’s sister serves up good pizza and bar snacks.

Keeping up with Kiwi craft fans’ ongoing desire for “What’s New?”, there is now real diversity on Mata’s taps and across the canned selection in the fridge. Highlights of my tasting flight are the Peachy Hazy IPA and Hoppity Hooch; another juicy hazy reinforcing I’ll always have a soft spot for Mosaic and Citra hops. Tammy also pops open a can of Berry Sundae, a rich-red sour made with Bay of Plenty berry fruit. The addition of lactose creates a smooth hint of ice-cream, and the beer is a refreshing amalgam of tart and sweet. Golden kiwifruit and berry ciders feature on the taps, and more local fruit is definitely on the cards for future brews. “My fruit press is probably my favourite piece of equipment” explains Tammy.

Also on tap is Blondie, a zesty Belgian Wit inspired by Tammy’s European beer epiphany with Hoegaarden. It also provided the inspiration for one of Mata’s ongoing series of can art, with a concept board by Whakatāne artist Steve Murphy presenting Blondie’s Debbie Harry as a Māori wahine. Other colourful concept art further enlivens a taproom serving some of New Zealand’s most consistent and technically astute brews. Don’t miss making the one-hour journey east of Tauranga if you’re in the area. 

Launched in 2019, Lumberjack Brewing are based at Pukehina, a sleepy beach settlement half-way between Mount Maunganui and Whakatāne. Helmed by good friends and former home brew buddies Brett Vincent and Ian O’Malley, my first experience of Lumberjack Brewing was Chain Bar Oil, a stonking 12% Imperial Stout that was a festival beer at GABS 2019. After giving their Log Splitter Double IPA a succinct positive review on Untappd in October 2020 – ‘Boozy marmalade. A BOP banger’ – I’ve been eager to get down there. Drinking a few of their Coastal Haze series only increased the anticipation.

At a blink and you’ll miss it location behind a rural fruit and vege stall selling honesty box bags of local feijoas, I meet Brett Vincent and Ian O;Malley at Lumberjack’s rustic taproom. Courtesy of Vincent’s involvement in the forestry industry, the simple taproom is right on brand, with a hefty slab of timber underpinning a concise array of taps.

Locals from Pukehina crowd in for growler fills on Friday and Saturday afternoons. “They were really supportive of us during lockdown and throughout 2020” confirms O’Malley, and discerning bottle shops around the Bay of Plenty stock Lumberjack’s canned range.

From the taps, a pilsner crammed with Riwaka, Motueka and Pacifica hops is zingy and fresh, and I’m also given a preview of Lumberjack’s new Throttle Lock Kölsch; it’s lean, elegant and bang on style. Behind the taproom, installation is being completed on a shiny new brewhouse that will significantly boost production, and O’Malley talks me through the impending release of Lumberjack’s From the Woods series – twelve different brews packaged in 500ml bottles, and released individually across upcoming months.

With a Brett-fermented saison, a barrel-aged porter, and ten other beers to look forward to, I’ll be keeping a close eye on Pukehina’s finest.

 

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