Fight for your right
On these shores, they're the standard bearer for New Zealand brewing. Ferment catches up with the phenomenon that is Yeastie Boys.
Monday 20 January 2020
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Stu McKinlay, co-founder of Yeastie Boys, is steeped in beer – soaked to his very marrow, you might say. The youngest of five children, Stu may have a typically lyrical Kiwi accent, but his parents are Scottish and only emigrated in the 60s. Growing up, there was beer all around, and Stu remembers his family home as being akin to best kind of traditional British pub, where family friends would drop in for a pint and chew the fat together. His father was also a regular at the first flurry of brewpubs that sprung up in the late 80s and early 90s, where you could pick up a flagon (what we’d call a growler these days, but isn’t ‘flagon’ better?) to take home with you.
“I started to follow along with him in my mid-teens,” remembers Stu. “We'd go to brewpubs and I’d hear these stories about how important brewing was in his life, about how you couldn't walk around Edinburgh without the smell of brewing, so it was always a very nostalgic and romantic thing for me.
“So when he began home brewing, I really enjoyed helping him out. That continued into uni, where I brewed on and off, and I was always interested in beer. I wasn't always looking for the cheapest beer like most students - I was always looking for something a little more interesting, especially ales, when lagers were more popular. It was around then that I met Sam [Possenniskie, Yeastie Boys’ other co-founder], who I quickly discovered shared my love of flavour, so we’d spend all our spare money exploring restaurants and finding interesting new beers.”
After university, the pair went their separate ways, with Sam heading overseas and Stu going north to “become a hippy for a while”. Although his homebrew really took off at this point, he missed the city and ultimately returned there to start a successful career, working as specialist data analyst in the healthcare sector.
“Sam and I only kept in touch around beer at that point,” he recalls. “He was living in London, and kept taking his wife on these sneaky holidays around Europe that were all beer-related! By the time he came back a few years later, I'd worked my way into the beer world, initially just by volunteering for beer awards, working my way up to chief scorer. I then got co-opted onto New Zealand brewers’ guild, even though I wasn’t a brewer. I made a lot of contacts at that stage.
I wasn't always looking for the cheapest beer like most students
“During those years, I noticed my beers getting better, to the point where they were as good as the best beers I saw coming up in these competitions. I had people turning up to my house with empty flagons. They weren't coming to see me; they were coming to get beer! So I thought to myself that I'd like to start brewing commercially, otherwise I'm just spending all my weekends homebrewing for friends.”
Stu’s contacts in the nascent craft brewing scene gave him plenty of access to commercial-scale breweries, all of which had spare capacity, so he arranged with a friend to brew 600 litres of his Pot Kettle Black porter.
“My pal called and said ‘I can't brew 600 litres of this’. What’s the problem? ‘This beer's so bloody good, I’ve to do 1200 minimum.’ We hired a hatchback, the smallest, cheapest car we could get. It was champagne pink and we were driving through this uber-manly New Zealand farming town with our beers in the back. That first batch sold really quickly and immediately had this kind of cult status. So we brewed it again and had a proper launch party… one of the best feelings I've ever had was to look around and see everyone in the bar drinking dark beer!
Just a couple of weeks later, Pot Kettle Black won the stouts and porters category at the New Zealand Beer Awards, and Yeastie Boys started getting requests from all over New Zealand and even for export. A run of further awards saw its notoriety spread even wider, and 11 years later, Pot Kettle Black is still a regular in lists of the most influential New Zealand beers.
For the first six years of its existence, Stu and Sam were essentially part-time, holding on to their more predictably lucrative day jobs. But by 2014, Stu’s growing sense that he couldn’t commit enough attention to both careers came to a head, and he had to make a tough decision.
“My wife and I had three kids under five at that stage, so the easy choice would have been to employ someone else to run Yeastie Boys, but things were getting difficult bureaucratically at work and in my heart I knew what would make me happiest. It's been a very interesting journey since then, obviously very stressful compared to having work lined up for years into the future, but I don't regret it for a moment.”
Following a phenomenally successful crowdfunding campaign, which raised half a million New Zealand dollars in a shade over 30 minutes, Stu and Sam began work on the next phase of the brewery’s development.
“The understanding right from the start was that would wouldn't try to make it a sustainable business in New Zealand, but move most of our production to the UK because Europe is a much bigger market. The plan was originally to come over with the family for six months, get everything set up and then move back. But while we'd found someone we trusted to run things on the brew side, and distribution, it quickly became clear that growing the brand we couldn't really pass off to someone else. It’s really important in the UK market to have that real personal connection, with someone 100% invested here on the ground making it happen.”
It certainly did the trick, as Stu very quickly became a familiar face on the circuit of festivals, conferences and tap takeovers around the country. “The market’s been great,” he says. “I was just welcomed with open arms; the reception was far beyond what I thought it would be. I felt like I knew everyone after a year.” While his beers have likewise become a welcome addition to bottleshop shelves all over the UK, it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
“I’m glad it all looks like it's all running smoothly from the outside, but there's always things going on that we're having to deal with, whether it's our contract brewery deciding they were going to stop contract brewing, or being hit by the CO2 crisis last year. There was a time a couple of years ago when we were only able to fulfil about 30% of the purchase orders we were getting, which is a terrible position for any business to be in.”
As the brewery’s cans continue to fly off the shelves, its next big push will be into the on trade, and Stu hopes to significantly boost its proportion of keg sales over the next couple of years.
“We’ve been doing a lot of special releases, and that stuff’s been going well in the independent trade. We've also just hired our first sales person, having been selling here for almost five years now! As we continue to add to that sales team, we’re planning to get into continental Europe as well; we haven't really tapped into that yet.”
There’s also talk of a Yeastie Boys pub, in addition to the beer and pie joint venture that Stu is putting together with another Kiwi entrepreneur on the Bermondsey Beer Mile.
“Pubs are the number one thing that's going to keep me in the UK,” Stu enthuses. “Whether I’m alone or having a pint or there with someone, there's nothing quite like them anywhere in the world. There are some beautiful bars, sure, but nothing quite like a British pub; no matter how people try to recreate that vibe it doesn't work. A lot of it comes from the community and the mentality of being born into that culture.”
It's really important in the UK market to have that real personal connection
Stu and his family seem thoroughly settled in the UK, and he says his favourite thing about the business is being able to sit with his wife, Fritha Burgin at their kitchen table, both of them working on a new beer (all of Yeastie Boys’ label art and branding is created by Fritha). Their three children are proud of the business too, and Stu says the worst insult they can throw is that they won’t ever drink Yeastie Boys beer, or work for the business. Their middle son has already got stuck in though, helping out with the brew at a collaboration with Wylam, so it looks like the succession is safe.
While it’s now headquartered and brewed primarily in the UK, Yeastie Boys beer continues to be brewed in New Zealand under license, and the boys are looking at extending this model into other territories. With its distinctive style and characteristically Kiwi aromas, New Zealand beer couldn't ask for a better ambassador.
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