Sharlene Epiha is the third generation of her family to work at the iconic Tui brewery.
Standing behind the bar at Tui HQ in Mangatainoka, Sharlene Epiha is busy overseeing recycled beer crate boards. They form a tile-patterned frontage to the revamped bar and make for an eye-catching yet authentic design for those stopping off at the brewery located on SH2 connecting the Tararua district with the Wairarapa.
The boards, some of which have hand-written lettering on them or show the visible outlines of the 750ml Tui Quart bottles that helped make the beer brand so well known in New Zealand, put a smile on Sharlene’s face.
Sharlene has worked at Tui since 2006 but her memories of the place go back to her childhood. Her grandfather worked in the iconic Tui Tower built in 1931 and now classified as a Category 1 Heritage Listed building. He used to manually pack the bottles into cardboard packaging - a job that these days is called a “packaging operator”. Sharlene’s mother, Georgina, worked one day week on the bottling line for 19 years – five of which were alongside her daughter.
“In those days we would manually sight all the quart bottles, removing any damaged or dirty ones and were continually checking the quality of the glass … our team was rotated and we all worked really well together. There was always a sense of camaraderie and family and we all had a strong work ethic,” she says.
As technology enabled the brewing process to change and a greater emphasis was placed on making Tui a destination, Sharlene put her operational knowledge to good use leading tours through the brewery and explaining the ins and outs of the brewing process. Admittedly, it was a back to basics approach in the early days with colleagues serving up a sausage on the barbecue for customers, but it signaled the start of something big for Tui HQ and for Sharlene.
The mother of two now manages Tui Experience HQ overseeing the purpose built café, bar, retail store and ‘histui-museum’ as well as organising onsite functions and conferences. She has also overseen events which directly benefit the local community. These include Race to the Brewery, sponsored by Property Brokers, which raises money for Relay for Life; Bring the Keg back to the Brewery, which raises money for local group Pahiatua on Track, and being part of the Water Ways Day organised collaboratively with Horizons Regional Council where staff swapped their usual tools of the trade for spades and gumboots to help clean up Mangatainoka’s waterways and environment.
“That was great … we all pitched in and removed undesirable water weeds from a small tributary of the river, built a fish pass under the culvert for native fish species, to help open up the habitat upstream, and cleaned up the Mangatainoka rest area. We removed rubbish, painted the picnic tables and planted native trees and flaxes.”
For the best part of 2016, Sharlene has worked closely with Tui commercial manager Nick Rogers in overseeing major site works as part of a multi-million dollar investment to safe guard the brewery for generations to come.
These include earthquake strengthening the Tui Tower and construction of a new brewery inside a contemporary architecturally designed building with floor to ceiling glass. This will enable brewer Tupu Gregory to experiment with innovative new beers. The building will also enhance the current visitor experience enabling people to view the brewery in action whilst enjoying lunch or a cold beer outside in the garden bar. Sharlene and Nick say it will be a unique experience not found anywhere else in New Zealand.
“I’ve worked here since 2006 and gone through a number of changes with my fellow staff, who are really supportive and wonderful to work with. But I’m really excited about what is about to happen here,” says Sharlene. “A number of years back the lightbulb came on in terms of the potential Tui has as a visitor experience. We know tourism numbers are coming on and this new development will cater to that.”
“At the moment, international visitors come in and are genuinely surprised to find a brewery in the middle of the countryside. When they walk through our doors their eyes light up and they think it’s funny and quirky and offers them a good sense of Kiwi. Whereas New Zealanders have an idea of what to expect thanks to Tui’s great branding. They always turn up with these big smiles on their faces and are actually in awe. It’s really cool actually.”