A few years ago, not too long before CAMRGB started, when I was becoming positively obsessive about beer, a friend of mine sent me some beer from New Zealand.
It was a revelation.
Particularly the bottle of beer from The Yeastie Boys Brewery.
Since then I’ve only managed to get hold of bottles of Pot Kettle Black and Golden Perch as imports and both of them blew me away.
And then a few weeks ago, during a visit to Marks & Spencers in my lunch hour, I found Pot Kettle Black on the M&S shelves.
I was so happy that I tweeted my delight and almost immediately got a response from Stu McInlay, friendly Demigog of the brewery, who seemed honestly excited about the pleasure I’d gained from finding his beer.
Cut to a week or two later and I was wandering through one of the rooms of IMBC and a handsome chap with a shock of blonde hair grabbed me and pointed at my CAMRGB shirt, asking me if I was the person he’d spoken to on Twitter.
It was Stu and we hit it off right away.
We had a good chat that day and when I asked him if he’d be up for a bit of an interview he agreed.
And so, with no further ado, here we go.
How long has Yeastie Boys been operating and how did you become a brewer?
Yeastie Boys launched in September 2008 with Pot Kettle Black as a one-off seasonal beer.
We had brewed it at a friend’s brewery in July and, at that point, had decided we’d brew one-off seasonals only.
We did this for the first year before relenting to public pressure and re-brewing Pot kettle Black the next year. It won Champion Stouts/Porters at the NZ Beer Awards and the rest (as they always say) is history.
My parents were from Edinburgh and my dad was always looking for better beer (very hard to find in New Zealand back in the 80’s and 90’s).
There was a little bit of a blossoming microbrewing scene – as they called it then – in the early 90’s and I got taken along by that a bit. We had a couple of decent microbreweries near us and we would occasionally eat there or bring home flagons (our version of growlers).
I tinkered with my dad in a little homebrewing, and then again in my late teens and early twenties, but it was really in my late twenties that things got obsessive.
I first discovered your beer when a NZ friend of mine, at some considerable cost, posted me three bottles of beer. One of them was yours, the others were a bookbinder and a Three Boys IPA. What’s the brewing scene like in NZ?
The beer scene in New Zealand is amazing. I would rank it up there with the very best in the world. From my perspective it has come in three main waves.
The first included those who were inspired by classic brewing from UK and Europe, with perhaps a hint of American influence. These breweries are 10-25 years old and feature the likes of Emerson’s, Harrington’s, Tuatara, Invercargill, Renaissance and Three Boys.
The second wave brought a more experimental nature to the same – more hops, more experimental styles, more left field uses of fermentation and barrel-ageing etc. I think of breweries like Epic, 8 Wired, ParrotDog, Townshend, Liberty and ourselves (among many others).
The third is more business savvy – and that’s not at all to say they’re not making fantastic beers, both classics and experimental – but it is at this point that the scene really exploded. In here I think of Garage Project and Panhead – two of the fastest growing companies, let alone breweries, in New Zealand.
Following your comments of the NZ brewing scene and how it has far more business savvy these days which is helping it become more global, I was wondering about NZ music.
I know you are a passionate music listener and I am a big fan of the NZ music – from The Clean to The Chills, The Verlaines to Dead C – that have come out of your home country, and so I’m wondering if there are links between the two industries and what your thoughts are on why some of these bands have remained cult favourites rather than major pop bands.
Is it simply a lack of business savvy for the NZ record labels?
I think music, much more so than beer, crosses the line between art and business. Some people, like Bjork and PJ Harvey, are great artists yet they still manage to (seemingly) pull off a reasonably commercial career. Often these people make their most commercial stuff early on and this allows them to concentrate on the art more – and brings the kind of connections that success does. Some stay very artistic and virtually never have great commercial success.
New Zealand’s music scene, like our beer scene, is incredibly small because of the low population. To be even a moderate commercial success, you almost certainly have to “export” your music. To remain niche, and to make any sort of living off music alone, you almost certainly have to do the same.
Some musicians, like the excellent Rhian Sheehan, will put their art out in album and lives shows but then make most of their money off commercial work. Rhian does a lot of scores for the likes of planetariums. I guess many brewers are the same – we may love on or two of our lowest volume beers the most but we have to make money somewhere (and that’s likely to be off a pale ale or a lager).
There have been some great connections between NZ music and beer through the years (including some fun “collaborations”) but, in general, I think most musicians just drink whatever they can get their hands on for little or – if they’re lucky – nothing.
You, like &Union and Mikkeller, are a contract brewer. How much control do yo have over your product?
We have total control, in the end, as we can choose whether we sell or dump the beer… and we have dumped beer. There are a fair few stories of ideas that didn’t quite work out, or batches that we simply weren’t happy enough with to release. We’ve also chosen to package beer where the brewery was unsure of it – and some of that beer has gone on to win medals in competitions. In the end, the quality buck stops with me on every single batch. Even if I’m not living in the country where it was made!
Contract brewing does, however, limit some of the things we can do in a couple of ways. At Invercargill, in NZ, we are a major part of their week to week brewing schedule and know their system well. So we can experiment a little more and they are very open to trying things with us – as their team learn at the same time. We have done some pretty experimental beer out of there… be it the 100% heavily peated Rex Attitutde (and big sister xeRRex) or the botrytised candi-sugar we made for our Spoonbender series.
However, at Brewdog, we have to slip more into line with their standard brewing model as we are an absolutely tiny part of their operation . We are also brewing eight times the batch size that we are in New Zealand, so we don’t yet have the kind of market here that we would need to brew experimental beer.
As you say, your brewing is handled by BrewDog in the U.K. How did that come about and how do you feel it’s working out?
Brewdog have been wonderful. They’re making great beer for us but, just as importantly, have been excellent to work with. Patient, considerate, helpful and fun.
I first met Brewdog through a lovely chap by the name of Neil Taylor, who is the Operations Manager of world bars at Brewdog. He came down to the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and was looking for NZ beer to buy into the Brewdog retail chain (which was tiny then). We hit it off pretty well (although I prefer hanging out with his dad, to be honest) and Neil asked us if we’d send some beer to UK for them.
We didn’t really have the capacity, at that time to send any beer to UK, so we asked for a rain check. They kept coming back ever 6-12 months to ask, and we kept saying we would love to but couldn’t really spare a litre.
Then, in late 2013, I was invited to brew with Adnams for the Wetherspoon International Beer Festival. That triggered an idea that I’d never really thought of before. If we were going to brew one of our beers in collaboration with Adnams, for a single pub group, why not use the trip to look for a place to contract brew our beer here longer term (and for a much wider audience). We already knew there was quite likely some interest in our product here.
We talked to a few breweries, far more appropriately sized, but all of the factors we were looking for kept pointing to Brewdog. The had the capacity, the skills in well hopped (or “leafed”) modern style beers, excellent packaging technology, and the ability to allow us to grow. A friend of mine, James Kemp (now at Marble, introduced me to the brewing side of their business and the rest is history. There’s plenty more stories in the 18 months between us meeting them, and finally brewing, but they can wait for another time.
Though you appear to spend half your life on one form of transport or another, you are currently based here in the U.K., right?
What plans do you have going forward, or indeed are you solely focussed on building Yeastie Boys in this market?
And finally, what kind of effect do you think Brexit might have on how yo are trying to grow the business here in Europe?
I am based in UK right now and will be for a good deal of the future.
I love it here, for so many reasons that I think we’d need an interview focused completely on that just to cover them all off.
Britain is already our biggest market and we envisage it becoming a lot bigger (though believe it or not, we’re still only about half the size of The Kernel when you account for NZ and UK brewing).
We’ve barely scratched the surface here and are about to employ a sales manager in London (it’s just been myself and my wife, for these first eighteen months).
We’ll also begin to look at Europe now that we have started to get our processes sorted. We send a little beer there, so far, but that’s just to placate a couple of importers who have shouted the loudest.
We are still brewing in NZ, where we service a growing domestic market (local sales have grown almost 50% in the last 6 months) and export almost 50% of our product around the pacific rim.
We’re also just in the process of setting up a joint venture as Yeastie Boys Australia where we will be brewing and distributing in the market there. This is culmination of a four year relationship with a couple of people who we really respect and admire in the Australian scene. (We haven’t actually announced this, formally, but will almost certainly have done so by the time you get this online).
Brexit’s impact is hard to gauge, at this stage, though I’m personally very concerned about the state of the nation that I have chosen to bring my family to live in. It’s the same in many countries… UK, USA, Australia and (to a lesser extent) New Zealand. Right-wing politicians seem to be winning the votes of people, worldwide, with fear, hatred, and damned lies. It’s something we are somewhat shielded from in a craft beer scene that is very liberal, tolerant, and extraordinarily welcoming.
In regards to immediate effects, Brexit has had an immediate impact with the exchange rate – our hops are now incredibly expensive (hops that cost us £14.70 per kilogram, a year ago, now cost us £20.70).
We’re extremely lucky that we chose to begin brewing here. If we had simply been importing our beer from New Zealand to sell here, we’d be heading back to NZ by now. Obviously there are some positive impacts for us exporting beer from UK, given the fact that the pound has plunged, but that’s not our focus now… to use a terrible music analogy: we won’t go chasing waterfalls.
The first three UK brewed beers are Gunnamatta IPA, Pot Kettle Black and Digital IPA.
This is what I think of them.
Gunnamatta (6.5%) is Yeastie’s Earl Grey IPA and it’s an absolute killer.
Packed with fruit salad sweets, the smell as you pour this pale gold beer into your glass is bright and zingy with garden flowers and lime leaves.
The malting is a soft Belgian waffle, honey and pancake delight and there’s a little earthy kick in the background which I’m pretty sure is the tea and the yeast combining, but I’ll come back to he tea in a moment, as I need to tell you how wonderful the hopping is.
You find fruity jelly sweets, mandarins and lime zest, a little mango and a hint of strawberry, but as this hoppy goodness leads you towards the long bitter finish, the tea drifts in with a warm, almost smoky, fug of oak lined drawing rooms, incense and all spice.
This is a super little beer.
Digital IPA (5.6%) is absolutely super, pouring a bright gold with a frothy little head and smelling intensely fruity.
And I mean ridiculously fruity, all jelly and tropical fruit salad with a little earthy background which appears to be coming from the yeast that Yeastie Boys brought over from New Zealand and use in all their beer.
The malting is round and chewy and soft with brown sugar syrup, brioche and shortbread, creating an excellent backbone for the hops to burst out at you with lemon and lime curd, nettles and bracken, sherbet and grapefruit.
All this hoppy joy leads you to a crisp, clean and very sharp finish.
Pot Kettle Black (6%) is the first Yeastie Boys beer I ever tried and my original review is here.
It’s worth writing about again though, with this being brewed here in the UK, making it a naturally fresher product as it’s not had to travel anywhere near the distance, let alone the difference in water and the like.
Pot Kettle Black is one of my favourite beers, walking the line between hoppy Porter and Black IPA, I’d still err on the side of hoppy Porter as I did in my original review of the NZ version.
Pouring a rich purple brown, the smell is plum jam, chocolate and plasticine, round and chewy and pliable.
Taking a swig you find lots of prunes and damsons, chocolate and coffee from the malts, along with crunchy burned wholemeal toast, honey and just a hint of smoky bacon crisps, the hops cutting across this with sharp and brittle hedgerow greenery, pithy sapling wood and a maple syrup stickiness.
This kind of beer on the shelves of a high street supermarket is a revelation for beer drinkers.