In the first of a two-part series Michael Donaldson visits Lakeman Brewing in Taupo to see how farming and brewing intersect.
Sitting outside the old farm shed that houses Lakeman Brewing, I cast my eye over a paddock of around two dozen heifers, some with calves, some about to give birth.
At the start of my interview with Lakeman owners James and Elissa Cooper there are seven calves — by the time we finish chatting and crack open a can of 5 O’clock Somewhere (it is after all 5pm) there are eight calves in the paddock, with the latest addition staggering like the veritable drunken sailor as it finds its feet.
The cows are grazing on lush grass that’s been “fertilised” with old hops and yeast. What would otherwise be waste from the brewery is pumped into a nearby water tank where it’s mixed with irrigation water and then sprayed on the field.
“It might just be me,” says James, “but I swear the grass is better.”
At other times the cows will feast on spent grain while elsewhere lambs are fattening up on lush grass in preparation for slaughter.
That night we eat venison backstraps from a deer Cooper recently shot himself.
There’s something pragmatic about the approach to life and death in rural New Zealand — the killing of animals is a necessity if those of us in urban areas want to keep buying meat at supermarkets. For a city person, it can be confronting to know the cute little cow that’s just popped into the world is destined for our plates at some stage in the near future.
The urban-rural divide provides a backdrop for this conversation as we are talking just a few days after the Coopers filmed an episode for Country Calendar that screened on October 23.
It was the second time this year that beer and farming intersect on the popular show — the last time creating such an uproar of controversy that James and Elissa were just a little wary as to how the world might perceive them.
They’re even cautious about using the words “regenerative” or “sustainable” to talk about their approach to farming even though that’s exactly what they are working towards.
The reason is the hullabaloo around the Country Calendar episode in June featuring former Moa Brewing boss turned farmer Geoff Ross and his wife Justine — though the show only referenced for their 42 Below vodka, Trilogy skincare and Ecoya candle businesses, not the Moa disaster.
That episode was the highest rating in Country Calendar’s history and the comments on Facebook went into overdrive as many let rip at what they saw as a “woke PC” pair of city slickers taking their millions made from booze and dropping it on vanity project — namely a climate-positive merino sheep station.
What the Rosses are doing at Lake Hawea Station should be applauded — climate-positive, regenerative farming — but the delivery could have been better. Even the concept of a mattress for shorn sheep to land on at the bottom of chutes in the shearing shed had a marketing rationale behind but it came across as … well, “woke PC BS” to quote the critics.
The response to that show informed how the Coopers hoped to present themselves. That included avoiding branded clothing (everyone on the Lake Hawea Station episode wore heavily branded gear).
But no one would mistake James and Elissa for upstart brew barons turning millions into a rural fantasy. They’re down-to-earth, humble and self-effacing. And they’ve done it tough. In fact, it was the tenuous nature of rural life that spurred them to start a brewery in the first place.
Lakeman an alternative revenue stream
It didn’t have to be a brewery per se, but the Coopers needed another revenue stream to complement their small farm — it just so happened that James dreamed up a brewery.
The reason they needed another revenue stream was the regulatory change that came into effect in 2012 when Environment Waikato (now Waikato Regional Council) pre-empted potential damage to Lake Taupo by capping nitrogen discharge into the lake.
The Nitrogen Discharge Allowance is a complex package unique in the world, and l it met stern resistance when it was introduced.
Some farmers decided it was impossible to work with and turned their land over to trees, others left the land altogether. Farm prices dropped.
For the Coopers, it offered a dream chance for to buy the farm they’d wanted but couldn’t previously afford.
The entry price, however, was restrictions on how much livestock they could run (animal pee has nitrogen in it) and how much fertiliser they could use.
“We were capped on the livestock we could carry, and we needed a backup, something else, in case things fell over,” James says. “And with the water situation, we felt we could turn a potential negative into a positive and make beer.”
The water situation is fresh water bore on the farm that delivers pristine water to the brewery.
Learning on the hoof
The problem was, at the time, Cooper had no idea how to brew.
He was inspired by a trip to Australia where he discovered his namesake brewery, the Adelaide-based Cooper’s. He wasn’t about to create a “Cooper’s NZ” but the idea of a small family-run brewery piqued his interest. Besides water, he had space on the farm for a brew shed. All he needed was some kit — which he bought second-hand off Tuatara when they expanded — and some help setting up.
Up the road in Hamilton were a bunch of good sorts — including Greig McGill from Brewaucracy, 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,” Cooper said.
But running a brewery and a farm has not been easy.
“One year we survived on $18,000,” Elissa says. “Luckily, we had our own meat supply, but we were wearing second-hand clothes.”
They’ve had other major setbacks including the premature birth of twins Lexie and Pippa, and associated health setbacks. The twins are now 10 and eldest daughter Ciana is 12.
The Coopers run between 120 and 150 cows across their property and another leased block nearby. At any one time there will be 2000 to 2500 lambs fattening up on grass.
And this is where the regenerative approach comes in.
Fattening up beef and lamb isn’t as simple as putting them in a field and letting them eat all the grass and hitting repeat each year. The land needs constant nurturing to replace nutrients but the Coopers are trying to minimize the impact they have.
Not only have they reduced fertiliser use, they’ve also reduced forage crops (brassicas, cereals and the like). These supplementary crops are often needed to ensure adequate feed for stock when grass growth slows down in winter or at the height of summer.
Cropping can also help pasture regeneration but comes with the risk of nutrient and sediment loss to waterways as well as faecal contamination
“We don’t crop anymore,” says James. “A couple of years ago we changed the way we did the grass and it’s worked really well for us.”
They don’t till the land, instead using direct drilling. As James says, “grass grows grass” — letting the grass grow longer helps other grass come through underneath.
“This farm was run down when we took it over and now it looks great, lots of green pastures.”
Better practices, better results
Despite moving to less intensive, less damaging practices, they are still getting good, if not better, results.
“We’re still finishing lots of lambs, getting good weights, and costs have gone down. It’s not quite regenerative farming but we have backed off on intensity and are still running the same amount of stock.”
The balance between lambs and cows is also Important as “lambs are kinder on the earth than the cows”.
In some ways, the work they’ve done on the land has been trial and error. And James admits it’s been the same with the brewing side. Recipes are constantly tweaked as he and head brewer Rory Donovan learn and evolve.
And on the financial side, there’s a feeling now that the brewery has turned a corner, that after nine years it is performing well enough that James and Elissa will finally be able to pay themselves a salary from the brewing side of their farm-beer business.
And James reckons if they can squeeze another 100,000 litres out of the brewery (which would put it at capacity) they’ll be in a sweet spot financially.
Setting up a bar, Jimmy Coops, a joint venture with local hospitality power couple Vaughan and Leanne Nairn will hopefully give the volume a nudge along.
The waterfront bar opened last summer but like most hospitality venues in the country was hit badly by Covid and a downturn in tourist numbers. A council revamp of the waterfront area has also impacted business and finding staff remains difficult.
In some ways, that side of the business is like one of the newborn cows in the paddock below us — a little unsteady on its feet initially but on its way to hopefully being a cash cow.