Whangamatā is a sleepy, bach-filled surfer’s paradise on the Coromandel Peninsula that comes to life in summer, its population swelling ten-fold. And for self-described “brewer, delivery guy and shop manager,” Liam Blunden, multi-tasking sole owner and operator of Whangamatā’s first microbrewery, Salt District, life’s about to get pretty full on.
On a sunny Monday afternoon, Liam meets me at Salt District Brewing, located behind town’s main street. From the freshly-painted muralled lounge, sandwiched between the cellar door and production area, we see a thirsty group arrive, hoping the brewery’s open (it’s not). Liam’s partner and brewery coordinator, Emma Hauck, approaches them, with Gus, the brewery dog, in tow. Liam envisions a local haunt that people flock to and given the small crowd gathering outside, he might be onto something.
Originally from Orewa, on Auckland’s North Shore, Liam spent summers in Whangamatā from age 15 onwards, helping at his family’s supermarket. “For four years, I worked as a camp counsellor in the States for four months, spent all my money travelling afterwards, then came home and worked really hard in the shop from January to March and then went back to the States.”
Overseas, Liam tasted life-changing craft beers in Portland, Boston and at Allagash in Maine, the camp’s neighbouring town, and home to the brewery of the same name synonymous with great Belgian-style beers. “When I was 22 or 23, I had a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and it just totally blew my mind.” Since then, Liam’s mission to brew (and surf) in Whangamatā, and not just seasonally, has been more than a pipe dream.
Back in Aotearoa, Liam scored a trainee brewer position with bStudio in Hawke’s Bay. At first intimidated by the control room and automated systems, six months in, it was second nature. “I was all encompassed in beer. All I did down there was surf and brew,” he says.
The output was massive – six million litres a year, five brews a day, up to 28 a week. “I think that really fast-tracked everything,” he says. “We won heaps of medals and I felt a massive sense of pride, making beers like Hāpi Daze for Garage Project.” After two years in the big leagues, a brewery proposal enticed him back to Whangamatā, before it eventually fell through. “So then I was like, ‘What do I do now?’”
Homebrewing in his friend Kehan’s shed answered his existential woes. “The beers were really, really good. And during the first lockdown, there was a yoga studio that shut down. We were like, ‘What if we tried putting a brewery there?’”
Fast forward, and Liam’s giving me a tour of said brewery, Salt District (named to represent ocean-centric folk), which he built alongside Kehan in 2022, but now runs solo (a feat he credits to the ongoing support of his mentors and colleagues in the brewing community). “It was literally just this lino floor. We poured a concrete slab in here. We put a drain in and made this wall.” The landlord helped with rent and Kehan’s neighbour, a farmer-slash-engineer, lent his electrical skills.
“All the beer’s made on-site. There’s four ingredients, and that’s it. It’s quite a transparent process, which I’m pretty proud of.” And it is literally transparent – through the sliding glass doors, passersby can view the 700-soon-to-be 900-litre operation. The fact that the brewer is also the cellar door attendant is just part of Salt District’s laid-back vibe.
“The transaction of getting a flagon is only five minutes, but we kind of force people to stay for 15 and have a chat,” he says. “People really like cruising around town, they go to the beach and then come in to fill up their flagon.” Liam often delivers kegs by foot, eliciting cheers in town. Salt District has become a slice of Whangamatā life, year-round.
There’s three core ranges (Party Wave, Big Moocher and Sea Legs, plus plenty of one-off brews. “The Party Wave Pale Ale was Sierra Nevada-inspired, then I fused it with Hāpi Daze in my head. And we’ve got Big Moocher IPA – it’s just big and bold. Sea Legs Hazy IPA is bright orange. At the moment, hazy IPAs are dark and heavy but Sea Legs is pretty light and refreshing.”
Liam pours tasters and lets the beers speak for themselves – two core ranges, as well as Tsunami Summer Ale and Coromandel Chocolate Porter (a collab with Coromandel Chocolate). “We’re also partnering with Jimmy’s Micro Roastery in Ōmokoroa and I’m going to do a big, classic New Zealand Hazy, named after our electrician, Bubba (Bubba’s Hazy IPA). I also did a Japanese Rice Lager that was really popular.” The full list is on Salt District’s website, which Liam and Emma (who’s now rejoined us) mention they just launched – an accomplishment they celebrate with a perfectly-executed fist bump.
Entering a busy second season (though Liam insists last summer doesn’t count), the focus is on fulfilling local cafe and restaurant accounts, supplying the cellar door and hosting events on-site (talks, surfboard displays, food trucks, etc). “As much as I love making beer, I don’t just want to sell kegs to people. I want to have events, have people here and teach them about what we’re doing.”
As we wrap up, Liam points out two mini hop plants at the brewery’s entrance, which will hopefully climb up to the overhang – an unintended metaphor for starting small and growing steadily. “The next stage is just having a livable volume to be like, ‘We’re your local brewery.’” Recently, the beers have attracted attention beyond Whangamatā – from Luke’s Kitchen to the second edition of The Rising Tide in Ōmokoroa. The climb continues, but for now, in true Whangamatā fashion, it’s one sandy foot in front of the other until Easter.