Mike Johnson must be one of the more unusual brewers to have set up shop in New Zealand.
For a start, he made only one beer: Mike’s Mild. But it kept him business for the best part of 13 years on an isolated part of the north Taranaki coast.
But he’s also refreshingly frank about his relationship with beer: “I had a fascination with beer – predominantly drinking it.”
He came to brewing in one of the more roundabout ways but reckons it’s in his blood, distantly. “My father was a homebrewer,” he recalls, “and I am related to the Ballins family in Christchurch and through them to the Myers. I didn’t know until much later on that [former Lion boss] Doug Myers was a distant relative.”
After finishing school, Johnson went blade-shearing in the Canterbury high country and in the off-season returned to the plains to work at the Canterbury malting company in Heathcote Valley. “I did a season with them and went back shearing but found shearing wasn’t for me. I enjoyed the lifestyle but my body didn’t enjoy it all.”
After a couple more years at the malting company, Johnson moved into the beer industry, getting a job with Lion as a trainee manager and then assistant manager.
“When I left them I had a fairly significant alcohol habit. So my interest in brewing was piqued then, because I was on the unemployment benefit for a while and wanted to drink,” he says frankly.
Living in Hawke’s Bay, he experimented with growing his own hops and, with the skills learned in the malting plant, making his own malt. A move across the island brought him to Urenui on the coast north of New Plymouth, where he bought a property and started a family.
“A very good friend of mine was an Englishman who’d been in the merchant navy but jumped ship in Wellington and was living in Uruti, which is up north of Urenui towards Hamilton,” Johnson explains. He said ‘Make me a mild ale’, because that was what he missed, a midlands mild ale.”
Johnson and his friend, Carl Parker, “spent a happy year making beer” together in a home brewery that can only be described as rustic.
“I built a substantial 50-litre brewery, which was, believe it or a not, from an old diesel tank that I cleaned and cut up and installed a couple of jug elements into. That was the mash tun and the kettle. I built a mash stirrer out of a Skoda windscreen wiper motor.”
Picture credit: Thanks to Richard Brimer for th great pic from his 1995 book Microbreweries of New Zealand.
In the mid-1980s Johnson did a bit of sly-grogging for some extra income. “But people liked it and came back for more – I can’t remember how much I was charging; something like $10 to $20 a dozen.”
Fermented in buckets, then primed with invert sugar and conditioned in a stolen keg from Lion, Johnson said he had “clever system” that allowed the keg to naturally carbonate before he put it in the freezer to chill and then bottled it into whatever bottles people returned to him from previous sales. “Because Carl didn’t want a high-carbonated beer, there was never a problem with it building too much pressure. The only problem was working out how long to put it in freezer but I worked that out over time. In the end I was making a pretty good mild.”
Other “bits and pieces” – of work, on rigs, in a shop he part-owned with his soon-to-be ex, at the Motunui methanol plant – ended with a motorcycle accident that smashed his ankle and forced him out of the manual labour workforce. Brewing for a living dawned on him as a viable option.
With a loan from his parents, an overdraft, a maxed out credit card, and plenty of help from friends in return for a lifetime of free beer, he cobbled together a brewery on his property at Urenui under a kitset shed. Equipment collected from various places – a chiller from an old Coca-Cola production plant, some old dairy equipment – and a lot of help from friends and family brought the brewery to fruition. “There were so many deals that enabled me to put it together; my father came up from Christchurch and helped me design and fit everything into the space.”
It’s fair to say that his 14 years in the brewery business took a toll on Johnson, who brought up two children on his own as well as putting lots of energy into getting his beer certified as organic.
“Every year I was pretty much just breaking even – there was just enough to feed the kids and run the vehicles, but that’s it. I never starved but there was never any money.
“That brewery cost me three relationships. Back then it was everything – I got really burned out, absolutely tired. I was probably having issues with depression but I didn’t know that then.”
Looking back, he thinks the one of the errors he made was making just the one beer.
“My biggest mistake was that I refused to brew anything else. I stuck to the one beer I knew how to brew well and that was down to some anxiety about whether anything else would be good enough. But you have to brew what your customers want, not what you want.”