Lakeman Looking after Lake, Man

Like New Zealand’s most famous breweries, Taupō’s Lakeman is founded on a free and plentiful local water supply.

Speight’s in Dunedin is built above a natural spring that resulted in beers – at least until World War II – regarded as best in Australasia. And Henry Wagstaff founded what’s now known as Tui based on the water quality of the nearby Mangatainoka River.

These days, it’s rare for a brewery to use natural spring or bore water. Most use a town water supply that’s adjusted to create a water profile suitable to brewing.

When James Cooper set up Lakeman seven years ago, he wanted to use the natural bore water on his farm high in the hills above Lake Taupō. The water is untreated except for filtration down to 1 micron – designed to make later filtration of the beer less irksome.

The water supply – delivered to a brewery located in old implement shed on Cooper’s farm – “shows off our terroir”, Cooper says with the self-effacing laugh of a Kiwi farmer who can’t quite believe he’s just said the word “terroir”.

Farmer James Cooper's wife Elissa even quit her job as a vet to work in the couple's brewery full-time.
Farmer James Cooper and wife Elissa spend more time running their brewery than the farm these days. Photo: Michael Donaldson

With his laidback rural upbringing, Taupo born-and-bred Cooper is the antithesis of the urban hipster stereotype so often associated with craft beer. But his beer is as good as any made in New Zealand, with his Hairy Hop IPA winning champion IPA trophy at the New Zealand Beer Awards last year.

Cooper is proud of the water purity under Taupo’s pumice rich soils – it’s regularly tested and the quality is both consistent and high. Keeping that brewing water pure goes hand-in-hand with a more important water quality issue that has shaped his life – and the lives of other Taupo farmers – for the past eight years.

In 2011, concerns over the health of Lake Taupō saw the introduction of controversial regulations designed to cap nitrogen run-off into lake. In a plan regarded as a world-first for the way it implements collective responsibility, farmers in the Lake Taupō catchment area had to work under a nitrogen discharge allowance (NDA). The NDA effectively capped stock levels and fertiliser use. The allowance was based on historic use and was intended to reduce overall nitrogen going into the lake by 20 per cent.

The main way nitrogen gets into the water is through fertiliser and animals peeing – hence the cap on stock rates. Because Taupō pumice soils are so porous, the nitrogen run-off is high – particularly in winter. “In winter, the grass shuts down and can’t absorb nitogren when animals pee so it goes straight into the lake,” Cooper explains.

With cold-brewed coffee from Volcanic Coffee, cacao, vanilla and cardamon, Lakeman brewer Rory Donovan says the Hairy Wonker Imperial double stout is probably the beer Willy Wonka would have made.
Lakeman brewer Rory Donovan.

Initially the NDA (the complexities of which would require another story) created uncertainty in the farming community, impacting land values and economic confidence. Some farmers sold up, others converted beef and dairy farms to trees. Others pressed on, disregarding the new regulations.

Cooper’s farm had a relatively low NDA, as historically previous owners had not used a lot of fertiliser, so he had to work under an even tighter framework. But he also had more reason than most to make sure his farm run-off did minimum harm, as he was also planning to use that pure bore water for his brewery dream.

While he wouldn’t call himself an environmentalist, his brewery’s reliance on groundwater made him acutely aware of the link between the farm run-off and the water health of the region.

“At end of day it is all related,” he says. “It’s hard to know where the groundwater comes from, but there are some bores around this area that have higher levels of E-coli, for instance.

“I’m not an environmentalist, but because of the nitrogen capping we had to ask ourselves: how can we do this better? It was more a practical way of thinking.

“At the time, the Taupō area was a guinea-pig – we had to find our own way to make it work. There were a lot of unknowns when this came in and as a result a lot of people got out of farming – they sold up or got into trees.

“We’ve been living under this system for eight years now and we just had to get on with it. We tried to find something to make it profitable, while looking after the water resource.”

Cooper worked closer with Jane Mayo, Ravensdown North Island senior agri-manager. She says managing nutrient inputs was crucial for the brewing operation, but there was a balance needed between making sure the brewery had the best water and the farm had enough nutrients to be productive.

“The nutrient caps are fairly tight, so we helped James get the natural biological processes right to make sure he’s got clean water for his beer,” Mayo says. “Given he draws the water from a bore right outside the brewery on what is a working farm, we looked at tackling fertiliser inputs and promoting more clover, which is a nitrogen-fixer, rather than using stuff out of a bag.”

Cooper substantially cut back the amount of urea he used and planted more clover.

“I use some urea on one of the calving paddocks, but otherwise we’ve cut all the urea out. We changed the species of grass we use, targeting clover growth.

“I wanted straight clover as I was convinced it was best for finishing lambs, but my wife Elissa is a vet and she said: ‘No, you’ll have too many animal health problems’. So, we’ve got a mixture of clover and grass.”

The remarkable is that, in protecting the water for the beer (and the lake of course), the farm is now more productive than it used to be.

“While we’re carrying fewer lambs we’re turning them over more quickly – and it’s all less harmful to the lake.

“We had to work out a way to make it work financially, while looking after the water resource, but it’s actually made us more profitable than we were before, ironically.”

The other irony is that the nitrogen discharge allowance helped seed the idea of a brewery in the first place.

“We were capped on the livestock we could carry and with the lease land – well, you haven’t got it forever. We needed a back-up, something else, in case things fell over. And with the water situation, we felt we could turn a potential negative into a positive and make beer.”

Lakeman Brewing's distinctive logo.
Lakeman Brewing’s distinctive logo.

The first hint of brewery dream came when Cooper visited a friend in Australia who introduced him to a beer bearing his name – South Australia’s famous Cooper’s Sparkling Ale.

Cooper knew nothing about brewing, but the inspiration from his namesake in Australia was enough inspiration – and not long after his return, he bought a second-hand brewery from the then rapidly-growing Tuatara. But its purchase also coincided with Elissa and him starting a family, so it sat in the shed gathering dust for a few years.

When Cooper finally bit the bullet and commissioned the brewery, he had a large hurdle to overcome – he’d never brewed a beer in his life, not even a homebrew kit.

“I had to learn from scratch and it’s fair to say we tipped out a lot of beer in first year, around 15,000 litres, and quite a lot in the second year. But luckily we had the farm to irrigate and it made great fertiliser.”

Cooper called on a nearby trio of Hamilton brewers to fast-track his success, including Greig McGill from Brewraucracy, Graham Mahy, who has worked at a number of New Zealand and Australian breweries, and Peter McKenzie at Shunters Yard. “Those guys all helped me a lot and really hammered home the need for quality.”

And then there was the name – as much as he’d like to have called it Cooper’s, he wanted something local; a brand that connected the brewery to Lake Taupō.

“We went through hundreds of names, before Elissa said one day: ‘Lakeman’.”

Lakeman – a hairy, Bigfoot-style character – has evolved into one of the more iconic brand “faces” in New Zealand brewing and helped create a buzz around the brewery when they debuted at Beervana in 2013, with one of Cooper’s mates charming punters in his Lakeman costume.

“We wanted something we could have a bit of fun with – and I was a bit laddish back then too – but we were blown away by the response at Beervana in 2013.”

Even so, there were some doubts about Cooper’s sanity among his farming colleagues when he started his secondary career. “Yeah, they thought it was a bit of joke. But at the time, the craft beer thing was starting to take off and now that we’ve got a few credentials and won a few awards, people are starting to say, ‘yeah ok …’.”

Even Elissa was dubious about her husband’s new venture, but the brewery has grown so quickly she’s packed in her job as a veterinarian to work full-time in the brewery and Cooper acknowledges the brewery would be lost without her, as Lakeman has grown to the extent it’s now more time-consuming than farming.

“I’d say the brewery takes up 95 per cent of my time,” says Cooper, whose typical day is a couple of hours farm work and then the rest of the long day in the brewery where he looks after the production side of the business.

He’s got assistance on the farm and employs two brewers – Rory Donovan and Kenny Rivers.

“The farm and brewery rely on each other to a large extent. I do love the farming side of it – drenching, weighing, moving stock – for me, it’s like golf is for other people. I enjoy finishing lambs – they are my thing and what we’re good at.

“And with both farming and brewing, there’s always something you’re working on – you’re always tweaking things, trying to make it perfect.”

Their fame is such that they’ve had to entertain the odd overseas beer tourist, who, having read about Lakeman, look up the address and head west from town to the farm.

“They rock up at the woolshed thinking it’s the brewery,” Cooper says with a laugh.

With no taproom or on-premise licence, the tourists have to make do with some free entertainment from the sheep, horses and dogs that dot the property – along with the view out towards Mt Ruapehu in the distance.

The next step for the Coopers is to work out how to use their spectacular location to further grow the beer business. They are thinking of developing the brewery to create a taproom and venue for those tourists and others who want to put a farm-brewery experience on their holiday list.

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