What happens when an engineer, an entrepreneur and a designer get together? Answer: steam-powered craft beer!
Former Contact Energy engineer Mike Blair, wife Llyween Pepper (the designer), and entrepreneur Chloe Walker have just secured the first round of angel investors for the Rogue Bore Brewery, a multi-million dollar geo-brewery among the steam fields at Wairakei, near Taupo.
The product? A geothermal brewery experience with a restaurant, bar and beer tasting located in the steamfield.
Keen on brewing his own beer, Mike found his former employers to be incredibly supportive because his endeavours showcased what could be achieved with reusable energy from the geothermal power station at Wairakei.
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"Reusable energy is used by big heavy industry, but there is a whole lot of potential for small business," says Mike, who resigned on November 15 to pursue beer making fulltime for the Rogue Bore Brewery.
The brewery name comes from the original rogue bore on the Wairakei Steamfield. In 1960, drilling at the site resulted in a catastrophic escape of steam around the drill hole, creating a hole 22 metres deep and 70 metres across. It spent years energetically belching steam visible up to 120km away but is now a benign hole in the ground with tree and foliage-covered slopes.
Brewing since he was 19 years old, Mike loves the diversity of beer flavours. When he began winning competitions, his friends started asking him to brew for their weddings.
Apart from the yeast, Rogue Bore Brewery craft beer is unique in that it contains only products sourced from New Zealand.
"Making this craft beer, it's a challenge because we only use hops grown in New Zealand. People associate craft beer with those big American hops flavours."
I had the pleasure of sampling the Pipeline Pilsner, and would say the New Zealand-grown hops contribute greatly to the beer having a highly commercial flavour while still being recognisable as a craft beer.
Gladfield Malt grain is Mike's preferred malt, and in the future he hopes to source a New Zealand-grown yeast.
"Over the years my employers have listened to my waffle and they have been an amazing partner to get the brewery to this stage. It's about stewardship of the resource, we are using a byproduct to make beer. There is a lot of mass that could potentially be used."
In a nutshell, the energy company has first dibs and they make electricity for the national grid. They want more business lining up for second and even third dibs in what is known as 'cascade heat', where each user takes a few degrees of heat to create energy.
Mike says all the brewery's on-site energy requirements will be met by geothermal energy.
"There's some pretty cool technology out there. We can even create cooling systems from the heat."
The business brains behind the venture is Chloe Walker. She cut her teeth in start-ups and entrepreneurship while finishing her degree, with ready-made cocktail product Loud & Lola, set up maternity lingerie brand Womama and was business development manager at Taupō District Council where one of her roles was to work alongside Contact Energy to expand cascade energy uptake by business.
About a year ago, mutual friend Upflow director Andy Blair (no relation to Mike) said "I need to get you two together."
Chloe says one person wouldn't have the skillset to pull off the Rogue Bore Brewery, learning early in her career that it's better to have a small piece of the pie rather than the whole pie to yourself.
"It's amazing what you can do when you partner with others. Taupō is gagging for more of this type of tourism. What's unique is this will be the world's first closed-loop fully geothermal brewery. "
Currently they are in the middle of securing second round investors, getting resource consents and Llyween is creating the look and feel of the brewery's pop-up bar, opening in the Tuwharetoa St Farmers carpark on December 20.
"I called [carpark owners] Peter and Chris [Francis] and said 'have I got a deal for you!'."
Chloe says a pop-up bar is a perfect fit for the site while Cypress Capital wait on hotel consents. The alfresco bar will serve four beers with geothermal-sounding names, and Mike even managed to brew a low alcohol craft beer.
"One of the most difficult beers I have brewed."
Mike says he has always been fascinated with the geothermal Wairakei Power Station.
"Geothermal energy is an important part of me. My grandparents came up from Roxburgh in the 1950's when the B Station was being commissioned and for 25 years my parents carried out contract engineering work for ECNZ."
"I used to say 'there are not many people who could go to work and say they worked with a heater rotator'.
"Now I come to work and make beer brewed from the earth."