Building A Zero-Waste, Solar-Powered Brewery On An Off-Grid Island

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By Rebecca Cooke

In one of Caleb Clarke’s earliest memories, he runs down to the creek near his grandfather’s house to fetch casks of ale for his grandfather and his friends. The icy mountain water keeps the bottles cool for them as they sit out on the porch in the sun drinking and chatting away on a New Zealand summer’s day.

Thirty years later he and his partner Sarah Bowman have opened the doors to New Zealand’s first off-grid, zero-waste, solar powered brewery: Aotea Brewing.

Named after the Maori name for Great Barrier Island where the brewery is based, the couple’s business model is challenging traditional brewers to produce more sustainable ale.

They serve their signature Solar Charged Ale in refillable stainless steel flagons to islanders, yachties, and tourists who come to Aotea in search of New Zealand’s untouched wilderness.

While it’s just 62 miles northeast of Auckland, Aotea, Great Barrier Island, is completely off-grid. There is no centralized mains power. No grid-supply electricity, no town-supply water and precious few tarmac sealed roads. Around 80% of the land is designated for conservation. The island is a pristine reserve, home to penguins, dolphins, banded rails, hammerhead sharks, black petrels, and 800 full-time residents who are essentially self-sufficient.

The small but stable island economy revolves around tourism and meeting the basic needs of the islanders. The limited but thriving commercial spaces include a post office, a handful of cafes, four small grocery stores stocked by freight ferries twice per week, and the hub of island gossip: the Irish pub.

But there is a new and ambitious type of business emerging on the island. One that puts sustainability at its core, the one that Sarah and Caleb are spearheading.

Visiting Aotea Brewing on a balmy afternoon in February, the folksy tunes of a local blue-grass band fills the air. A group of hikers laze in colorful bean bags in the field where the brewery is situated. They drink the Solar Charged Ale from flagons, water bottles, and Nalgene flasks just feet away from the ground-mounted solar panels that supply the brewery with all the power it needs.

There’s a relaxed, easy late summer feel to the place and a calming sense that, of all the scenic spots, this is the place to be.

“We wanted to contribute to the economy on the island, and start to change the image of off-grid solar,” Sarah says from behind the bar.

“It’s so often seen as merely providing the basics, but we want to show it to be a way of building thriving, cool independent companies that really benefit tourists and islanders.”

Before deciding to become sustainable brewers, Caleb and Sarah both built careers in sustainability, advising corporate business on how to best integrate sustainability practices into their operations.

“We’ve been doing big-picture sustainability stuff and working with other businesses, but it felt like we couldn’t live our values from the position of just advising others,”says Sarah.

“We wanted to prove and live sustainability on a whole other level. We wanted to truly live our values. If I advise other people to do it then I have to be able to do it myself.” 

The couple have family connections to the island stretching back three generations, but also live part-time ‘in town’ on the North Island of New Zealand. Yet the ambitious brewers decided Aotea was the right place to set up shop, despite the obvious challenges around remoteness and resources.

“Nothing in the sustainability space is black and white. It’s all interpretation and there’s a lot of greenwash that’s around. So we decided to do this on an island that we love, on an island where nothing can be pushed outside the system, or taken away, we have to deal with everything”

“If we’re going to live this value, what does it mean in our day to day lives, in the way that we engage with the community, in the way we try to source things locally, the way that we try to be zero waste?”

The decision to make the island Aotea Brewing’s base introduced significant logistical challenges. The only way to transport the large brewing equipment from the mainland was by privately chartered barge. Caleb remembers the overwhelming sense of facing an uphill challenge in the early days of design and installation.

“We had to figure out the logistics of how to hire a barge from Thames to bring every piece of everything over we needed.” He says. “I had to do long round trips across the Hauraki Gulf on the barge, at midnight with the moonlight lighting up three massive fermenters praying they were securely lashed down.”

He continues: “We had to use equipment that could fit into shipping containers. Just that one element changed the design of the brewery. It wasn’t so much that the shipping container was a cool architectural design, it was because we had to be able to get it on the barge and off and across the island. The shipping containers had to be twenty foot rather than forty, because they wouldn’t fit around the tight, winding island roads.”

Yet the two biggest challenges, the remoteness and the island being completely off-grid, spurred on the vision of Aotea brewing as a truly sustainable business.

Caleb says, “The island can be a tough place. It’s so remote, you learn to get by with less, which is in a way the purest form of sustainability.”

For traditional brewers, carbon emissions quickly rack up. Automated brewing powered by fossil fuels, transportation of heavily packaged products, and water intensive brewing methods all contribute. But Sarah and Caleb took a holistic approach to eliminating Aotea Brewing’s environmental impact.

They chose not to use grain mills and extractors to make the brewing process more efficient. Instead, they mill the grain by hand, saving energy and the materials and cost of shipping in the equipment.

“It’s sort of against human nature, it kind of feels inefficient if you’re doing things manually. There’s a sense that you’ve got to automate. But doing it manually makes you feel closer to the history of the industry. People have been making beer for 30,000 years and they never had grain mill augers 30,000 years ago.” Caleb says.

The brewery particularly focuses on saving water, which is traditionally very intensive in the brewing process. Aotea Brewery reuses their waste water. It’s used for cleaning and then discharged on site to drip-feed fruit trees that will eventually bear limes and lemons for their cocktails.

Around 3 liters of water is used to every liter of beer the brewery produces. Commercially, this figure is over double that, at an average of 6-8 liters per liter of beer. Part of that water saving comes from not having packaging that needs to be washed or cleaned for each use.

The couple are looking to launch a nationwide brew challenge, to motivate small-scale brewers to use less water for each pint of ale they brew. They hope to achieve a 2 to 1 ratio of liters of water per beer brewed whilst retaining the full flavor profile.

“I think that will become a huge challenge for the industry as things like droughts become more severe. We’re actually gaining a long-term competitive advantage because we’re forced to think about these things now because we’re off-grid.” says Caleb. 

In Sarah and Caleb’s vision, Great Barrier Island could be transformed into a sustainability hotspot that goes beyond just its natural beauty. It raises a glass to the notion of Great Brewery Island, a pioneering hub for zero-waste brewers committed to better beer, one crisp, golden pint at a time.

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