In part two of our feature on Lakeman we look at the problems of being so remotely located in Taupo.
One of the blessings and curses of Lakeman Brewing’s location high in the hills above Lake Taupo is that lots of people turn up to the farm gate expecting to find a tap room.
It’s a curse because, well, there’s no taproom … yet.
Over the years, James and Elissa Cooper and brewer Rory Donovan have happily entertained the unannounced guests as best they can, figuring that if they’ve taken the time to find the place, they deserve a couple of samples.
And it says something about the brewery’s unique appeal that the visitors over the have included some craft beer royalty.
Read part one here:
“I was down at the brewery one day and a four-wheel drive pulled up and this American couple got out,” Elissa says of one memorable visit.
“He said, `Can we do a tasting?’. I explained that we didn’t have a tasting room but said, ‘Come with me …’
“And he was, ‘No, it’s OK I can see you’re busy’.
“Then he asked a couple of unusual questions about the brewery, so I asked him if had a background in brewing.
The couple, staying nearby at Kinloch, were a pair of keen golfers, Jim and Julie Buechler.
If those names sound familiar, Jim was chief executive of Ballast Point from 2012-2016 and Julie was general counsel at the brewing legend. Both left the company along with many others after Constellation Brands paid a ginormous $1 billion to buy the San Diego craft brewery in late 2015.
Elissa, once she learned who they were, insisted on taking them down to the antithesis of a billion-dollar brewery — their small farm-shed set-up.
“But he said, `No I see you’re busy I won’t hold you up, I love your beer’. And I wasn’t pushy enough to say stay and chat. I really regret that,” says Elissa. “And James wasn’t around so he didn’t know what he’d missed.
“I went to Rory and said the CEO of Ballast Point just came in and says he likes our beer. But please don’t tell James, you can’t tell James. You can’t say anything because he will be so angry that I didn’t keep them here.”
About an hour later James came up to the house and said to Elissa: “So I hear the guy from Ballast Point was here.”
She went back down to the brewery and saw that Rory had given the game away by writing on one of the tanks: “The CEO of Ballast Point loves our beer.”
They’ve had other visitors from the local brewing industry, including Dave Bell from Garage Project’s Wild Workshop who called in while holidaying in Taupo. That kind of visit gives James a real boost.
With their remote location, he admits they struggle with the kind of institutional knowledge that comes with brewing in a city and regular contact with others doing the same thing.
“The opportunity to talk ‘beer’ with someone is really important,” says James. “When Dave from Garage Project came here it was so refreshing to speak ‘beer’ with him — he was a hell of a nice guy and it was just great talking to him.”
Bell’s visit even helped the brewery tweak their lager a little bit.
Not that tweaking recipes is unusual for James, who learned to brew by via Google and YouTube.
“I might look rough as guts on the outside but I’m always looking for perfection and Rory gets a bit annoyed because I’m always tinkering with the brews,” James adds.
In starting a brewery with a complete lack of knowledge, and hailing from a sheep and beef farm in the Taupo hinterland, James often feels like an outsider in the industry.
“The way I learned to brew by Googling it, the fact we’re on the farm, the way we advertise … I sometimes feel like I’m the town clown.”
I ask James if he felt the brewery didn’t get the right respect when they started.
“Put it this way, we’re not the cool kids and a lot of people thought we didn’t know what we were doing.”
And then there’s the rural sense of humour, most explicitly their Hairy Box mixed six pack, often criticised for its inherent sexism.
James takes a straightforward approach, the Lakeman is hairy and the beer comes in a box. Elissa though is happy to front-foot it.
“I have been interviewed before about our advertising being sexist. But there’s a sense of humour there. We’re not taking ourselves too seriously. At the time we started that, 80 per cent of our staff were women and I’ve got three daughters … and I think you need to be able to laugh at yourself.
“The problem is there’s a disconnect, which is our fault, we haven’t done well in telling our story.
“But the truth is our brand wouldn’t exist without the Hairy Box, it’s our best seller. When we launched it, it just blew up and the brewery wouldn’t be here without it. And a lot of the buyers are women, and they tell us they like it, but it also clearly rubs some people the wrong way.
“We’re trying to be genuine and perhaps we didn’t understand what we were doing with marketing.”
The Coopers say they have tweaked their marketing in recent years, but their well-made social media posts still have a down-to-earth rural vibe and a sense of humour that taps the same vein as the old Speight’s ads of the 1980s.
“We haven’t got the marketing gurus that they have in Wellington and Auckland – we’re surrounded by beef and sheep farmers here in Taupo,” James says in a typically self-deprecating fashion.
But whatever the merits of what they are doing, and how they got to where they are, it’s fair to say it’s working.
In 2018, they won the IPA trophy at the New Zealand Beer Awards with their Hairy Hop IPA and in 2019 won a second trophy, for best barrel-aged beer, with Hairy Craic, an imperial stout aged in whisky barrels.
This year they took home three gold medals at the Australian International Beer Awards (Hairy Hop IPA, Hairy Craic and Taupo Thunder Pale Ale) as well as four silvers, and one bronze from eight beers entered. They took in another 13 medals at this year’s NZ Beer Awards.
In recent years they’ve started to turn a much-needed profit after bringing their distribution back in-house, investing in a canning machine and lifting production past 200,000 litres.
“Our thing at the moment is to get to 300,000 litres per year,” says James, “and then we will have a sustainable business that will allow Elissa and me to get paid.”
Their rock-solid branding will go a long way towards that, for despite their humility, the Lakeman brand is one of the most recognisable on supermarket shelves … admittedly coming a long way from the first iterations!
“We’re going to keep the brand loud and clear — when everyone else is putting the pretty pictures on their cans, ours stands out,” says James, quickly adding: “But we’re not out to rule the world. Our aim is to get to where we’d be happy — around 300,000 to 400,00 litres per year would be the sweet spot and the brewery has capacity for that.”
And speaking of sweet spots, they still have dreams that one day they will be able to build that taproom in the woolshed for all the visitors who will continue to come looking for the elusive source of the Lakeman.