Words: Lucy Corry Photos: Carolyn Robertson
This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
It takes the collective effort of hundreds of bees, working in tandem with plants and the natural world, to produce a drop of honey — making the world’s first non-alcoholic mānuka honey-based drink has been just as complex for the founders of Wai Mānuka.
“People just see the surface level, and they think we are smashing it, but they don’t see the hard slog involved,” says managing director and co-founder Joe Harawira. “It’s like the swan analogy; things look graceful and calm on the surface, but you’re paddling madly underneath.”
The ingredients used to make Wai Mānuka tell a beautiful coastal story of Aotearoa: the mānuka honey and water come mainly from the Bay of Plenty and the lemon from Hawke’s Bay. The elegantly labelled bottles have graced America’s Cup celebrations and investiture ceremonies at Government House. The sparkling drink, and its founders, have come a long way from some explosive experiments on New Year’s Day 2020. “We’re learning all the time,” Joe says. “It’s a continuous cycle of test, learn and adapt.”
The Wai Mānuka story begins way back in the 1990s when "3 Māori Boys” — Joe Harawira, Wayne Atkins and Lance Paora — were kicking around at school in Whakatāne. The pair each followed different paths in life as they grew up but stayed close. On New Year’s Eve, 2019, they were chilling out at a barbecue and catching up. Joe, disappointed in the taste of the pineapple kombucha he was drinking, joked to his mates about how they could make something better. Unlike most people who make great plans at barbecues, they followed through.
“We had been talking about making a premium beverage with mānuka honey that would be a celebration of New Zealand on the world stage,” Joe (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Te Rangi) says. “On New Year’s Day, I did some research and realized there was nothing else on the market. I rang up the boys and said, ‘Let’s make it!’”
How do three mates with zero experience in drink production create a sparkling mānuka honey fizz that taps into worldwide demand for “functional” non-alcoholic beverages? It turned out to be more complicated than they first thought.
“We went to Wayne’s place and started playing around with mānuka honey and a SodaStream,” Joe says. “It was a complete disaster; we made a huge mess with honey and water exploding everywhere. But it got our creative juices flowing, and it reaffirmed to us that we wanted to do it; we just needed some expert help.”
They connected with the Food Innovation Network at Massey University, and by the end of January 2020, they had a beverage technologist onboard. Another old school friend became their mānuka honey supplier, and keeping it local, they found a bottling plant to work with in Tauranga. Everything happened with speed and ease; then Covid-19 hit Aotearoa’s shores.
But in a strange twist, lockdown worked in their favour. Joe, living in Wellington and working for New Zealand Rugby, moved back to Whakatāne to be with his whānau. The enforced shutdown turned out to be a golden opportunity, giving him the time and mental space to devote to Wai Mānuka. By the time the first lockdown ended in June, the technologist had devised two recipes for the boys to sample.
“We went to Auckland to try it, and she said, ‘I think I know which one you’re going to like, but I’ve made two just in case,’” Joe says. “So, we tried the first one and said, ‘Yep, this is us.’ She said, ‘Don’t you want to try the other one?’ We said, ‘Nah, we’re good’ and that was it.”
At the same time, one of their business mentors sent them an expression of interest form for America’s Cup suppliers. The note was intended to inspire them to do greater things down the line, but Joe and his mates decided to seize the moment even though they hadn’t started production.
“We thought, ‘Let’s just do it,’” Joe says. “They were looking for six beverage brands — four alcoholic and two non-alcoholic. When we saw what they were looking for, our values just matched perfectly.”
What happened next was surreal, Joe says. “We’re low-key, have-a-laugh type of guys, so when we heard that they’d chosen us, we just cracked up and thought it was a joke. Growing up in Whakatāne, you don’t go to school dreaming of creating a premium non-alcoholic beverage with the goal of being selected for one of the oldest and most prestigious sporting events in the world.”
Joe says that even with such good fortune and good timing, the Wai Mānuka team had to navigate plenty of speed bumps.
“We made a few mistakes early on, like having loads of product sitting idle in a warehouse because we hadn’t considered the impact of lockdowns on hospitality and what this meant for our sales. There’s nothing worse than not having product on the shelf because you’re not selling anything and as a start-up, that can be fatal.”
Then came another disaster, with bottles exploding on the production line, costing the boys a fortune they didn’t have to spare.
“At the time, the business wasn’t profitable, and cashflow management was the biggest challenge. So, losing $20,000 worth of product, when you have nothing, could have crippled the business, or fractured our relationships,” Joe says. “But deep down, we knew we could get through it because we believed in each other and the product. The response from customers around the country and overseas was validation that we were on the right path. We just needed to stay focused on the bigger picture and find a way through.”
Getting selected for the America’s Cup brought Wai Mānuka to the attention of other important players. The drink now graces investiture events at Government House — and its inclusion on one of the country’s most exclusive drinks lists has directly impacted how Wai Mānuka is positioned and sold.
“Initially, we produced it in a 300ml bottle. Then Government House said they wanted to serve it in a larger bottle alongside champagne and prosecco for those not wanting to consume alcohol but still wanting to feel part of the celebration.”
This feedback spurred them to produce a 750ml bottle, which Joe calls their hero product. “It’s perfect for groups and occasions but also aligns with one of our values, whanaungatanga [kinship/connection].”
Joe’s also excited by a partnership with winery Craggy Range, which includes Wai Mānuka as a food-match option at its Havelock North restaurant. They’re also in discussions with Air New Zealand regarding supplying business-class flights and lounges. Wai Mānuka is also going into hotel-room mini-bars across the QT Group, Sofitel and the exclusive Park Hyatt. And, with an increasing number of New World stores in the North Island now stocking the drink, ordinary shoppers can pick up Wai Mānuka with their groceries.
Joe is hopeful that their homegrown product will tap into a growing global trend for premium non-alcoholic products. He’s excited about the recent launch of an export partnership that will see Wai Mānuka trialed in Japan.
“Right from day one, we knew we wanted to export, but the reality of that is quite scary when you’re a start-up because the risks and costs triple, even more so today with bottlenecks in global shipping lines,” he says.
Wai Mānuka’s rapid growth has brought other challenges for the three busy mates. Lance has decided to exit Wai Mānuka to focus on current endeavours while Wayne continues juggling his day job as a teacher with working on the business. In the meantime, Joe has taken the plunge to work on it full-time.
“I loved my career at New Zealand Rugby, but the decision to leave to grow Wai Mānuka was the right call at the right time. Although my original goal was to become an executive for a national sporting organization, I can’t imagine doing anything else since becoming a full-time entrepreneur. There is nothing like putting everything on the line to bring your vision to life — and that excites me the most.”
Tī o Raumati (Summer Tea)
90ml freshly brewed and cooled oolong tea
4-5 slices lemon
15ml demerara syrup (simmer together equal parts of demerara sugar and water until the sugar has dissolved, then cool and store in the fridge)
150ml Wai Mānuka
Add the tea, lemon slices and syrup to a short tumbler with a big cube of ice. Gently pour in Wai Mānuka. Stir and serve.