A Kiwi entrepreneur is leaving Hong Kong for Ohakune to open a brewery, bar and cafe with the eventual aim of exporting mānuka mead to Asia.
Greg Hickman has bought the Kings Theatre building in Ohakune's Goldfinch St and hopes to open to the public this year, Big Mountain Mead marketer Tali Rose said.
Hickman, his wife, Christine, and teenage son are moving to live in Ohakune. They know the town from ski trips but have been living overseas for 10 years, mainly in Hong Kong, Australia and Bali.
Big Mountain Mead was set up as a company in November last year, with Greg and Geoffrey Hickman as its directors and Greg and Christine Hickman as 50:50 shareholders.
The Kings Theatre building will need massive renovations, and an extension into a garden courtyard. At least 15 jobs could be created. Hickman intends to be a responsible brewer and host, Rose said, and run a zero waste operation.
The brewery cashes in on the latest United States craze for craft beer and now craft mead - an ancient drink made of honey fermented in water. The mixture of pure mountain water and mānuka honey should appeal to the Asian market where mānuka is viewed as a medicine.
Ruapehu Brewing owner Austin Hobson will be a partner in the new venture. He brews 18 different beers in small premises leased from the Ruapehu District Council in the Ohakune Railway Station building.
He'll be head brewer and make beer as well as mead in the renovated building. He's been experimenting with mead, and said it will probably be light coloured, bubbly, with 4 per cent alcohol and in recyclable cans.
It can be sweet or dry, and flavoured with fruit, spices or herbs.
Its fermentation process is different from that of beer, because mead needs nutrients added as it ferments. Hobson is using beer yeasts as a starter, and trying blending beer with mead.
He's looking forward to moving most of his operation to Goldfinch St, where he can work on a bigger scale.
"It's a good opportunity to get product farther afield."
The Kings Theatre building was opened in 1916, as Patriotic Hall. In 1924 Harry Thompson bought it, called it Kings Theatre and started using it to show films. In those early days feature films could be just 20 minutes long, and there was a piano in the corner to provide sound before "talkies" began.
The Thompson family, first Harry then his son, Bruce, showed films in the building for 90 years. It became a centre of the Waimarino community. Sometimes there were 270 seats filled, sweets were sold and people would bring blankets to keep warm.
The theatre finally closed in 2014, when most films became digital.
Ohakune-based architectural designer Richard Milne is planning alterations to the old wooden building. It's in reasonable condition, he says, but needs structural steel added to make it safe in an earthquake.
Consents are being sought from the Ruapehu District Council, and Milne said local builder Tane Gunnell will do the work.
His current plan is to open it out into one big room with a bar and retail area, the brewery along the back wall and an office and toilet extension into the grassed area next door. Under its high ceiling a mezzanine floor will support tables reached by a staircase, with a kitchen underneath.
That outdoor area will be a paved courtyard. An upstairs veranda would allow people to eat and drink while gazing at the mountain.
The brewery's stainless steel tanks will be visible. Larger tanks could be outdoors, and the eventual aim is to export mānuka honey mead to Asia. The brewery could also provide training in brewing.
It could be a tourist destination in itself.
Ruapehu District Council business development manager Peggy Veen is keen on the idea.
"Ohakune is really growing, with resource consents and building applications and young people moving here. This is a real signal that things are kicking off," she said.