Nature knows best

We talk to New Zealand’s first and only B Corp brewery Sawmill about creating a culture of curiosity, and its aspirations to prove that environmentally sensible decisions don’t have to come at the cost of good business practices


There’s a golden, early morning light pouring through the windscreen of Kirsty McKay’s car, a welcome sight from the brisk gloom of my Monday night. She has retreated to the carpark to escape the hum of Sawmill, New Zealand’s first and only B Corp brewery, which Kirsty has co-owned with partner, Mike Sutherland, since 2010. Sawmill’s journey has been far from linear, but there’s a glorious, energising, human, honesty in the way she talks about the ups and downs of building a business with a positive legacy. 

Mike and Kirsty moved from Lyttelton, near Christchurch, to Matakana, north of Auckland, in 2008 for a new job Mike had been offered. Unfortunately not long into his tenure the company fell on hard times and made him redundant. In case a false start after such major upheaval wasn’t enough of a shakeup, Mike and Kirsty — who were keen to stay in the area — were faced with the prospect of finding jobs in a region without any major industry, and where people had to create their own opportunities by working for themselves. 

Kirsty says the way the next part of their story unfolded was bizarre; Mike reached out to the owners of a local microbrewery to learn a bit about what it was like running a business in the area, when said owners — Peter and Decima Freckleton, an English couple who’d set up the brewery in 2004 because they missed British beer— expressed an interest in selling the business. Mike and Kirsty were interested in craft beer, sure, but they’d never intended to own a brewery, and didn’t even have much experience of homebrewing. They were, however, in a situation they hadn’t foreseen, ready for a change, and looking for new opportunities. 

Six weeks later, Mike and Kirsty had taken the reins of Sawmill Brewery, which then produced just 18,000 litres a year and was operating out of a shed on the site of an old timber mill owned by Leigh Sawmill Café. Not only had they become new business owners overnight, they were new brewers, newcomers to New Zealand’s nascent craft beer scene, and operating in a rural area beyond the reach of municipal services. 

It's really cost effective to be mindful of your resources and use them in an environmentally sensible way

“It’s interesting, because in retrospect you can see your own narrative in a way you don’t always see it at the time,” says Kirsty. “When we moved to Northland, there were only about 25 or 30 craft breweries in the whole of New Zealand, and most of them were in Nelson and Wellington, so geographically a long way from us. Also, 14 years doesn’t seem that long ago, but when you think of where the world was technologically back then, we just weren’t as connected. There weren’t as many online forums, and so we had to learn to do a lot just by doing it. We were very isolated, but looking back now, I think that was actually the making of us because we ended up doing so many things without influence.”

For example, without a municipal power or sewage supply, the brewery had to run on solar energy, and treat waste on site, practises that many city-based breweries are only now trying to transition to, because of their green credentials. Kirsty, of course, applauds this — there’s never a bad time to prioritise the planet — but what she’s also keen to point out is that Sawmill invested in solar, clean-in-place technology, and a myriad of other innovative practices for practical and financial reasons, as well as environmental ones. 

“We get asked a lot like, ‘does it cost you a lot to work like this?’, which speaks to a perception that you give up a lot to operate this way,” says Kirsty. “Whereas for us, there's no question in our minds that this is the best business practice. You're much more efficient, and in the end, to a large degree, efficiency is about using less, and if you're using less than you're paying for less. And so it's really cost effective to be mindful of your resources and use them in an environmentally sensible way.”

Kirsty and Mike, the owners

While Kirsty is keen to stress that green choices don’t come at the cost of good business practices, it shouldn’t be overlooked that mindfulness of land and natural resources run deep within the Sawmill community. “All land in New Zealand is ancestral Maori land,” says Kirsty. “Respecting that means thinking about yourself as a custodian that looks after the land for future generations. So we need to be really conscious of doing a really good job of looking after the land that we're on, we're taking from it and we're putting stuff back on. We want to make sure that we leave that land at some point in a better state than we found it.”

Kirsty speaks about the coexistence of environmental, financial and social health in Sawmill’s operations with crystal clarity, though her conviction has been hard won. After years of her and Mike toiling away, learning autonomously on the job, and doing their best to be better employers, better brewers, and better custodians of the land around them, the couple almost lost Sawmill to a fire in 2019. 

If not for the rapid response of Sawmill’s local community fire brigade, who knew the layout of the brewery from drinking in the taproom, the whole operation would have been lost. Kirtsy says another ten minutes without their help would have rendered the site unsalvageable. It took almost a year to rebuild the brewery, with its period of forced closure concluding just as COVID hit, and the country locked down.

“Burnout as a business owner is different to when you have the opportunity to leave,” says Kirsty, reflecting on the personal toll those years took on her. “You kind of have to rebuild yourself in the same role.” What's more, she says that “there's an interesting dynamic when you run a business with your partner… your business and your life are so intertwined. Mike and I really wanted to build a great business, and we weren't sure how we were going to measure what we wanted to be a really positive legacy, until we came across B Corp. That gave us the structure to measure that we were doing better all the time.” 

The brewery has reduced its waste to just 9kg a week, which is less than the average New Zealand household

Kirsty says that connecting with that tribe of like-minded people, all striving for a better future, restored her, and reinvigorated operations at Sawmill. 

“You start to develop this culture that there’s just no end to, and in which there really are no dumb questions,” she says. “No one is saying, ‘well, it's always been done like that so you just have to do it that way’. We probably don’t even use the word sustainability so much any more because, in my mind, it implies a certain passiveness when what you really need is to do the radical thing. That requires a lot of curiosity about different ways of doing things, and a lot of gumption to take a leap and try things differently. I think because of that, we've just become more confident, and more resilient, and believe now that everything can be fixed. You just know that there's a way through anything, really.”

To give an example of what this looks like within the Sawmill team, Kirsty goes on to talk about how the brewery has reduced its waste to just 9kg a week, which is less than the average New Zealand household. To say this achievement was simple to achieve is both an over and understatement.

“That's been interesting,” says Kirsty, “because that's a really low tech change to make. It doesn't require specialist equipment and big investment, it just requires really good systems and 100% buy-in from your team. So that result, which is awesome, is 100% credit to the team. There's nothing else at play there. Whereas, you know, using solar energy is about the investment and the panels and the tech and it doesn't really have too much to do with everybody on a day to day basis. No-waste is awesome because not only does it reflect on what the team has done but it’s also indicative of this spillover effect into all of our lives.”

Kisty says that to reduce waste so drastically, you have to really think about what you’re using as a resource, how you’re using it, and whether it could have another life after you’ve taken what you need from it. “I think that’s where businesses can have a really positive impact,” she says. “They can be a place where people can learn things that aren't directly related to their work, and I think we’ve all learned to think a bit differently.”

As Kirsty speaks, an energy flows from her. It’s like she has tapped into an ability to see a smarter, healthier, and better-connected world superimposed on the one we live in now, and she knows that knitting the two together is just a matter of connecting the dots. When our conversation finally lulls, and we decide to wrap it up, Kirsty signs off by saying “get to bed Robyn, Tuesday is beautiful”. My connection with New Zealand is severed, leaving me alone in my quiet, dark study, but with a keen sense that I’d seen into a bright future.

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