In Japan, I had sipped Kirin and Sapporo. In Hong Kong, it was Tsingtao. In Vietnam, I’d sampled both the Hanoi and Saigon beers. In Australia I really liked Carlton Draught. The only place I couldn’t find any “indigenous” beer on sale was in the Cook Islands! This was despite having heard quite a lot about the local brew: the word of mouth was excellent, it just seemed that no bars seemed to sell it.
All was to change over dinner one evening. My host served up some beer from an old plastic bottle. The beer was from the local brewery down the road, the Matutu Brewery Company, and my host explained that he had taken a bottle to the brewery and had it freshly filled up from the barrel.
It was a delicious pale ale, and I was surprised it had taken me so long to find a sample of the local brew. I vowed to visit the brewery the next day.
I found the brewery a few miles clockwise from my place, down a side road. I made myself known to the manager, James Puati, who showed me around the place, and offered me a sample fresh from the barrel, where a worker was frantically (as frantic as I’ve ever seen on “Island Time“) bottling to meet an order that was being loaded in the front of the brewery.
As I sipped the Kiva, which was delicious, I asked James why I hadn’t seen his product in any of the bars on Rarotonga or Aitutaki. Bluntly, I hadn’t been going to the right bars, but also Matutu is fighting a hard battle against imported beers. The shocking truth is that despite brewing locally, beers produced in New Zealand can still compete on price with Matutu, even after being shipped to the middle of the South Pacific!
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the brewery doesn’t have the economies of scale that the industrial brewers have. Matutu only produces around 3500 litres a month. The second issue is the scarcity of raw materials. Water has to be sourced and purified on the island, whilst the hops and barley have to be freighted in from New Zealand. Another issue is power: the brewery relies on electricity, which is very expensive on Rarotonga. The island is powered by a 20 megawatt power station run on diesel, which also has to be imported. This alone puts the brewery at a slight price disadvantage.
Matutu’s beer is delivered fresh every day: James likened it to having the milk delivered. Whilst this is an advantage for the local beer, it can be a disadvantage in the warm climate of the Cook Islands. Bars and restaurants, used to be supplied infrequently, often favour imported beers that keep for longer without refrigeration. Matutu recommends that their beer is kept in the fridge, just like the milk. In a place where power is at a premium, this can be a disadvantage.
The beer was delicious, so I had a huge bottle filled up for ten bucks, before hopping onto the scooter to hurry back to my fridge at home.