A Central Plateau couple who’ve been farming under the strict regulations to cap nitrogen run-off into the Lake Taupo since 2011 have found diversifying into a totally different venture has helped both their farm’s production and the property’s water quality.
James and Elissa Cooper farm on 330 acres of pumice-rich soil, and another 400 acre lease block nearby, which are 10 minutes’ drive from Taupo.
Today the couple use water from their farm to brew beer in an old implement shed on-farm – an idea James came up with when they were on holiday in Australia nearly a decade ago.
“I was in Aussie on holiday, when a mate gave me a bottle of Cooper’s beer and I had a lightbulb moment.
“At the time we were looking to diversify off the farm as a result of the introduction of nitrogen caps within the Lake Taupo catchment.
“With my surname being ‘Cooper’, I thought we could do this at home using the water off the farm.”
Back then the new Nitrogen Discharge Allowance cap effectively capped stock levels and fertiliser use on Taupo farms within the lake catchment.
And with the allowance based on historic use, the Cooper’s farm had a relatively low NDA due to previous owners’ low fertiliser use – making the rules tighter for them.
So James, wanting to use his pure bore water for his brewery dream, began working with an agri-manager to manage nutrient inputs on the farm. The idea was to strike a balance between having the best water available for his brewery while also ensuring the farm was productive. As a result, James has cut most urea use on-farm and has planted more clover to fix nitrogen.
Then he set about searching for a brewery, and eight years ago bought complete a set-up from the recently-sold Tuatara Brewing company. “Unexpectedly, our farming operation grew at this time so the brewery sat in the shed for a few years collecting dust.”
But this time wasn’t wasted, as the dream grew in detail and the process of naming had to be sorted. “As much as I’d have loved to have called it Coopers here, after a bit of toing and froing Elissa came up with Lakeman and away we went.”
The couple began brewing with a bit of trial and error. “We probably tipped out a good 15,000L in the first year,” says James. “But it helped the grass grow, which is a bonus!”
Today the second business is called Lakeman Brewery, producing a craft beer brand that’s becoming more recognisable by a ‘hairy yeti-like’ persona that appears on every bottle in various guises.
And it uses James’ good quality farm water supply – a key ingredient according to any brewer – to craft the products. “The water here is straight out of a bore on the farm,” says James.
And this isn’t the only area of the operation where the two businesses have the same needs. “There are other things shared across both businesses, and some which aren’t quite so obvious,” says James.
One example is aging alcohol in wooden barrels, much like whiskey. “The barrels have been aging in one of the farm sheds for the last three years,” says James.
The Lakeman team looks after everything in-house – from brewing, bottling and labelling, to packaging and distribution. Orders are filled and ready for pick-up via a big chiller out the back of the shed the brewery is housed in.
“The tractor we feed out with is the same one we load the trucks with when they come to pick up deliveries each day,” says James.
And there are now two full-time brewers, Rory Donovan and Kenny Rivers. “On-the-job training is a massive advantage to becoming good at brewing beer,” says James.
“We’re always experimenting here and trying new things. Based on demand, we don’t always have the capacity to – but when we can, we like to try new things.”
The Lakeman brand is going from strength-to-strength, with award-winning beers in its line-up including the Hairy Hop IPA named 2018 Champion IPA in the NZ Brewers Guild Awards. They’re becoming regulars on social media too and at craft beer shows, including Beervana in Wellington, which the Coopers recently returned from.
Larger breweries are taking notice too, accommodating Lakeman beers on tap in establishments where this traditionally may not have been possible. “Taupo Thunder is one we’ve targeted to be on tap where we can, and having Taupo in the name is cool; it helps promote the area too,” says James.
And so a diversification project, prompted by the need to protect nearby Lake Taupo, has improved a natural resource and enabled James’ farm to become more productive with less stock. I bet James has raised a glass to that.