sawmill brewery

Twelve years after Sawmill beer hit the market, six years since Mike Sutherland and Kirsty McKay took it over, and nearly a year since they started building, the brewery has moved house. Leaving the iconic Leigh Sawmill, the beer has arrived in its new, purpose-built premises, closer to Matakana and a world away from its little board-and-batten birthplace at Leigh. And what premises. It’s no exaggeration to say the new build is a jaw-dropper. Designed by Mike Petre (who also designed The Vivian Gallery just down the road), it has the same practical, artisan principles, with architectural concepts that go back to his farming background. “There’s a bit of the classic Kiwi woolshed in most of my work,” he says. “It’s a building that seems simple, but it’s actually a complex structure that has a whole lot going on inside.”

The brewery itself is a vast steel shed, its gleaming vats set off by a bright mural on the back wall designed by Mark Lewington of Only Concepts (it’s based on the Pilsner packaging). But the entry is through a cosy little foyer, and it’s here that you start to realise that the whole place is an ode to native timber. Walls are clad in it, rough-sawn; there’s a solid four-metre slab of pohutakawa as a bench seat. But look up: the branched lighting fixture is brass-dipped copper plumber’s pipe, with plain little brass lampshades… and it was made by a plumber, Matt Wildemoth of JG Wech Plumbers.

“The contracting team here – electricians, plumbers, builders – were all given opportunities to have creative input into making things outside their usual brief, and they loved it.” Mike Petre points out other details: the short lengths of manuka as coat pegs on the wall and as handles on the beer pulls, the artfully mismatched lampshades above the gleaming brass bar.

Rachel O’Malley was responsible for the overall interior design of the brewery and Smoko Room (the main dining area), as well as being the Brand and Marketing Manager. She looks up at the bar lighting. “Yes, it’s a good mix. The wooden ones were turned in timber by Michael Bernard, (the knife sharpener at Matakana Markets). The brass ones we had made by Metal Spinners in Mt Roskill and the glass ones were blown by artist Stephen Bradbourne.”

“All the design comes back to the branding ethos of Sawmill Beer,” she continues. “Mike and Kirsty’s artisan approach is all about pared-back craftsmanship, creativity, resourcefulness, integrity, community. We’ve been conscious of everything we’ve created on this site. It’s been collaborative and fun – everyone who’s worked here has had a stake in it. I don’t think there’s a single item that’s come out of a catalogue.”

The overall feel is rustic, but there’s some bling, too. That’s provided by polished brass – fittings, bowls, sheets of it. The loos are a clever case in point. Through the vintage timber doors (LADIES and GENTS in lovely black and gilt typography on the glass) you’ll find old double concrete laundry tubs for washbasins – but they’re kitted out with sleek wooden surrounds, practical brass pipe and tapware with sheets of polished brass instead of mirrors.

When you walk out into the main space, you’re dwarfed by the size of it. Turn and look – the seven metre wall behind you is clad with vertical beech planks from floor to ceiling. “A mate of mine in Whangarei is a timber nut [Camden Andrews of Prolumber]. I was asking about macrocarpa but he said, ‘Well – you might want to come and check out all this southern beech I’ve just got in,’” Mike tells us. “It was storm-felled wood from the West Coast – Cyclone Ida’s work. Just beautiful.”

The beech was cut into thick boards and aged outside for 18 months, then the boards were split. So the walls here show two different patinas – the inner wood warm and the outer in elegant shades of grey. They ended up using it for cladding and floors, too.

There are other great stories. One is about the massive window which frames the benign bulk of Mount Tamahunga at the end of the Smoko Room. Found by Mike Petre on TradeMe, it’s solid totara. It’s from the Dannevirke hospital where an aunt of Kirsty’s was born and later worked. And the old grain silo out front? A neighbour of Mike’s was thinking of taking it out for scrap, but instead it now proudly wears the name of its new home on its weathered breast.

The Frolic crockery by Vicki Fanning fits the aesthetic perfectly. Plates, bowls and cups are hand-made in natural tones; they’re strong and beautiful. The squab covers are painters’ drop cloths, creamy and textural when seen out of context. And the big cushion covers were dyed using the Japanese Shibori method by Rachel and Kirsty and their kids as an art project with artist Janna Isbey. The kids love coming in and finding ‘their’ cushions.

There have been other side-projects – Mike hates waste, so rummaging in skips to make useful things out of scrap makes him happy. The beer tasting trays are in this category. Perfect little boxes made from offcuts that fit five glasses snugly. The stunning ply bar stools were made by an organisation in Kaikohe: Akau. It enables local youth to work on ‘projects encompassing quality, craftsmanship, good design; those promoting collaboration, sharing and social good’. Same!

And what about the food? Mike and Kirsty have been fully involved in this, as with everything. There’ll be small plates of casual ‘food with gumption’ on a short menu that will change regularly.

“It’s been a bit emotional, this move,” says Kirsty. “The Leigh Sawmill is an amazing venue – the Guinness family have been trailblazers. But the beer just went off. And in Leigh, we only had space to make our basic range, but now… well, we can really get stuck in. We’ve actually been brewing here since February and have come up with some big hoppy IPAs, a killer Chocolate Stout and a Red Imperial Ale that has given craft beer drinkers plenty to talk about.”

“Someone asked what made Mike want to be a brewer. It’s funny: when we bought the brewery he wasn’t a mad-keen home brewer like a lot of craft brewers are. But he loves the alchemy of beer – the mix of science and art in making it. He also loves factories.” Kirsty smiles. “Big machinery. Noise. Concrete floors. Filter coffee. And like me, he loves beer as part of the fabric of living - like bread in a way. It’s a corner in that beautiful triangle of food, drink and community. That’s what all our team really love about what we are doing here.”

Sawmill Beer has expanded from ten outlets in Auckland to 150 in four years. There are stockists in Wellington and Christchurch and Mike and Kirsty have their sights set on export. Rachel speaks for the whole team when she says: “Our plans are legion for selling these wonderful ales near and far… We’ve just been focused on getting this up and running – then we can fly!”  |  1004 Matakana Road  | 09 422 6555