Great Barrier Island, or Aotea, is known for its white sand beaches and pristine dark sky; an island getaway just a short flight from central Auckland.
But you’ll also find, off a stone dirt road, sitting in a paddock and nestled next to a wetland, three large tanks and several containers that make up the home of Aotea Brewing.
Sarah Bowman, Aotea Brewing’s co-owner and managing director, describes the brewery as her baby. The idea for the business – a brewery focused on sustainability on Great Barrier Island – was born in 2017. Bowman had been working part-time while her second child was still young, and was looking to get back into full time work again. But she wanted to create something of her own.
“My background is in leadership and community development, and I wanted to take some of the knowledge that I had around change and leadership and apply it to something I cared about,” Bowman says.
She says at the time, she and her husband, Caleb Clarke, had been brewing regularly at home and developing a passion for beer, while also receiving some great feedback on what they were making. And the idea just clicked.
“For both of us, sustainability and creating sustainable business is really important, so it felt like a really good time to do that,” Bowman says. “At the same time, we were really looking at how we diversified and deepened our contribution to the Barrier. [Aotea] is our heart place, it’s where we see ourselves being full time as soon as the kids have finished school. But we didn’t want to wait til then to start contributing to the economy and the community in a deeper way.”
She says many people told her and Clarke they couldn’t just make the jump from homebrewing into commercial brewing. “I’m not someone who really responds particularly well to being told that I can’t. And so we looked at how we could start this journey. We looked for support and were open to learning, and got feedback from the community to really grow it organically in relation to the local community.”
Clarke’s day job is as an environmental engineer, with a specialty in water systems, and paired with Bowman’s experience in relationship building and community development, they felt they had what it took to start a brewery in such a challenging environment.
Bowman says it took them a while for their idea to become a reality.
“What we first had to do was find a piece of land, and we were really driven to find a piece of land where we could access beautiful groundwater to make the beer,” she says. “There are particular parts of the island that are connected to the andesite mountains, providing an incredibly unique opportunity for the groundwater. And then we also obviously needed to find a space that was big enough, so that took a long time.”
She and Clarke contract brewed at Hallertau while they built their own brewery, giving them the chance to build relationships with the people and businesses on the island and to get feedback on the beer.
“That was wonderful. People were so positive and it really [gave us] the momentum that we needed, because it was huge ground-up work for a whole 18 months, trying to get equipment to the island via freight boats, and then down tiny little narrow roads, and then to build driveways and concrete pads and everything – we did it ourselves basically.”
Bowman says after a lot of hard slog, they started brewing on-site at Aotea in October 2019, opening the adjacent refillery in November 2019.
The couple, who live between Auckland and Great Barrier, brought on another couple to be their full-time Island team members – Ryan Daly and Hannah Gale. Between the four of them, they do everything – brewing, ordering, serving, cleaning, building relationships and growing their presence on Aotea.
And Aotea Brewing is serious about their sustainability message.
“Being on groundwater and having tank water, it means that we’re much more conscious about where our water comes from and what we do with it,” says Bowman. “Seven litres, I think, is around the industry average of water used per one litre of beer [produced] – our goal is to be between three and four. And we do that primarily through cycles of reuse; all the water that we’re using in the brewing process, we capture it all again in tanks and we utilise that for our cleaning and that sort of thing.
“Nothing goes down a drain and out of sight. So we are putting our wastewater out into our field again by slowly drip feeding that out. And we use cleaners that are much more environmentally friendly, so that we will be able to plant that wastewater field with citrus trees, so that the wastewater is actually being utilised to produce food.”
Aotea Brewery also runs off solar power, which meets about 90 percent of the brewery’s power needs. Bowman says the only times the generator kicks in are sometimes at night for the chillers, or when there hasn’t been sun for a long time.
They also have a composting toilet, so there’s no blackwater on-site.
But Bowman says the sustainability message goes beyond the brewing process; the brewery itself is an old Hallertau kit, the bar in the refillery is made from an old boat and parts from the tip store, the couches are second hand; the beer growlers sold on-site are plastic free, the hats they sell are made from recycled plastic – the list goes on.
While being a brewery based on Great Barrier is a challenge every day, with the logistical difficulties of being in an isolated community surrounded by water, Bowman says there are also opportunities to build up the other businesses on the island
“It’s about looking at how we can be in partnership. So when our local liquor shop decided to support us by setting up a refillery from scratch, she didn’t have any capacity to pour from a keg, so we have supported her in any way that we could, like with the technical parts of the system, and just driving people to go there. We’re not open seven days a week and part of the reason why is because we want other businesses who are supporting us to thrive.”
Bowman says while there are plenty of opportunities for growth off the island, they are focused on what they can do for the Aotea community.
“Our commitment was to serve the Aotea demand first, and to be able to understand that enough to then build our off-island strategies on that basis,” she says. “We definitely think there’s the capacity to grow and diversify on-Island, because we’re actually a tourism business alongside being a brewery.
“But in terms of off-Island, we would like to focus on building partnerships that aren’t just transactional. We’ve got such a small team and if we spend all of our time and energy trying to convince a bar to put on one keg on once … we can’t compete with the bigger guys on that. So what our focus at the moment is trying to build relationships with people who share a sustainability ethic, and a small market ethic.”
Bowman says as newcomers, she and Clarke have been surprised at how welcoming and supportive the craft beer community has been and how strong some of those relationships have become in such a short time.
She says that supportive mentality will go a long way for the industry as a whole.
“Even though there’s so many of us now, it doesn’t mean that it needs to become more cutthroat and less supportive. It’s not an either or, or black-or-white, it’s actually about maintaining this really amazing appreciation of craft, and deep love of the product as the driving force. I fundamentally believe that’s not economic naivety, I think it’s just about transitioning out of the model of industrialization and consumerism, and actually saying, let’s think about brewing in the sharing economy.”