Mike Johnson must be one of the more unusual brewers to have set up shop in New Zealand.

For a start, he made only one beer: Mike’s Mild. But it was enough to keep him business for the best part of 13 years on an isolated part of the north Taranaki cost.

But he’s also refreshingly frank about his relationship with beer. “I had a fascination with beer – predominantly drinking it,” he says.

“That brewery cost me three relationships.  Back then it was everything – I got really burned out, absolutely tired, I was probably having issues with depression but I didn’t know that then.”

He came to brewing one of the more roundabout ways but also reckons it was in his blood, distantly. “Father a homebrewer,” he recalls, “and I related to the Ballins family in Christchurch and through them to the Myers – I didn’t know that until much later on that Doug Myers [of Lion Nathan fame] was a distant relative.”

After finishing school he went blade-shearing in the Canterbury high country and in the off-season returned to the plains and worked at the the Canterbury malting company in Heathcote Valley. “I did a season with them and went back shearing but found shearing wasn’t for me – I enjoyed the lifestyle but my body didn’t enjoy it all.”

A couple more years at the malting company and Johnson moved into the beer industry, getting a job with Lion as a trainee manager and assistant manager.

“When I left them I had a fairly significant alcohol habit … so my interest in brewing was piqued then because I was on the unemployment benefit and wanted to drink,” he says frankly.

Living in Hawke’s Bay he was experimenting with growing his own hops and with the skills learned in the malting plant, making his  own malt.

A move across the island brought him to Urenui on the coast north of New Plymouth, where he bought  a property and started a family.

“A very good friend of mine was an Englishman who’d been in the merchant navy but jumped ship in Wellington and was living in Uriti which is up north of Urenui towards Hamilton,” Johnson explains. He said `Make me a mild ale’, because that was what he missed, a midlands mild ale.”

Johnson and his friend, Carl Parler, “spent a happy year making beer” together in a home brewery that can only be described as rustic.

“I built a substantial 50-litre brewery which was, believe it or a not, from an old diesel tank that I cleaned and cut up and installed a couple of jug elements into. That was the mash tun and the kettle and I built a mash stirrer out of a Skoda windscreen wiper motor.”


Picture credit: Thanks to Richard Brimer for the great pic from his 1995 book Microbreweries of New Zealand.
In the mid-1980s and Johnson, on the dole, did a bit of sly-grogging for some extra income. “But people liked it and it came back for more – I can’t remember how much I was charging something $10 to $20 a dozen.”
Fermented in buckets, then primed with invert sugar and conditioned in a stolen keg from Lion, Johnson said he had “clever system” that allowed the keg to naturally carbonate before he put it in the freezer to chill before bottling into whatever bottles people returned to him from previous sales. “Because Carl didn’t want a high-carbonated beer there was never a problem with it building too much pressure. The only problem was working out how long to put it in freezer but I worked that out over time. In the end I was making a pretty good mild.”

Other “bits and pieces” – of work, on rigs, in a shop he part-owned with his soon to be ex, at the Motunui methanol plant – ended with a motorcycle accident which smashed his ankle and forced him out of the manual labour workforce.

It was then brewing for a living dawned on him as a viable option.

With a loan from his parents, an overdraft, a credit card, and plenty of help from friends in return for a lifetime of free beer he cobbled together a brewery on his property at Urenui under a kitset shed. Equipment was collected from various places – a chiller from an old Coca-Cola production plant, some old dairy equipment … “there were so many deals that enabled me to put it together and my father came ip from Christchurch and helped me design and fit everything into the space.”

The commissioning brews came out in around July 1989.

“I had a big party and gave away all that beer to everyone who helped – but it was a terrible marketing mistake because those first batches weren’t very good and word got out and I think that damaged reputation in the area. They were just commissioning mistakes and in hindsight the beer should have gone down the drain.”

But beer grew in popularity, so much so, that New Zealand’s doyen of beer writing Geoff Griggs, wrote this in 1999, in praise of mike’s Mild.

 “In an age where new beers are constantly being launched and others quietly withdrawn (remember Lion Gold, Longbrew and Steinlager Blue?), one classic Kiwi brew has just celebrated its tenth birthday. The beer is called Mike’s Mild and it comes from the White Cliffs microbrewery in the small North Taranaki town of Urenui.

“Launched at a time when the Kiwi market was still totally dominated by mass-market sugary brown draughts and golden lagers, Mike’s Mild was one of the country’s first dark beers. The launch was a brave move, but it paid off. Ten years on a wide selection of Kiwi-brewed dark beers is available, but for my money Mike’s still ranks as one of the best.

“The English mild ale style still dominates the beer market in parts of Wales and the West Midlands where mining and heavy industry were until recently the major employers. Sweeter and with less hop astringency than the stronger bitters, mild ales were originally designed to be consumed in quantity and provide rapid energy replacement at the end of a long, physical working day. They also taste great!

Although Mike chooses to brew his beer with a conventional Kiwi lager yeast, his beer is otherwise clearly modelled on the English style. No sugar is added to the brew but the range of quality malts contributes delicious biscuity and chocolatey notes with a hint of smokiness. Best appreciated at a Pommish 10 degrees, Mike’s Mild has a sweetish, creamy palate and a drying roasty finish.”

Tasting sessions which Griggs hosted at Regional Wines & Spirits in Wellington, helped put mike’s Mild on the map in a growing market.

Apart from selling to beer to eager Wellingtonians, Johnson did a reasonable trade at the side of the road. “I would meet bus to Auckland at the gate with boxes of beer because people wanted it up there.”

The problem for Johnson was that he struggled to convince locals to buy his well-loved beer.

“In Wellington, I’m still a legend – in Taranaki I never was, I’m still regarded as a cowboy,” Johnson says, looking back. “There was one guy in New Plymouth who ran a big hotel – many times I tried to get him to put the beer on and he said `nah, we don’t deal with cowboys’, and that’s still the attitude in Taranaki.”

It’s fair to say that his 14 years in the brewery business took its toll on Johnson, who was bringing up two children on his own as well as putting lots of energy into getting his beer certified as organic.

“Every year I was pretty much just breaking even – there was just enough to feed the kids and run the vehicles but that’s it. I never starved but there was never any money.

“That brewery cost me three relationships.  Back then it was everything – I got really burned out, absolutely tired, I was probably having issues with depression but I didn’t know that then.”

Looking back, he thinks the one of the errors he made was making just the one beer.

“My biggest mistake was that I refused to brew anything else – I stuck to the one beer I knew how to brew well and that was down to some anxiety about whether anything else would be good enough. But you have to brew what your customers want, not what you want.”

Eventually, he he just couldn’t sustain it and sold the brewery in 2003.

“I sold up because I was burned out and I sold it for a song – around $230,000 for everything including the property and name. I was desperate to get out before I melted down.”

 The state of Johnson’s health was revealed within a year, when he suffered a heart attack.

Medication for his heart exacerbated depressive moods and he admits “I got very sick for quite a few years, depressed. I had pills to wake me up, pills to stay awake and pills to put me to sleep – and I take none of that now. I’ve done a lot of work with a psychologist and know how to control my mood.”

Now living in Punagrehu, South Taranaki, Johnson has become friends with Ron Trigg, who bought the business in 2007 and after much soul-searching, decided to keep the name, especially as his father was called Mike.

But Trigg had his own problems with the brewery.

Last year White Cliffs Organic Brewery Ltd, owned by Trigg and his family and operating as Mike’s Organic Brewery, went into voluntary liquidation over unpaid, and unpayable Customs and Excise debt.

Another company, Mike’s Holdings Ltd, owned by Trigg and his son, bought the brewery assets, allowing the brewery to continue.

“While things are booming now, it wasn’t always like that,” Trigg said in 2016. “We weren’t profitable back in the early days … it was bloody tough.”

Like Johnson before, Trigg went through a relationship break-up while running the brewery and also borrowed money off his parents when things got tight. But he’s adamant he’s turned the brewery around and it’s now profitable.

A few years ago, Trigg returned Johnson his old diesel tank-cum-kettle and Johnson briefly dabbled in home brewing again.

“I made a few different brews but I stopped because I decided it wasn’t a good idea for me to have beer in the house.”

Trigg also took Johnson on a trip to Wellington for a tasting at Regional Wines & Spirits.

“Afterwards they gave me a standing ovation – and Kieran Haslett-Moore said “Well, that’s never happened before.”

This is a chapter from Beer Nation: The Art & Heart of Kiwi Beer