Waitomo’s king of craft beers

Boutique brewing is often associated with urban hipsters, but a group of passionate King Country enthusiasts is proving that even remote rural corners of New Zealand can have a piece of the craft-beer revolution.

Waitomo’s King Country Brewing is a partnership between four locals who saw a brewery as an ideal way to offer a little more to tourists who are drawn to the area by its famous caves and glow worms.

They came up with the idea four years ago, originally planning to convert an old farm shed into a brewery and outlet for their beer.

“The building fell through, but we decided to continue with the beer idea, anyway,” says shareholder Bruce Tobeck, who also owns the Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park.

Brewing began in late 2013 on the farm of another co-owner Willie Berkers, moving in 2014 into Waitomo’s Curly’s Bar, which is also owned by one of the partners. There, and at other local outlets, a steady stream of tourists arrives to taste the local brews – and hear some colourful tales of King Country’s past.

Tobeck says one of the questions most often asked by international travellers staying at his holiday park is where they can find the local beer. “We thought that a brewery might be a good idea because it would create something of interest in the village other than caving,” he says. “Most of our stuff is underground.”

Rather than reference Waitomo in their name, the group decided to have a broader regional focus. “We didn’t just want to be associated with caves and glow worms,” says Tobeck. “One of our objectives was to try and tell the King Country story, which historically is a big part of New Zealand’s history.”

In telling visitors about King Country Brewing, locals can explain how the region was named for the Maori King Tawhiao, who lived in exile there from 1864 to the early 1880s. The area’s boundaries are said to have first been defined when King Tawhiao threw a top hat on to a map.

Looking for a logo, the King Country Brewing Company opted for a different kind of hat – the cowboy hat sold by Haddad’s long-established menswear shop in the King Country town of Otorohanga and frequently worn by farmers and others in the region.

King Country has a unique history in relation to alcohol. At the request of Maori, the area was declared “dry” in 1884, with prohibition lasting until 1954. Many stories have been handed down of alcohol being smuggled into the area or thrown from passing trains. Those tales can these days be shared with visitors enjoying a locally made King Country brew.

King Country Brewing’s beers are distributed by keg and available on tap at a handful of locations in the region and occasionally as guest beers at outlets in Taupo and Auckland. They are also often showcased at rural gatherings, such as sports events and a recent Ravensdown Fertiliser farm day.

The company’s founders were grateful for the initial helping hand they received from master brewer Brian Watson of Natural Brew New Zealand. The quality of their products has been recognised by awards show judges, with the pale ale winning a bronze medal at the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Beer Awards and a silver medal and “best-in-class” at the International Beer Cup Competition, Yokohama, Japan.

After struggling to cope with demand during their summer peaks, the company last year doubled its brewing capacity to more than 4000 litres. Its owners still harbour ambitions to one day sell their beer from their own purpose-built brewing headquarters.

Tobeck admits King Country Brewing’s beers will struggle to threaten the hold of traditional mass-market brands consumed in country pubs.

“But we’ve given people an alternative. If they have a special event they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s try something different this time.’”

While distribution is limited for now, Tobeck believes the beer is achieving enviable international exposure through the tourists introduced to it in Waitomo. “Eighty percent of my clients are international.”

BNZ has backed Tobeck’s holiday park business and also got behind the fledgling brewery operation. “They are really supportive of us,” Tobeck says.

BNZ Partner Amanda Puddle says the King Country Brewing team is a good example of regional businesspeople finding new ways of tapping into the visitor market. “Tourism is creating a lot of opportunities for people with good ideas,” she says. “BNZ will put together a package of banking products to support whatever they are trying to do.”

This week, King Country Brewing’s beers will be served to guests in the BNZ tent at Fieldays in Hamilton. “We’ll be there with our hats on,” promises Tobeck.