lovers of craft beer

the lakeman story

From farming Simmental cattle and lambs to brewing award-winning craft beer

The light-heartedness and fun of Lakeman Brewing were born out of a time of change and uncertainty in the farming district around Taupo. 

Back in 2009, James and Elissa Cooper were a young couple who enjoyed drinking a beer but had absolutely no idea how to make one. Elissa was working as a veterinarian in a local practice and James had taken on a lease block and was farming sheep and cattle.  At that time there was a lot of change happening in the rural landscape of Taupo. Environment Waikato had found the freshwater quality of Lake Taupo was under threat and the amount of nitrogen reaching the lake from farmland and urban areas needed to be reduced to slow the degradation of the water quality.

A change to farming that

altered the landscape

A raft of changes were implemented which meant all farms within the lake catchment had their nitrogen inputs capped. In simple terms, this meant the number of livestock that each farm could carry was limited as was the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that could be applied.

Farmers realized the absolute need to protect this natural resource but were unsure about the new regulations and the ongoing viability of their businesses. As a result of this uncertainty, land prices fell.

James and Elissa were keen to own land and the fall in land prices gave them the opportunity to purchase 100 hectares. The piece of land which they bought had a low nitrogen discharge allowance (NDA) and their farming business due to the size and regulations was very marginal. It became evident in the first couple of years that they needed another income stream. The couple had three young girls under two years old including premature twins which needed a lot of care so in the short term it was not going to be from Elissa returning to work as a veterinarian.

taupo farmer

The beer that changed it all...

A few years before while on a trip to Australia, a mate bought James a bottle of South Australia’s famous Coopers Sparkling Ale. As he enjoyed his namesake’s tasty bottle, James’s thought wouldn’t it be great to give brewing a crack?

lakeman ideas room


What came of the idea?

The idea resurfaced while James was thinking about how they could diversify. Why not use this water we are protecting to try and brew some beer? Elissa was hesitant about the idea, but they came to an agreement that he had three shots at making a drinkable brew.

The basis of a brewery was set up in an implement shed just below the house.  Not one to muck around with a pilot brew system James with no home brewing experience but the help of YouTube and the brewing bible Home Brewing for Dummies brewed into a 1000-litre vat. The first brew went down the drain, followed by the second and third. Elissa can remember the disappointment. The money had very nearly run out, but James being James snuck in a fourth brew and it was so much better not great, but you could drink a glass.

A couple of legends to give 

Advice and an identity

James now admits that starting from scratch was not so simple and sticking to farming would have been a lot easier. 

With things starting to look promising in the brewery it was  time to develop the business and they began working on the brand, the idea was it would be fun and based on an identity that did not take themselves too seriously. Elissa conjured up the name Lakeman and the last of their savings were tipped in to employ talented local Marty Day from Brandco to develop Lakeman and the brand.

Meanwhile, up the road in Hamilton were a trio of brewers Greig McGill, Graham Mahy, and Peter McKenzie. They tasted the first few batches of Lakeman and politely told James that for the good of the industry the beer needed to improve. They took him under their wing and they hammered home the need for quality. 

meet lakeman

Always an optimist

Elissa recalls a conversation between James and Greig where James eagerly asked how do I brew a gold medal-winning beer to which Greig replied just try and brew a silver medal-winning beer first!

lakeman launch

The hard yards that lead to 

the turning point!

For the first couple of years, James and Elissa did all the brewing and bottling themselves. They would put their young family to bed and go down to the shed and go back to work again carting bottles in a wheelbarrow from one side of the shed to another to label.

With the brews improving and being not only drinkable but saleable in 2013 there was the official launch of Lakeman Brewery Co.

From day one local support was huge and so critical to the survival of Lakeman which they will be forever grateful for but it was after a successful first exhibition at Beervana in 2013 and then with a new distributor in tow, the orders really started coming in. The only problem was that even working seven days a week the couple couldn’t keep up, so the gamble was made and the first employee was bought on. As soon as the first employee came on board, Elissa exited the brewery side to concentrate on the business. 

The growth of award winning

People and brews

Not long after this, a friend’s son was looking for a job, so he came on board to pack boxes, and a short while later James incarnated Rory Donovan as head brewer.  “Rory got thrust into the top job when he was only 20. I call him Mr. Consistent because he checks all the little things, keeping the beer consistently good. He’s just a real natural.”

As the team started to grow so did the accolades. In 2018, Lakeman won the Champion IPA trophy at the New Zealand Beer Awards with their Hairy Hop IPA and went back-to-back in 2019 with a second trophy for Champion barrel-aged beer with Hairy Craic, an imperial stout aged on Southern whisky wood.

The team continues to enter competitions to ensure consistency and receive critical feedback and if they are not winning medals, they believe they are doing something wrong. In 2022 eight beers were sent to the Australian International Beer Awards receiving three golds, four silvers, and one bronze and at the 2022 NZ Beer Awards, Lakeman bought home thirteen medals.

awardwinning lineup

Knocking on a milestone

As Lakeman approaches their 10th anniversary you will find James and Elissa with their team of 7 Taupo locals doing everything from farming, brewing, canning and distributing to marketing, managing events and pretty much hands down everything to get their award winning craft beers delivered to you and see the Lakeman brand finding its way throughout New Zealand. 

Play Video about james aroha

Lights. Camera. (But first a beer.) Action!

James sat down for a chat with the team from Love Taupō to share the Lakeman Brewing Co story, some behind the scenes of the farm and brewery and how the inception of Lakeman came about in order to protect the crystal clear waters of Lake Taupo, a place we all love.

Grab a cold one and take a look.