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“Whether it’s cows or lambs or beer, we’re always striving for the best,” James says. “We want to have the best stock and the best brews.
Back then, the couple had pre-schooler Ciana and were still reeling from the arrival of prematurely-born twins Lexi and Pippa. They were also adjusting to new farming regulations that placed restrictions on herd size and fertilizer application, to help improve Lake Taupō’s water catchment quality. The Coopers needed to diversify to develop a more sustainable income stream for the sake of the property and future generations.
Their lightbulb moment came when James tasted a bottle of ale made by the family-owned Coopers brewery in Australia. He and Elissa decided to have a crack at creating their own family legacy and started researching. A large chiller and bottling equipment arrived on the farm and they cleared out an implement shed, installing a concrete floor and drainage. They sourced malt from the South Island and hops from both New Zealand and overseas. And they tapped into a bore 70m below the brewery to provide fresh Taupō water.
“Me being me, we winged it a little bit,” James says. “We’d wait till the twins were sleeping and go to the shed with a wheelbarrow to shift bottles from one side to the labelling machine on the other. We were doing all the brewing and bottling ourselves, it was pretty crazy.”
Following several abject failures, the duo managed to produce beer that was good enough to sell but still not good enough for James’ liking. He hired an engineer and a brewing consultant to help perfect the process.
“I love everything about beer, including the social aspect; there’s nothing like having a brew with mates at the end of the day. But I also love the challenge of working on the taste, making new types and I’m still heavily involved in developing the new varieties.”
“That first year, though, we tipped out a lot of beer. There were certainly some fun evenings but it’s very challenging; farming would have been the easy option. It is hard work to get it right.”
And they did get it right according to customers – the business grew at least 300 per cent every year for the first three years – as well as a long series of judges who awarded medal after trophy after certificate at national and Australian brewing competitions. The first couple of gongs came in 2013, for the original Taupo Thunder pale ale, while their Hairy Craic Irish cream stout – aged in southern whisky oak and infused with vanilla extract - picked up a gold in 2019 for New Zealand champion barrel-aged beer.
In 2020, a national supermarket chain gave Lakeman’s Hopadalic IPA top 30 billing from 600 entries.
James is adamant the incoming accolades need to be shared. It was Elissa who conjured up the company name and continues to take care of administration, marketing, and day-to-day management of the operation. And he says the company’s success is due to his enthusiastic team of five staff, including Taupō resident and keen mountain biker Rory Donovan who started working for the business while he was still at school and is now head brewer.
“Rory got thrust into the top job when he was only 20. I call him mister consistent because he checks all the little things, keeping the beer consistently good. He’s just a real natural.”
All three of Rory’s brothers have worked for Lakeman Brewing over the years and other locals help with everything from label design to stocking Lakeman beer in their stores or bars. James grew up in rural Taupō and attended school with many of the proprietors who are now serving his brews.
“This really is a team effort. There are a whole lot of Taupō people coming together to make it work. They believe in it, that we’re making a good product. We have a lot of friends here and we get a lot of community support. That means a lot to us.”
These days, James is chief bottler when he’s not moving stock, weighing lambs, cropping and feeding animals on the couple’s 120ha home farm, or working on their nearby leasehold property.
He and Elissa have more plans, too. They hope to open a tasting room on site and be able to show visitors how they utilise beer by-products on the farm; all processed malted barley becomes cattle food and grey water is used to irrigate their land.
“Wherever possible, everything comes back to the farm first and every time we do something we try and think about it and try to minimize our impact on the environment. All our packaging is cardboard and we use amber bottles because they are made from 80 per cent recycled glass.
“It’s the same principle on the farm, we’re always taking small steps to be more sustainable. Like changing to new grass species to rejuvenate the soil. Last year, we stopped wrapping our hay in plastic.
He says his own efforts to protect and enhance Lake Taupō’s water catchment have been echoed by fellow land users for at least a decade, with great success.
“As a farmer, I go down to the lake now and I know the water quality is just getting better and better. That’s not happening in many other places and of course I want my own kids to be able to swim in that lake like I did as a boy.
“On summer evenings, we go down to Whakaipo Bay for a swim when the kids are cranky and hot. We have the best swimming pool at the end of the road.”
The Coopers also relish easy access to scenic campsites, horse riding trails for Elissa and family-friendly lakeside cycle tracks for the children. There’s a boat on the wish list for next summer – James and Elissa hope to teach their daughters to water ski - and James has favourite fishing, deer and pig hunting spots within a half-hour radius of home.
“Living here, it’s a dream really. We’re pretty lucky.”
You can find Lakeman Brewing at local shops or accompanied by the ultimate partner to a beer, a juicy craft burger at Jimmy Coops Lakehouse, with over 15 Lakeman brews on tap!
In 90 seconds, Taupo fisherwoman and adventurer Libby O’Brien can cycle from her house to the lakefront. From there, it’s a 15-minute ride to her senior role at the Department of Conservation office. Within half an hour, she can pedal to her favourite mineral hot pools to soak away aches after an active weekend of fly fishing, boating, skiing and – more often than not - falling off her mountain bike.Find out more
We do think you should prepare yourself to be highly impressed by the food and beverages on offer in Taupō. Because whether you’re after fine dining with wine pairing, a perfectly cooked steak, shared platters or a great burger and beer, our well-seasoned town has it all.