“I can safely say that this is the busiest I have ever been at any point in my life. There’s no doubt about it,” explains Stu McKinlay, co-founder and self-confessed “benevolent dictator” of Yeastie Boys. McKinlay is making his point in-between sips from a pint of Beavertown’s ‘Neck Oil’.
Variety is not what you come to Central London’s Ape & Bird for, but the relative calm away from the capital’s chaotic Shaftesbury Avenue is. And as McKinlay goes on to point out, other options of Wild Beer Co’s ‘Fresh’ or Camden Town’s ‘Pale’ means that there are three solid beers to be choosing from, at the very least.
The New Zealand native has called the UK home for nearly two years now and he’s made light work of becoming something of a household name in many beer circles. He even came straight to the bar from a working lunch with Fuller’s John Keeling, a duo that brewed last year’s excellent ‘Double Summer’ cask beer. But with successful integration into the UK brewing scene under his belt, McKinlay’s attentions have turned to more pressing matters in 2017.
Earlier in the year, BrewDog informed McKinlay that the brewing agreement the Ellon brewery had with Yeastie Boys was coming to an end. The Scottish company had been brewing and canning a number of their beers for the UK market and it’s no coincidence that Yeastie Boy’s visibility had increased massively as a result. BrewDog, though, decided that it had to recall that production capacity for their own beers but despite McKinlay being thrown the mother of all spanners in the works, he is still confident that his brand can push ahead with their growth plans for 2017, and beyond.
“They had a number of reasons, I’m sure, for needing to take that capacity back. They are focusing more on brewing their own beers and need everything they have to do that. I’m grateful for their help and I have a great deal of respect for the team they have there,” he explains. “We still have a short while to continue production in Ellon but instead of focusing on growing the brand in this time, I need to engage with other breweries for us to brew with once that concludes.”
McKinlay is no stranger to working with breweries to brew their beer. Yeastie Boys never set out to be a production brewery, and he plans to keep it that way. Just this time, McKinlay has to find a solution quicker that he’d like.
“I’m talking to a lot of good people and a lot of good breweries. I probably have around 20 or so on my list. Around ten of these I’m in serious talks with and personally, I probably have a top five or three,” says McKinlay. “The issue is that a brewery that might fit our needs now, may not be capable of producing the volumes we hope to be doing further down the line.”
McKinlay plans to triple sales this year, with further growth predicted in 2018. Canning its beers such as Digital IPA, Gunnamatta and, newer release, Bigmouth, has been very successful for Yeastie Boys, enabling them to get into a growing number of pubs, bottle shops and other retailers.
In addition, the recent hire of their first UK employee, Charlie Docherty, has also “opened up doors I didn’t know existed,” according to McKinlay, so things show no sign of slowing down. Having help in the field is something he has taken a while to get used to. He personally spent the first year in the UK visiting as many pubs and bars as possible to spread the word of Yeastie Boys, all between looking at other sides of the business.
“If I was going to give advice to someone coming in and doing something similar to us it would be to just bite the bullet and get someone else involved,” he says. “Spend the money so they can make it happen. I have spent a lot of time getting my head around HMRC and the compliance side of the business, which has been positive, but when you’re handling so many other responsibilities, it would have been great to have had help! It has also made me appreciate how hard it is for someone else to come in and do what we’re doing here, which is really heartening.”
McKinlay’s team at Yeastie Boys includes his wife Fritha, the aforementioned Docherty and his co-founder Sam Possenniskie. McKinlay has lived in the UK with his family since 2015 thanks to a crowdfunding campaign in New Zealand that exceeded any of their expectations. Held in January of that year, Yeastie Boys took only 30 minutes to raise NZ$500,000 through an equity crowdfunding campaign designed to help sell beers to markets in Britain and Europe.
Moving with the four other members of his family some 12,000 miles to England had its own inevitable challenges. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that McKinlay lives and breathes Yeastie Boys twenty-four seven, which involves feeling the pressure that running a company with 200 shareholders brings.
“I realise that I’m not that good a brewer. I’m good at working out flavours, concepts and ideas, as well as the branding, but I fully admit that the best place in a business for me is out on the front telling stories things and things like that,” he says. “But I also know our beers. I know they are good and I know what they should taste like. When BrewDog produced the initial batches of ‘Digital IPA’ for us, they got in touch to say that it had failed the brewery’s sensory panel. It was brilliant to hear their honesty and openness but I obviously wanted to try it.”
And try it he did.
“The door rang early one Friday and the beer was here. So the first thing I did was crack one open warm. I had one cold, then later I had another warm. I emailed them to say that the beer seemed good to me but asked for a few days to get back to them. I didn’t have time to get any other expert advice but I had strength in my convictions. At this point, the beer was their ‘problem’ but when I gave them the go-ahead to brew the first 200 hectolitre batch of my beer, then it was my problem.
“So I had my ass cheeks together and told them to go with it. If things went wrong then that’s a lot of money down the tubes. But once that arrived a week or so later, I cracked it open, warm once again, and thought ‘F*ck yes, this is how I expected it to be’. So I’ll tell you what, when people blurt on about my beers being BrewDog beers because they are brewed there, I’ll simply tell you you to f*ck off. F*ck you. These recipes are the reason my wife and three children moved to the other side of the world. Everything is riding on these beers. So I don’t have time for pointless remarks from people who don’t know the facts.”
McKinlay is incredibly proud of the beers Yeastie Boys have released on the way since coming on to the scene back in 2009. Beers such as its South Pacific porter, ‘Pot Kettle Black’ have picked up numerous awards in New Zealand and Asia. While New Zealand gets the bulk of the variety in their range, newer partnerships with Nomad Brewing Co in Australia and BrewDog has helped Yeastie Boys bring its core beers to more of a global audience.
McKinlay explains that the growth in the number of New Zealand breweries has been fairly strong, something not mirrored in the country’s population trajectory. But closer to his (new) home, he believes that there is more than enough to go around in the buoyant field he is now part of.
“There is a lot of bollocks talked about and believed in the brewing industry. Sure, we have lots of London breweries now. But do we have too many? No way. It’s the same with the proliferation of breweries producing beers in the New England style. Drinkers are being told that a beer needs to be drunk within three weeks of it being canned or bottled. Nonsense. Good beer should last on cold shelves, and warm. If you’re insisting on people drinking beer that quickly, ensure it’s served from a brewery tap or distributed in a way that gets it to people in that timescale you’ve chosen,” he says.
“Look at Cloudwater. They are really into what they’re doing and they obviously really care about it but it’s not my kind of thing, personally. To me, some beers are made to age really well and they’re the kind of beers I really like. These are the ones that have a lot more nuances and subtlety such as those from Burning Sky or from the team at Lost and Grounded Brewers.”
McKinlay is also a fan of the beers that make it to the UK and Europe through the New Zealand Beer Collective, of which Yeastie Boys is a part. 8 Wired, Tuatara, Renaissance and Three Boys comprise the remainder of the collective, while other guest breweries come on board at times throughout the year. McKinlay says being part of the group, founded by Todd Nicolson, has been invaluable in helping the company grow in the UK and Europe.
“Working with Todd, Sam and Fritha means I’m working with my three best friends in the world. I’m very lucky as we all very passionate and we are all good in the parts of the business we work in. As a result, we fight a lot over the way things should go but I love that more than anything. I call myself the benevolent dictator and that’s for a reason. Anything you taste or see with Yeastie Boys is me and that’s my decision. They are my beers, my words and my ideas,” he enthuses.
McKinlay adds: “It’s a dream job and it’s why a lot of people always expected us to do more things faster that we have. It has been a bit slow because we actually work together well as a group and ensure each decision has been made in a concerted manor.
“Sure, I will have been a massive pain in the ass to work with and I know that I am a massive pain in the ass for my wife to live with and horrible for Sam to work with a business partner. But we respect each other and have similar aspirations about what we want the business to be. It’s about growing and doing what’s best for the drinkers, for us, our families and our shareholders. I’m pretty sure we are the smallest multinational company. And I couldn’t be happier!”