From NZ Craft Beer TV journal entry, 19/2/11:
The day broke, slightly sulphurous (we were in Rotorua after all) and we got the camper van cranking and headed towards Kawerau, the home of Aotearoa Breweries. The small shop frontage was somewhat deceiving and we walked in to find a small sales counter and glass bottle fridge in front of a row of gleaming stainless steel fermenters, glycol piping and a brewhouse at the back. The former butchers had been converted to a fantastic little brewery with the large cool store space utilized for stock and conditioning and bright beer tanks. The brain child of head brewer Tammy Viitakangas and partner Jaysen Magan along with Tammy's parents, Jouni and Gloria, the brewery produce the fantastic range of Mata beers.
The first thing I noticed about the range was the striking packaging. These guys have thought long and hard about how their beer should look. As important as what's inside the bottle is, I think that it's pretty important to make the beer look as cool as possible. The Mata team have rocked this… striking black and yellow lettering, a simple, easy to pronounce word and a fantastic 4-pack box made me want to buy the beer without knowing anything about it. A win for sure.
We met head brewer Tammy and her father Jouni (originally from Finland) and began chatting about the brewery and the beers. Tammy had studied a Technology degree majoring in Bioprocess Engineering and had previously worked in the food industry before her and partner Jaysen decided that they wanted to open a brewery. Tammy began perfecting her home brewing technique before they leapt at the chance of buying a second hand brewery and began the challenge of running one. Tammy traveled around to a bunch of breweries and obviously asked the right questions and picked up bits and pieces of information before they put the brewery together, five or so years ago. They did it all themselves and self-taught along the way - from the brewery installation and commissioning, right through to brewing technique. An impressive feat.
The great thing about the Mata range is that Tammy really wanted to capture the essence of New Zealand. Something we've heard a lot along our Craft Beer TV route and something that New Zealand brewers should be proud of. From the artesian water that they tanker from down the road to use in the brewing process, through to the quality ingredients, everything is sourced from as close to home as possible and they even reflect other uniquely New Zealand flavours in their brews. We kick off the tasting with a lager brewed with Manuka Honey. It's gentle and delicate and subtly floral. Tammy insists on keeping this beer light on hop and big malt flavor to allow the expensive and delicate honey characters to float around on the nose and the tongue. A difficult thing to do, but one she has perfected over multiple brews.
We then try the Artesian lager. A bit more hop forward this time, with a hint of dryness and bitterness and massive drinkability. We then move on to another uniquely New Zealand brew, the Mata Feijoa. Tammy sources her Feijoa fruit from a local fruit winery and has experimented a lot to get the flavor from this intensely perfumed fruit just right. Feijoa is really challenging to brew with. Not only does it have a massive perfume and sweetness, the skins also provide a tart, sour character and through multiple trials, Tammy has got the balance between Feijoa intensity, tartness and the character of the beer itself just right, resulting in something with great drinkability and just the lightest fruit character coming through.
At last year's BrewNZ, the theme for a speciality beer was "Go Native" and the Mata team went all out with Mata Taniwha. A traditional NZ Maori form of cooking is the Hangi, in which a fire is built, usually with Manuka branches and large river stones are heated in the embers. The fire itself is set in a pre-dug pit and the rocks retain the heat, effectively turning the earth into an oven. Prepared vegetables, meat and fish are wrapped, placed in baskets and lowered into the pit, then covered with wet sacks and finally with earth and the Hangi begins cooking/steaming. After a few hours, the dirt and sacks are removed and you have an amazingly smokey, earthy and moist character to all the food. It's awesome.
What Tammy decided to do was actually put the malt for the beer into the Hangi pit, along with a bunch of diced Kumara (NZ Sweet Potato) and potato. This was then used to brew an incredible 7.3% Hangi-infused Reserve Ale. Luscious and smooth with the faintest trace of earthy smoke, this velvety beer is full of soft, dark maltiness and a lovely caramelized character. A well deserved Gold Medal winning beer and testament to the inventiveness of the Mata range.