That James Cooper once turned down breakfast with Paul McCartney tells you a lot about his work ethic and his personality in one turn.
Cooper, on an OE to England over 20 years ago, worked for a mate who had a fencing job — to keep wild boar out of McCartney’s Sussex farm.
One day the former Beatle himself walked out to check the progress and invited Cooper for breakfast.
“We were fencing to keep the wild boar out of his farm, it was well over 20 years ago. I was over there fencing and the guy I worked for had the contract to fence his farm.
“He [McCartney] asked me if wanted breakfast. And I said: `Nah, I gotta get to work’.”
Asked if he regrets not taking a magical mystery tour of McCartney’s property, Cooper shrugs.
“I dunno … the guy who I worked for knew him pretty well and he went off to have a cup tea and toast and jam and I was like ‘nah I’ll carry on here’.”
It’s typical Cooper —humble, self-effacing, good work ethic — all the qualities he’s poured into Lakeman.
The success of the brewery is a story of Kiwi can-do, with Cooper and his wife Elissa making the decision 10 years ago that their small beef and lamb farm in the hills above Lake Taupo needed another revenue stream. That’s because of the complex but world-leading regulations around nitrogen discharge into Lake Taupo. The nitrogen “cap” means farmers can only run a certain level of stock.
With a small cap limiting their stock levels, the Coopers needed to try something different, and James — inspired by drinking a namesake Cooper’s beer in Australia — decided to start a brewery, teaching himself along the way.
In the past decade he and brewer Rory Donovan — with a bit of help from “Dr Google” — have gone from complete beginners to multi-award winners.
Their Primate Pilsner — named Supreme Champion at the New World Beer & Cider Awards — is an almost ideal encapsulation of a New Zealand-style pilsner, with loads of bright citrus and the hint of dank herbal note on a clean, slightly sweet palate. It came out on top of a taste-off against some of the bigger beers in this competition because of the almost perfect execution.
Despite their remote location and rural setting, with the brewery in the middle of the farm, Lakeman are proof that old-fashioned rural ingenuity and meticulous dedication will reap rewards.
Cooper is always tinkering with his beers, aiming for perfection, and always believing a recipe can be improved. But not many beers have been tweaked like Primate Pilsner.
“I was really, really, really stoked,” Cooper says of the Supreme Champion award, “because this beer has been a hard one to nail.”
Donovan adds, that when the results came in there was only one description for his boss: “I would describe James’s features as ecstatic.”
The biggest change to the recipe for Primate Pilsner came after Pursuit of Hoppiness visited the Coopers for a story last year and we discussed the way New Zealand-style pilsners were mostly brewed with an ale yeast.
“Remember that chat we had about ale yeast,” Cooper says, “well we’ve been playing it with since then.”
The switch in yeast, from a lager strain to an ale strain, came with associated changes to the hop additions, a shift to a new malt provider, and consultation with Sam Williamson, formerly of Sawmill and now at Pacific Coast. In short, they revamped the beer completely!
Now that they’ve nailed a beer that scored 90/100 in the first round of judging before being picked as the best pilsner and then the Supreme Champion, you’d think the recipe was set. That they’d … ah, Let It Be.
But Donovan thinks Cooper won’t be able to help himself and more changes could be made as they seek the perfect drop.
“That’s what tinkering’s all about,” Cooper interjects, adding: “After we changed the yeast, I started drinking the pilsner more than I had. And our Untappd ratings are definitely going up and up.”
After some big national exposure for the brewery last year when they featured on Country Calendar, being named Supreme Champion at the New World Beer & Cider Awards is “huge, awesome,” Cooper says.
“It’s our biggest achievement. Just to get into the New World Top-30 is a great achievement. That’s the beauty of this competition, it’s so cut-throat. It’s the hardest competition to do well in.”
All that remains for Lakeman now is to complete their dream of an on-farm taproom, but for now visitors to Taupo can get their fill of Lakeman at Jimmy Coops bar on the waterfront.