Brewing up awards in the Bay of Plenty – Meet Tammy, head brewer at Mata

An overseas experience – or OE – is a rite of passage for many New Zealanders. For Tammy Viitakangas, like many other new wave New Zealand craft brewers from the 1990s and early 2000s, it changed her life. It was the first step in her beer and brewing journey which has now seen Mata – Aotearoa Brewery move into its new home in Whakatāne. In late 2017, Tammy opened a new brewery and a tasting room, and in 2018 she brewed a stream of award-winning beers, including the Trophy winning Cola Cuz.

While on her OE, Tammy fell in love with Belgian beers. Without knowing she was a future brewer, she made a special trip to Belgium for a final round of beer tasting before she moved back home to New Zealand where she stepped into a contract role at Goodman Fielder.

Tammy has a food manufacturing background. She completed a Bachelor of Technology degree at Massey University and majored in Biotechnology and Bio-Process Engineering. She’s also worked for the likes of Nestlé and New Zealand Dairy Foods. She didn’t mind the jobs, but dreaded Monday mornings, preferring the weekend. Because of this, she always wanted to run a business of her own. Not long after returning from her OE, she started looking for a business to buy. “It was inevitable that it would be food related, as I love making stuff”, she told me.

While on the look-out for a business, Tammy started homebrewing; this and her OE beer experience led her into the New Zealand beer scene. It was, she says with a chuckle, “non-existent” at that time. There were only a few independent brewers. She couldn’t see a brewing scene that celebrated New Zealand. There was a strong European bent to the beers being brewed around that time. This prompted an idea; to start a brewery with a strong New Zealand identity.

As Tammy’s ideas were forming, and she was developing a business plan, she somehow heard that the Strongcroft Brewing kit from Wellington was for sale. It had been on the market for a number of years as, “there was really wasn’t any demand for brewing equipment at that time”. She bought it without really knowing what worked and what didn’t. It was all in bits and pieces and hadn’t been used for years.

Tammy’s new (old) brewing kit sat in a freight container in Auckland for around six months. Then she was asked to give the container back! She then discovered it was cheaper to install the kit in a premise in Kawerau than to rent a space in Auckland. And, Auckland was just too risky given she had never brewed commercially!

The request for the container back was the nudge into brewing Tammy needed. It was a nudge into new careers for her family as well. At the time, her dad was going through a re-structure at work and having to re-apply for his job. Her mum had been a long-time school secretary but wasn’t averse to the change. If you know Mata, you’ll know that Gloria is one of the main faces and a driving force behind the brand. Tammy jokes that her, “mum didn’t even like beer when we first started”.

So, Tammy and her family rented a space in Kawerau and put the kit together. It wasn’t so easy. There were no instructions and no technical manuals. Tammy was also heavily pregnant. She brewed her first beer two weeks after her first son Arie was born by cesarean.

Reflecting upon that time, Tammy says, “actually, we were friggin crazy. It was quite the adventure but, I don’t regret it…If you can do something you really love to do, that’s quite important in life…”. She liked it enough to work the hours, travelling from Whakatane to Kawerau to brew for 12 years.

That first brew with a two-week old Arie was over 14 years ago. Tammy, and Mata, joined the esteemed company of Richard Emerson (Emerson’s Brewing), Chris O’Leary (then of Limburg Brewery, now of Emerson’s), Ralph Bungard (Three Boys Brewery) and Carl Vasta (Tuatara Brewing) among others. (Tracy Banner was working for Lion Nathan then, it was some time later that she started Sprig and Fern). She comments on how much has changed in the New Zealand beer scene since then; both the good and the challenging.

Some of the current good is being able to produce a unique or unusual beer, and being able to sell it. Tammy reflected that you couldn’t have done this in the early days – New Zealand Draught or International Lagers were the mainstay of the beer market and the craft breweries were largely focused on traditional British and European styles. That has definitely changed.

One of the challenges Tammy thinks the scene is facing is that there are more and more breweries, and brewing brands, competing in the market. That said, she’s not against brands contract brewing and has been a contract brewer (and brewery) for a number of brands. She’s found some contractors have a real passion for beer and brewing, and get really involved. Funk Estate would be an example of this; they’ve gone on to build their own brewery. “Others, you never saw or really heard from”. There’s a big difference between the two approaches but Tammy notes, “its bloody expensive to set up a brewery…so in some ways contract brewing is not a bad way to go…running a factory is a lot different to making a home brew”.

Tammy comments that, brewery or brand, it’s important to remember that, “what you want isn’t necessarily what the customer wants”. She reflects that Mata might sometimes have been a bit slow to respond to the changes in the wider beer scene over the years. One change she has made is, that while still a proud New Zealand brand, the Mata beers don’t all necessarily reflect their New Zealand identity in the same way now as they did in the beginning. Tammy’s 2018 Brewers’ Guild Trophy Beer – Cola Cuz – is an example of this. It came about while driving her son’s friend home one day, discussing potential flavours for beers…He popped out with cola!

While the idea of a cola beer initially seemed a little strange, Tammy loves experimenting with flavours and additions – creativity is one of the things that makes brewing fun. Researching traditional cola flavours (not the well-known soft drink flavours), she thought, “they could could actually go quite well in a red ale base; cola’s got a malty sweetness behind it”. The beer’s a red ale, with lactose and a dose of cola flavours and spices.

Mata only made 1,000 litres of the Cola Cuz. Keep your eye out for it on the taproom beer list if you’re lucky enough to be in the region at the same time the last keg is tapped. It was a small batch in comparison to the longest serving beer in the range, the Manuka Golden Ale. It was followed by the Artesian – now known as the BOP Kolsch.  These long serving, early beers are the most popular beers in the taproom.

Taproom visitors and locals are people Tammy keeps in mind. She’s keen that Mata becomes the brewery and beer associated with the Bay of Plenty. Ultimately, Tammy’s constantly focused on finding balance in her beers.

Talking about where Mata is now, and if her journey was made any harder by being a woman, Tammy responds, “ahhh, absolutely! But, I think that’s the case for women in any industry – there’s definitely sexism”. She comments that many women have to do a job that’s not just equal but better than a man to be seen as equal.

Tammy has seen a reduction in sexism and stereotyping, but still, over the years people have called her beers, “a girls’ beer”. And, while on a sales visit, her mum Gloria once got asked what she was like and if she was a dyke! Tammy chuckles. (Just to be clear – and without getting all Seinfeld – she’s not at all homophobic). She also notes that some people really love the fact they have a beer made by a women – particularly women themselves; while some still some fall in the trap of sexism and stereotypes, many are really supportive.

Tammy falls on the supportive side. She has one former brewery employee who left to have a baby and she’s hired another woman due to her useful background in plumbing. Ultimately, she doesn’t go to work each day thinking about being a female brewer. She just gets on with it – doing something that she really loves – “which is cool”!

Tammy also loves having the taproom even though she comments, it has resulted in “one of the busiest years of my life”. This is because, along with running the brewery and brewing, she also helps out serving and engaging with visitors. She gets a kick out of seeing their reaction to meeting her when they ask who the brewer is. Make sure you ask, and say hello, when you go and visit. Tammy and the team are always up for a chat. They’re located at 17 Gateway Crescent, Coastlands, Whakatāne.

The final questions, for a bit of fun

What’s in the fridge and what are you drinking at home?

We might have to stop asking this question! The one thing we’re discovering is that lots of our New Zealand brewers don’t drink a lot of beer at home. Tammy comments, “to be honest, very little. I don’t actually drink that much these days”. She has a Beer Jerk subscription and enjoys trying what’s new on tap when she gets out and about.

What are your “beers you must try before you die”?

Although her Kolsch is a big seller, Tammy’s never tried the traditional style in Cologne. This is on her list of beers to try before you die. (You can check out some examples in the BJCP style guide).

One beer Tammy loves is the 8 Wired iStout. Her first tasting experience sticks out – it was a late night in Wellington. Another late night Wellington tasting she discovered the Gigantic Pipewrench – Gin Barrel Aged IPA. She’s experimented with the style herself but hasn’t nailed it yet.