Like a delicious cider fermenting over time, it took a while to meet the lovely couple behind Steel Press Cider. Nevertheless, when I met Sean and Elly long I already owed them one.
The pair sent me an email last October asking me to review their cider for my (older, shitter) blog (the encouragement got me writing again - but that is another story). You might not have yet heard of Wellington’s Nano Brewery ‘Steel Press Cider’ but you will. It is the result of love and hard work from two incredible people: Sean Manning has a laid back, almost country cowboy attitude. Elly possesses tiger like enthusiasm, amazing tresses and youthful disposition. Together, they balance one another out, like apple pie and ice cream.
When we sit down in what can only be described as an oversized shed in Gracefield, Lower Hutt, the rain is pouring outside. Sean and Elly, however, are their usual sunny selves - sweet and just a little bit tarty, just like the apples they press. They not only have a relationship, and a business now together, but a plan to make Wellington their home for the foreseeable future.
New Zealand Life Growing Up
Elly Skoko was born in Serbia, former Yugoslavia. What was she like as a child? “Incredibly annoying, inquisitive with fantastic dress sense. I used to wear some particularly unattractive outfits. I loved patterns and colours and was really extroverted. I wanted to be a doctor or vet but only on turtles or goldfish” Elly laughs.
"I loved reading everything. I remember spending Summers just reading and writing. But I also loved Science so I got into that. Eventually, I ended up studying psychology.”
In 1994 the family moved to New Zealand and settled in Christchurch. “My parents did their PHD’s here." In 1999 they moved to Australia where they lived until 2009. At High School, Elly admits to having had a particularly unfortunate haircut. Elly would make up for these unfortunate hair-escapades by reading to excess as a child. "I loved reading everything. I remember spending Summers just reading and writing. But I also loved Science so I got into that. Eventually, I ended up studying psychology.” In 2009, after studying her undergraduate at Australian National University. Elly moved back to New Zealand to study at Otago University for her Honours and Masters degree.
Sean, by contrast, was born in Lower Hutt. His father and mother were biochemists. He later opened an engineering business becoming an electrical and hydraulic engineer. From 1999 his father and mother built up businesses together. Together they have Sean and two other children who both live overseas.
Sean says he remembers himself being a lovely child “but it turned out I was a bit of a bastard...I just got bored easily.” Did Sean always like apples? “Yes,” he says. “Sour apple lollies, apple pies - the cafe at the Botanical Gardens actually does the best one.”
“Sour apple lollies, apple pies - the cafe at the Botanical Gardens actually does the best one.”
Sean went to school in Lower Hutt and studied at Hutt Valley High School. “It was a good school when I was there. Teachers were keen to encourage any child’s ambition, so long as they wanted to learn.” Sean jokingly says he was “great at everything until I was about 16. Then I got side tracked...stopped going to class and would play football instead of going to exams”
In his first year at Victoria University of Wellington, Sean studied Law and Science, then changed to politics. Sean had nearly finished his studies when he found out he was dyslexic. It came as a shock “Far too late in life”. He took a year off and worked in a bar. That bar is Crumpet, a place that has played a significant role in Sean's life to date.
Meeting one another: "You wooed me with Nutella"
At Crumpet, Sean and Elly met. Elly was living nearby and had noticed Sean. “I thought you were quite snazzalcious” Elly says. “And you ignored me because you didn’t think I would like you even though I was blatantly flirting.” “I’m quite thick” admits Sean. “I would come in and get coffee and Sean’s boss would tell him to go and talk to me - because he could see it. And then he left!” Elly explains. Eventually, Sean stopped being thick. He worked out Elly liked him when his boss told him “You’re being an idiot. That girl likes you.” “You wooed me with Nutella” Elly cries (Sean would give Elly free nutella and walnuts) Elly helped Sean eventually return to University and complete his degree and go on to achieve his honours year.
A Little Lie: How The Idea for a Cider Business Began
At the time they met, Sean had already had the idea to make cider before he mentioned it to Elly. He told her he had a burgeoning cider business, just to impress her. “I over embellished how far along the idea for the business was. It came out later on” Sean explains.
“I over embellished how far along the idea for the business was. It came out later on”
Once the truth came out, Sean decided to take it seriously. He worked with his father to build the first press. “It was truly the most inefficient and difficult press ever,” Sean says. They then moved onto a cold press machine that they pulled apart and put back together again. “I was surprisingly focused when I got going,” Sean says. “We’ve used that press for the last three years until recently.”
Over time, the pair worked on different recipes and perfected the recipes. Originally, they made a bottle fermented cider - robust and farmhouse-y. Their first supplier, Crumpet, then dropped the bombshell that they wanted it in a keg. The recipe had to be rethought. Sean would refine it at Crumpet nevertheless and get responses from the bar staff and punters to find out what they thought of the cider.
At the end of 2014, Steel Press Cider became a consistent product with a great taste. Sean and Elly remade the whole product, improving it and refining it. “It’s a Kiwi cider with English flavours,” Sean says.
Cider Production Life
Their roles are split: Sean brews and juices, creating relationships with people around Wellington and asking people to try it. Elly manages the business, keeping everything on track. “Otherwise, I’ll get distracted by a dog” says Sean.
The pair enjoy seeing the brand evolve and use word of mouth. Establishing the product at Crumpet bar was a savvy first move. Now more people are hearing about their Wellington cider. (Stockists include; Crumpet, Egmont Street Eatery, Ancestral, Charley Noble’s, The Ramen Shop, Hillside Kitchen, Field and Green, Hanging Ditch, Five Boroughs).
“Our advice would be to ask other people for help,” Sean says
So what is it like being in a relationship and having a business together? Elly works full time and Sean still works part time so they agree it’s important to compartmentalise the different areas of their life. “The thing that saved us is that neither of us can hold a grudge. We have an argument - and then five minutes later it’s fine. We never stay grumpy long” Elly says. “You have to come home at the end of the day and have a relationship or a marriage.”
A Love Affair with Wellington - and what's next for Steel Press Cider
Wellington has been a fantastic base for the couple to launch to the brand. “I think the hospitality culture is fantastic. People want you to succeed. The difficulties in starting a business are only in your capabilities” Sean says. “Everyone can start a business. The bit afterwards - that’s the hard bit. But Wellington is very interested and people understand that it is not just about the product. It’s about the effort behind it. People help” Elly explains. Elly and Sean owe their own debt to family friends, Crumpet and particularly Sean’s family. “Our advice would be to ask other people for help,” Sean says, “the worst they can say is no. You still need to be aware of the risk and how much it will take over your life.”
The aim for the future is to increase cider production so more can be sold. At the end of 2016 their goal is “...to get to 20,000 or maybe 30,000 litres per year and go all in.” And if I know anything, they'll be all in together.