Illustration: Toby Morris

The Sawmill Brewery on fires, feuds and forging an identity

In the near decade since Sawmill Brewery’s new owners came on board, they’ve made some of the best beers in the country, won awards and watched their brewery burn down. And their former landlords at the Leigh Sawmill Cafe accuse them of acting unethically. Alice Neville reports from Matakana.

Every Monday, when the Sawmill Brewery’s bar and restaurant is closed, a bag of dirty tea towels and aprons is collected to be laundered then returned to the Matakana site on the same day.

So far, so mundane. One afternoon in October, however, there was some residual oil on the tea towels, which, combined with the heat from the fresh-from-the-dryer laundry in the enclosed bag, made conditions perfect for a freak occurrence. The laundry sat there in the empty brewery, right up next to the nice dry timber walls and staircase, slowly sweltering. 

“Six hours later, it started to smoke,” explains Mike Sutherland. “And 40 minutes after that, it burst into flames.”

Sawmill Brewery after the fire (Photos: Supplied)

He knows this only because the spontaneous combustion was recorded on security footage later recovered from the gutted brewery. Sutherland, his partner in life and business Kirsty McKay and their three young sons were asleep at their nearby home at the time, blissfully unaware that the brewery was going up in smoke. 

The fire service was alerted to the blaze just after 11pm. The volunteer brigade got there in nine minutes, but by that stage it had been burning for some time. Luckily the fire chief that night was a regular at the Smoko Room, as the brewery’s tasting room and restaurant is (now somewhat ironically) called, so he was familiar with the building. “They fought it really aggressively because they knew where the gas was and what the building layout was,” says McKay. “If they hadn’t known that, they wouldn’t have been able to go in like they did.” She was told it was within minutes of being a write-off. 

The damage was extensive but as much was salvaged as possible, including a chiller full of beer. “No one was hurt, but it hurts still,” says McKay. “Mike and I had been here all night and we asked all our staff to come in in the morning, and as they came in a lot of people were really upset. It was quite confronting to see it all, it was a mess. It was dark and it stunk.”

Kirsty McKay and Mike Sutherland at their fire-damaged brewery, Sawmill, in Matakana (Photo: Alice Neville)

The rebuild is a slow process. Last week all the tanks were lifted out of the brewery by cranes so work could start on rebuilding the roof. Sawmill hopes to have the brewery back up and running by March and the Smoko Room open in the middle of the year. In the meantime, New Zealand’s beer community has stepped up to offer the use of their breweries so Sawmill can keep churning out its acclaimed beers. So far Sutherland and the team have brewed at Hallertau, Urbanaut, 8 Wired, Kererū and Parrotdog, and are using the opportunity to collaborate with other brewers on their Homegrown IPA series, which focuses on beers made with only New Zealand-grown malts and hops.

“It was amazing,” says Sutherland. “Pretty much straight away heaps of people reached out and said, ‘Look, if there’s any way we can help…’ It’s not a great time of the year to have a fire and not have any production, and people changed everything around to try and slot us in to just get us up and going.”

The Smoko Room before the fire (Photo: Supplied)

With its bougie farmers market and vineyards, the region comprising Matakana and its coastal neighbours Leigh, Omaha and Pakiri has in recent years become a weekend playground for the well-to-do of Auckland, but a rural, creative-bordering-on-hippy side remains.

The Leigh Sawmill Brewing Company was founded in 2004 by Peter and Decima Freckleton, an English couple who brewed in a shed they rented from the owners of the Leigh Sawmill Cafe. This was early days for New Zealand’s craft brewing scene, and Sawmill was well respected for going its own way – stubbornly brewing lagers when just about everyone else was jumping on the hoppy IPA bandwagon, and, in a move that proved prescient, putting its beer into cans. “Peter was so not like the average craft brewer at that time,” says McKay. “He was the antithesis of the hipster.”

Sutherland and McKay bought the business from the Freckletons in 2010, registering with the Companies Office as The Sawmill Brewing Company Ltd. “It was just a hobby business for them, really – they did it two days a week,” says McKay of the previous owners. “They were getting tapped out, they were older and just had too much to do.”

Adds Sutherland: “Peter was an engineer by trade and he’d set it up beautifully. Even then it was all solar heating, a fully closed system that converted cold water into hot through heat exchange.”

Leigh Sawmill Cafe (Photo: RNZ)

Sutherland had studied commerce and viticulture at university, then worked in the export business, while McKay was a lawyer who specialised in refugee law. The couple’s love of beer developed while they were living in Lyttelton, where they discovered South Island breweries like Emerson’s, Three Boys and Harrington’s. A new job for Sutherland necessitated a move north but not long after, he was made redundant. McKay had recently had their first son, and the pair was keen to start a family business. Sutherland has always had a thing for factories – “I love looking at how they operate” – and wanted to be a producer of some sort. Plus, he was getting into home-brewing. 

“So I rang the guy who had the brewery at Leigh Sawmill and said, ‘Can I come and do a brew day?’ But he never replied. I pestered him and rang another couple of times, and eventually his wife came back and said, ‘Yep, come up tomorrow.’ I went up and had an awesome day – that was on the Saturday – and then on Monday I called him back and said, ‘Would you be interested in selling?’

“They said, ‘Yep, we’ve been thinking about it,’ so we went through the process and settled a month later.”

Peter Freckleton died in 2016 after a battle with cancer, and Sawmill now holds an annual home-brewing competition in his memory. “You have to brew a lager and flip the bird at whatever’s fashionable, as that’s what Peter would’ve done,” explains McKay.

Tanks at Sawmill’s Matakana brewery, before the fire (Photo: Supplied)

Leigh Sawmill Cafe opened in 1996 on the site of a historic sawmill that had been restored by the Guinness family, who had bought the property two years earlier. Over the next couple of decades it became one of New Zealand’s best-loved live music venues, presided over by the eccentric, affable patriarch Grattan Guinness, and then his sons Edward and Benjamin.

The venue holds a special place in the hearts of many New Zealand musicians, who often cite it as among their favourite places in the country to play.

Around the time of Freckleton’s death, six years after Sutherland and McKay had bought it, the brewery moved out of the tiny space it occupied at the Leigh Sawmill Cafe and into its new facility, 10km down the road in Matakana. The brewery and the cafe had always been separate businesses, but the move caused confusion for customers, and the Leigh Sawmill’s owners were “disappointed” by their departure, the couple say.

“We weren’t able to stay because we needed space and our lease was up,” says Sutherland. “We wanted to survive and keep developing what we’d started, so we had to move off-site.”

Sawmill Brewery in Matakana, before the fire (Photo: Supplied)

The Sawmill name and circular saw logo, very similar to the one the Leigh Sawmill Cafe uses, went with them. The Guinness family had assumed the brewery would no longer use it. They brewery was asked to change the name but the request was abandoned after a couple of days.

“I think their main concern was having the confusion, people thinking they’re going to Sawmill and they’re here,” says Sutherland. “It was really just having the Sawmill name visible at the site – that was the only contentious issue, but we couldn’t really do anything about that because Sawmill’s the name of our beer.

“I think we’d grown to a stage where having a full name change and rebrand would have been like re-entering the industry, which would have been quite a big call.”

Adds McKay: “And that’s everything, you know – your name is your reputation. We just felt it wasn’t an option.”

The logo of the Leigh Sawmill Cafe on the left and the Sawmill Brewery on the right, from their websites

Ripples were felt across both the brewing and music industries, and speculation about the propriety of the move was rife. One person working in independent brewing in Auckland recently describing the fallout from the brewery’s departure as “driving a stake into the heart of Matakana”.

Sutherland and McKay are at pains to point out they’re not trying to compete with the Leigh Sawmill Cafe, which is best known for its gigs, accommodation and pizzas. Sutherland and McKay emphasise that the beer – the factory, as they call it – is the main part of their business, with the bar and restaurant, which has a focus on small plates, coming second (the name was chosen because “every good factory needs a smoko room”). Legally, the name Sawmill is used only for the brewing side of the business, while Smoko Room is used for the hospitality side.

Both Sutherland and McKay are quick to heap praise on the Leigh Sawmill – they’re mates with long-time manager Susan Kaiser. “I would hope people feel like they’re lucky to have both,” says McKay. “If we didn’t have the Leigh Sawmill in this area there would be this yawning gap for music.”

Leigh Sawmill Cafe

Naturally there has been confusion, however, and in the early days people arrived at the brewery – which those travelling north from Auckland reach first – looking for Leigh Sawmill Cafe. But the couple say they went to great lengths to clear things up.

“There was a lot of messaging as soon as you walked in,” he adds. “The staff were trained – ‘If you’re looking for Leigh Sawmill, it’s up the road’ – and on the menus we spelled it all out. We did everything we thought we could to make it clear to people.”

Initially there was talk of the Leigh Sawmill Cafe finding someone to take over the vacated brewery, but it didn’t eventuate. There’s now a great on-tap craft beer selection, but Sawmill brews are nowhere to be seen. “That was their idea, but it was something we really supported because at the time we were trying to provide some clarity about the businesses,” says McKay. “We all wanted it to be clear that we were separate.”

She’s heartened that the cafe opted for independent breweries – there are rotating offerings from the likes of 8 Wired, McLeod’s and Liberty on tap – over a contract with Big Beer, and says she would be open to Sawmill beers being served at the Leigh Sawmill in future.

The Bigwood Builders team on the left and, at right, Sawmill crew members Tyler Leet, Dane Vazey, Junior Parata, Paul Carson and Masashi Yoshida take a break during the rebuild (Photo: Supplied)

Grattan Guinness drowned at the nearby Goat Island Marine Reserve in March 2018, aged in his mid 70s, and later that year, the family leased the Leigh Sawmill Cafe to Craig Anderson, an Auckland businessman who also owns Cotto restaurant on Karangahape Road. McKay and Sutherland are yet to meet him but they say Kaiser speaks highly of him.

Kaiser told The Spinoff there was no ongoing animosity between the Leigh Sawmill Cafe and Sawmill Brewery. In an email to The Spinoff, Anderson said he didn’t want to comment on the brewery’s departure and the aftermath as he didn’t know the full facts of what happened. He said Sawmill beers weren’t sold at the cafe simply because he’d never been approached by a Sawmill distributor or brewery representative.

Says Sutherland of the former owners: “I guess they were disappointed we left, and rightly so. They’d developed a business where we were part of the offering. Interest in microbreweries was growing and we were part of the attraction of going there. They didn’t own it or control it, and we moved that attraction away. 

“People are immediately fearful of what that means for their business, but four years later they’re still there, still doing their thing.

“We got through all that but it was a tricky thing to navigate,” he adds. “It was emotional for those guys who had the caf, because they were worried about what it would mean for them.

“We do a different thing – they have gigs, and the food style and service is completely different,” says Sutherland. “At the end of the day we’re a factory first and foremost, but we wanted to take the opportunity to show everyone what it looks like inside a commercial brewery and who we are. We now really get to establish our own identity, we don’t have to share it, and they can continue developing theirs separately. We’re 100% fine with that.”

Prior to publication, The Spinoff approached the Guinness family to ask if they wished to comment on the brewery’s departure from the Leigh Sawmill Cafe. In an emailed statement, the family said the brewery’s “actions were strategic from a business standpoint, but from our perspective they were not ethical”.

“We were promised that there would be no restaurant, music, or Sawmill signage on the road, all of which have played out since,” said the statement. “For them to open up a full-scale restaurant just down the road and trade off the Leigh Sawmill Cafe’s logo and goodwill that we have generated for over 23 years is unfair and deceptive to the public. We feel it would have been fair to rebrand/rename the brewery when they moved site.”

McKay and Sutherland were offered the right to respond but said they weren’t keen to get into a tit-for-tat situation, instead emailing a statement that said: “Both the Leigh Sawmill Cafe and the Brewery + Smoko Room are great businesses for our community and offer completely different experiences to the benefit of people who live here or visit this area. Our focus has always been on brewing great beer and the Smoko Room gives people the opportunity to experience this at the brewery itself. There are so many great businesses in this area and that’s what makes it such an attractive place to live and work.”

Last week the brewing tanks were from Sawmill removed via crane so work can start on the roof (Photos: Supplied)

Two weeks after the fire, Sawmill Brewery received the inaugural New World Brewing Sustainability Award at the New Zealand Beer Awards – ironic, giving at the time they had “more skip bins outside the brewery than probably all other New Zealand breweries put together”.

But Sawmill’s commitment to sustainability is indeed impressive. In August last year, it became the first New Zealand brewery to achieve B Corp certification, a rigorous international recognition scheme that acknowledges a company’s commitment to social and environmental responsibility and transparency.

“We were looking for a reason for being,” says Sutherland. “You’re in this survival mode and at some stage you’ve got to break out of that, you’ve got to move away from that mentality. We’d reached a point where we were viable, so it was like, ‘How are we going to be really awesome?’ Then we needed to define what a really awesome business was to us. For us it was being real, independent and resourceful.”

Adds McKay: “That’s the thing with B Corp, it’s broad. We knew we didn’t want to just find some environmental certification – it seemed too narrow, it felt like a tack-on. B Corp is everything – there’s a couple of hundred questions you go through.

“It means you’re a stronger business. You’re more agile because you’re always thinking about these different things and that’s good for everybody, that’s a great culture to have. The team all got it pretty much immediately. They felt a real sense of pride that their jobs were so much more meaningful because we were talking about these things, and they got to come up with different solutions for how we might want to change processes.”

Efficiency is a big part of it, they say. “You can be much more clever in how you approach processes or solving problems,” says Sutherland. “There’s always the perceived easiest way to do something, but that’s not always the right way to do it, and that’s what we found out through B Corp – there are always other ways.” 

The fire has given them some forced down time to further explore those “other ways”. “A couple of days after the fire, we talked about how creativity comes from chaos,” says McKay. “It just sort of flicked for us that we could use this disorder and disruption for the benefit of our business, and that’s a really cool thing to hold on to.”




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