Thirsty Work

Walking into the Sawmill Brewery on a cold Wednesday morning is a cheering experience. It’s not yet 8am, but the brewery is a hive of activity with staff stocking up, brewers striding around and some bracing heavy metal music blasting in the background (on Fridays, it’s all-day musicals). Steam is rising from the giant steel silos and the sweet, malty scent is as comforting as Weetbix and hot milk.

Owners Kirsty McKay and Mike Sutherland are already in meetings, but we’re here to talk to the brewers. This is a historic morning: the three major independent brewers north of Auckland have come together to create a new beer especially for the upcoming Oyster and Wine Festival, Matakana. 

Scott Sharp-Heward, head brewer for Sawmill beer, Soren Erikson of 8-Wired Brewing Co in Warkworth and Jason Bathgate of McLeod’s Brewery in Waipu have gone with a classic Oktoberfest style (after all, it’s a festival in October). The strong, amber lager made with German-style hops and malts should perfectly complement the sweet creaminess of those luscious local oysters. “Yeah, we’re confident it’ll be pretty drinkable,” says Scott. Confident enough to make 2000 litres of it – 40 kegs. 

Kirsty, whose idea this was, says, “Sawmill Brewery has worked with other breweries before, but we’ve got our own little northern beer region happening up here now. And with this fantastic festival just down the road, we have the perfect opportunity to go for it!”  

The brewers divided up the choices of ingredients. Soren, who’s has just been involved in another collab with Siren Craft Brew in the UK (a Belgian beer made with French yeast, and spiked with thyme and rosemary), says, “It’s great to do something a bit different. The Munich-style malt is rich and tasty with caramel flavours; the Vienna style is a bit lighter.” 

Scott chimes in. “The hops are different too – ours are quite fruity, but German ones are spicy and earthy… like wine, it’s all about the terroir.” Terroir (French for ‘land’) is the basis for the French system of wine regulation. It works on the fact that the soil, topography and climate of a region all play a part in producing unique flavours in grapes, and the same goes for hops. 

But it’s time to get back to the brew. The malted barley has been brought to the boil to extract the sugars and the resulting wort (pronounced ‘wert’) will be boiled with the hops. Then it’s chilled, yeast is added and fermentation begins. 

And the name of the new beer? Ask for a glass of ‘North by North Fest’. Here’s hoping for a glorious festival day in Matakana to enjoy the region’s first collaborative beer alongside our finest oysters!

The Oyster and Wine Festival, Matakana

Sunday 7 October, 10am-4pm

Tickets and information from

Junction Mag