In a land best known for sheep and strangulated vowels, when you see a sign for ‘Real Ale – 1000 litres Ahead,’ you know you are in for a treat.

White Cliffs Brewery in New Zealand’s bucolic North Island is on the west coast, squeezed between a snow-capped volcano, Mount Taranaki, and the Tasman Sea. This part of New Zealand used to be known for its dairy and mining industries but now thanks to the filming of The Last Samurai (owing to Mount Taranaki’s similarity to Mount Fuji) and frequent appearances of Billy Connolly and Stevie Nicks at its quirky world music festival, it is on the tourist route.

White Cliffs Brewery started as a one beer operation but was taken over and expanded by Steve Ekdahl and his partner Sharon Cottam.

Having worked as a carpenter and pediatrics nurse respectively, they discovered their passion for brewing in Ireland on their Overseas Experience – Kiwi-speak for a gap year European working holiday. A chance encounter with a Guinness brewer and a realisation that New Zealand’s clean green atmosphere was the perfect export they returned home and tried to find a way to bottle it.

They purchased the one-beer, home brew operation of White Cliffs Brewery near their home town of New Plymouth. They focussed on increasing production and adding another beer to the repertoire.

The original signature beer is Mike’s Mild Ale, a lightly hopped beer with a full malt taste.

Mountain Lager is the latest addition, a full strength German-style lager with a soft citrus flavour and a clean white head. Both beers are fully certified organic. They also have plans for an Imperial Russian Stout to add to the mix.

White Cliffs Brewery aims to have as true a brew possible; using hops from the south of New Zealand, organic malts from Germany, pure North Island water and a traditional ale yeast.

There is no added sugar or preservatives, no pasteurisation and no filtering.

In a scenario familiar to other boutique brewers, Steve and Sharon do every thing from marketing and product development to sweeping the floors. The beer tasting area is a one-room shed which also doubles as the factory. It takes eight hours to label, package and bottle 1800 bottles of beer and most of the process is done by hand.

The hard work has paid off. Mike’s Mild Ale won the Silver Medal in the ‘Dark Beer’ category at the 2004 Brew NZ Awards and they are hoping to achieve similar success with the new Mountain Lager brand. They export to Australia and Asia, and on weekends get around 50 tourists a day – not bad for a reasonably lonely stretch of road in a country of just four million.

But weaning the locals off their Tui, Speights and Waikato, New Zealand’s national beers, has not been easy. White Cliffs Brewery is in rugby heartland and getting a third generation dairy farmer to spend an extra $2 on an organic handcrafted product is a challenge.

Steve’s answer is through the stomach. He’s bought an 1880s schoolhouse, moved it onsite and converted it into a function centre. On weekends the locals hold wedding receptions, sports club functions and birthday parties. They are served hearty Kiwi bistro-style tucker such as whitebait fritters, mussels in Green Ginger Wine and the ubiquitous lamb kebabs and kumara chips followed with lashings of hokey pokey ice cream, New Zealand’s national dessert. All washed down with White Cliffs to give them a chance to at least sample the beer.

Slowly Steve is turning around the locals’ perceptions. New Zealand is not just about rugby, sheep and cheap beer any more, it’s about quality, organics and craftsmanship.

Steve and Sharon love their eco-friendly young brewery despite the hard work, and are always up for a chat about all things beer, and how they’ve attempted to bottle New Zealand.

White Cliffs Brewery
State Highway 3, Urenui, New Zealand
Tel: + 64 6 752 3676, Web:
Open 7 days from 10.00am to 6.00pm

Categories: International