Getting to know BREW: Yeastie Boys
Did you know that almost 250 years ago, beer was brewed for the first time in New Zealand by legendary explorer Captain James Cook. After a long and arduous journey across the known world, who wouldn’t want a pint of the good stuff?!
According to Cook, he brewed a spruce beer using small branches of the rim tree, leaves of the mānuka plant, molasses and some yeast for fermentation. It’s definitely an ingenious way of using what you have at your disposal but I don’t think it would be highly rated on Untappd.
Jump forward to today and the craft beer market in New Zealand is varied and progressive with around 219 breweries spanning across both islands. Thanks more breweries per capita than the UK! One of which is Yeastie Boys, and we caught up with founder Stu McKinlay (pictured above - with glasses) and Marketing and Comms Manager Kamilla Hannibal Kristensen (pictured below) to discuss expansion, problems brewing and what’s next for the Kiwi brewery.
Q. Can you tell me a little about the origins of Yeastie Boys?
Forged in what felt like a craft beer black hole in New Zealand, way back in 2008, long before the current wave of craft breweries currently sweeping across Britain, Yeastie Boys are the world’s smallest multinational brewery.
Brewing in New Zealand and Australia, and now headquartered in Britain, our home- brewing background means we have always had a penchant for brewing classic styles with a modern twist.
From our first beer Pot Kettle Black (a hybrid porter/IPA from 2008, before the time Black IPA existed), through our biggest selling Gunnamatta (an Earl Grey IPA, first released in early 2012), to our infamous Rex Attitude (a Golden Ale using heavily peated distilling malt and more at home on a shelf alongside Islay whisky than most beers), we make beers that are thought provoking, sometimes controversial, but with drinkability always at the forefront of our mind.
Yeastie Boys was formed by Stu McKinlay and Sam Possenniskie, two old friends with a lifelong passion for good beer and pubs, and started life as a contract brewing business producing one-off beers in the spare capacity at a friend’s brewery. Twelve years on, and as one of the most highly awarded New Zealand breweries in international beer awards, we continue the contract brewing model which allows us to keep a very small team and remain highly adaptable despite growing into a position where we brew in three different countries and sell to everyone from tiny cafes through to huge supermarket chains.
What started off as nothing more than a single commercial batch of our widely lauded Pot Kettle Black (South Pacific Porter) - a beer that my friends and fellow brewers believed should be showcased to a wider audience - the ‘hobby gone mad’ slowly evolved from weekends and evenings, while both Sam and I had day jobs. It’s now a full time business, of course, producing a core range of fridge filler beers, annual seasonals, and special one-off releases. With Fritha Burgin, my partner of almost 20 years - as Art Director, the business is very much a case of family and friends. A lot of work happens around our kitchen table, or via Google Meet, and includes our small team of Kamilla (Internet Witch), Fee (Distribution Diva) and Al (Prince of Sales).
Q. What made you decide to expand to the UK market and are you looking to expand elsewhere?
We have been exporting since before the craft beer thing really took off in most of the rest of the world. We noticed a general trend of a good year or two, in each market, before the market became full of local products and imported beer started to drop away. After a lot of interest from the UK, we decided to brew here and become local rather than an import. This results in fresher beer, a better understanding of the local market, more margin for us and better pricing for our customers, and an ability to respond to market demands a lot easier (six weeks shipping is an eternity when someone wants your beer!).
We now also brew in Australia and have looked at both Germany and USA but neither of those have come off... yet!
Q. What do you think is unique about Yeastie Boys?
We are truly one of the smallest multinationals you will ever come across. Six people but operating in NZ, Australia and Europe.
And in spite of our brewery name we have 50/50 women and men working for the company.
Yeastie Boys are incredibly DIY in its approach to solving tasks and coming up with ideas, probably because we all come from different DIY backgrounds, running record labels, playing in bands and making ‘zines.
Q. How do you decide on what new beers to brew?
This is one of those open ended questions like how long is a piece of string but our general philosophy is classic styles with an irreverent twist. It comes down to a combination of what beer we feel like drinking ourselves and what we think the market wants (or at least can handle!).
It is, however, always within a certain set of parameters that are more based around what we don't want to brew. We don't do lactose, as all our beers are vegan. We don't do NEIPAs because there are enough good ones (and way too many bad ones) out in the market already.
The beers we make are inspired by all sorts of things. We made a Tropical IPA with loads of mango because one of our team loves Rubicon. We made a lightly dry hopped modern-style lager as we all love classic German lagers and we wanted one with a uniquely NZ hop twist in it. We made our infamous Rex Attitude, a single malt heavily peated golden ale, because people said it couldn't be done!
Q. Are there any beer styles you are looking at tackling in the future that you haven’t done already?
I've always been a fan of Tripel and Belgian-style Golden Strong and it just so happens that our new house yeast is probably perfect for that, so expect something along those lines in the year ahead. As always it'll have a unique twist to it, so don't expect a Duvel or Westmalle clone. Expect it to be very pale, dry, not at all tasting like 8-9%, with a delicate and nuanced character that evolves over time and keeps asking you back for more.
Q. How important do you think collaborations are with other breweries?
It’s very important! For inspiration and friendship. For us it’s an energy injection!
Q. What efforts do you make to be environmentally friendly?
We brew for the local markets instead of exporting. We have massively reduced plastic in our packaging. We are also trying to reduce unnecessary travel. We have regular meetings as a team to discuss how we can be more sustainable in all areas of the business.
Q. What have been your biggest challenges over the last 12 months?
Without a doubt it has been Covid. 2020 started with a really great move to Utopian Brewery, which was a lot of planning in the previous six months, and that has been brilliant. Good people making excellent beer and with a philosophy similar to our own but expressed in a very different way. Then came Covid. The ups and downs of demand, thanks to all the uncertainty around the government's strategy, has been our big problem. Early on we actually ran out of beer, as sales surged in certain areas (lockdown initially felt like a boozy holiday for some), but since then it's been really hard work. Lots of unanswered phone calls, a bunch of counselling customers and virtual hugs, and generally a case of hanging in there and working out how the new world will look.
Q. What are the biggest problems you run into in producing beer?
Producing beer is the easy part when you work with a team as good as Utopian. Now the difficult part is getting customer attention and keeping in their minds in a very noisy marketplace. We had a couple of years of strong growth where we struggled to keep on top of production (both supply and quality) but, now that it's really great again, we're almost trying to win back the faith of our trade customers and consumers. It's a hard road. When you can't put beer on a shelf and someone else takes it, you have to be very patient in waiting for that opportunity again.
Q. Have you produced a beer that didn’t turn out how you wanted it to - either better or worse?
There are too many to mention but I think my favourite story was a batch of Pot Kettle Black that was infected years ago. We thought it was brett or some other wild yeast, at the time, but it was probably diastaticus in hindsight. We dumped most of the batch but a pallet of bottles was accidentally stored somewhere else. When we re-discovered it, we cracked a bottle and - despite the rather jubilant carbonation - it tasted amazing. So fruity, vinous, and nuanced. Like a fantastic old ale. We knew we couldn't sell the bottles, given the carbonation level, so we hired a student to pop the caps and pour the beer into a couple of old wine barrels. A year later it was the happiest accident we'd ever had.
Q. They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but how important do you think branding/package design is for your beers?
It is very important to us. The whole team are art, music and film nerds. Fritha who makes all our designs has created a Yeastie Boys universe that is weird, fun and has a lot on its mind and heart. It brings up the beer and the drinking experience to a whole other level.
There always needs to be a good balance between format and content, but they need each other.
Q. Do you feel that non-alcoholic beers have an important part to play in the craft beer industry?
I think so. It's definitely a way to reach new audiences. We don't have any plans to make one though but we happily drink the good ones that are out there.
Q. What’s next for you over the next 12 months?
Our main focus is surviving this pandemic with our whole team still together and to have as much cash up our sleeves as possible until that time. We have some bigger plans, which are very exciting, but they rely on a few things coming together and a gut feeling that 2021 is going to be ok before we push on with them. If not, we've been around for 12 years and we are patient...we can hold off for 2022. Either way we expect people will see a lot more of our beer in the future.
From the Author
A massive thanks to Stu McKinlay Marketing and Kamilla Hannibal Kristensen for agreeing to be interviewed during what is a very busy time for them.
About Yeastie Boys
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