Yeastie Boy Stu McKinlay is in New Zealand for a ten-day flying visit, before returning to the UK to lay plans for world domination
Stu started Yeastie Boys in 2008 with Sam Possenniskie, and they established a UK branch this year.
Stu says the initial plan was to stay for six months, establish a reputation, then return every few months. “When I got there in February I realised our nationwide distributor was really good for the bigger established chains, but not quite right for brand building. Now we’re going to do our own distribution, working with regional wholesalers selling our beer into their various areas. So we will need to be more hands-on, for a least a couple of years I think, to get everything embedded.
“We are still working with the national distributor on big accounts, but I think those customers will come slowly. You can’t just snap your fingers and suddenly be in the big stores in the UK. It’s quite a long process and a very different model to what we do here.”
Yeastie Boys has always been a contract brewer, using Invercargill Brewery for most of its New Zealand production. It has contracted BrewDog to make up to 250,000 litres in the UK in its first year. Stu says the UK craft beer scene has a different attitude to contract brewing.
“Contract brewing is a little bit of a dirty world over there, whereas it’s not here. We’ve been friends with BrewDog for four years – we met at the Beer World Cup in 2011. They’re making our beer but not distributing it. There’s definitely a separation between our brands. We’re clear on the label that it was brewed at BrewDog. We don’t want people to think Yeastie Boys is owned by BrewDog, and if they’re distributing us, people might start to think that.”
And there’s no attempt to make the different versions of the beers taste exactly the same.
“They’re different beers and I always intended that they would be different. No matter how much you try, they will be different. We will always go for the best UK Gunnamatta and the best New Zealand-made Gunnamatta. Hopefully we can learn something from both places and make them both perfect but never the same. We use the same hops and the same tea, but different malt.”
The UK craft beer scene has two distinct cultures – the traditional CAMRA types, and modern innovators.
“So there’s this really tiny vocal minority on both sides that fight about it loudly, and there’s everyone else who just wants a decent pint in a decent pub with their friends. There’s a lot of price sensitivity – people have grown up expecting to pay up to £3.50 for a pint and now they’re being asked to pay £4.50, and a lot of that is because they grew up drinking 3.5% beer and now its 6%. The best pubs have worked out they should be serving them in smaller glassware. There will be a slow uptake for that because it will be a generational change. Beer isn’t petrol – you’re not buying it by the litre, you’re buying it for what it is. There are completely different drinks that you can enjoy in different ways.”
Yeastie Boys is now distributing to ten countries, and is part of the exporting Craft Beer Collective with Tuatara, Renaissance, 8 Wiredand Three Boys. But Stu believes they can still go further at home.
“We definitely could sell more beer in New Zealand. We are spreading ourselves a bit thin, but our philosophy has always been to work with people who we like. We don’t want be the coolest, we don’t want to be the biggest, we will never be the best because we are hypercritical of our own beer, but we do want to have the most fun and be the most nimble. If we want to send some beer into another market we can, because we are not trying to grow the New Zealand market by 100% next year. A lot of breweries are in a hurry to make things happen in the next few years. I’m not in a hurry to do anything other than send good beer to people we like.”
Stu’s moving between Wellington and Auckland this week for business meetings, then flies back to London after the weekend. His wife Fritha and their three children will stay in New Zealand until UK visas are approved in five weeks. Meanwhile, Stu will be visiting his regional distributors, making the most of the 'New guy from New Zealand’ reputation.
“That’s important in this initial phase because we’re exotic. People want to know what’s happening in New Zealand and they have heard good things. There’s a lot of good interest at beer festivals and offers to collaborate – I think people want to collaborate because they think I’ll give them access to New Zealand hops! That will be an advantage to us as we establish markets, but after that we will have to rely on the beer – the quality will have to be good, the price will have to be right and we’ll have to compete with everyone else.
“We don’t see ourselves owning our own brewery for at least another two years. There’s still a romantic part of me that would like to own a brewery at some stage but I think it would be a small one. There’s very few brewpubs in the UK and so that would probably be the place to do it.”