If you say to words ‘Yeastie Boys’, you’ll have one of two reactions: Either those people who think you are confused about the name of the 90’s rap collective - or those who will nod in approval, sagely approving your palette.
Yeastie Boys are a Wellington-based brewing duo (without their own brewery) who have been amongst the leading innovators during the recent rise of craft brewing in New Zealand. The brainchild of Stu McKinlay and Sam Possenniskie - two of New Zealand's most prominent beer activists - the Yeastie Boys have spent the last ten years picking up trophies, receiving critical acclaim from around the world, and proving to even the most cynical beer geek that contract brewing really can result in great beer.
I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Stu who is now based in London on my recent trip over. I wanted to find out why he moved to Kent from Wellington, what the scene is like for beer in London and what else they have up their sleeve.
Lucy Revill: Stu, the first question I ask everybody is, where were you born?
SM: I was born in Wellington. I lived there pretty much all my life. I really was a resident. I felt quite different from most of the people I knew. Especially as I got into my adult life, a lot of my friends went away overseas or moved to Auckland or something like that. I started to discover all these new friends in Wellington. A number of them were not from Wellington. It felt quite unusual as I got older, suddenly to become friends with all these people who had come there and were transient and decided to stay.
LR: What did your parents do, growing up?
SM: My dad was a painter and decorator, and my mum was the mother of five children, so that kept her very, very busy. Then she went on to manage a really well-known retail art store in Wellington, originally called Littlejohn’s and then it became Gordon Harris.
LR: One of my favourite shops in Wellington.
SM: She managed that for 25 years or so, I think.
LR: Such a cool job. You must have enjoyed that, like if you had any kind of creative side, because surely she would have brought home…
SM: Yeah, we always had like pens coming home and…
SM: Interesting paper and stuff. I used to go and do their stocktake every year with them. I was just like marvelling at the beautiful products they had. I’m not an artist, but it almost makes you want to become one.
LR: Where did you go to school?
SM: I went to school in Lower Hutt. I grew up in Porirua first, and then we moved to Lower Hutt just before I started school. All my older siblings went to school in Porirua. I was quite a bit younger, so I went to Ss Peter & Paul School in Lower Hutt, right in the middle, basically next to Queensgate. Back then it was like a big field and a bus stop there, and that was about it. That’s changed remarkably over the years. Then I went to St Bernard’s Intermediate, and then St Pat’s College, Silverstream. So all boys’ schools, once I got to like 12 or something like that, which I would never do to my children now; but my parents let me choose my schooling, and I kind of went down that route.
LR: It's funny. My mum (she’s a teacher), she has started teaching at a mixed school and thinks that she would probably not send us to single-sex schools if we were going to do it over again. So, when you finished school, did you know what you wanted to do? Did you have any kind of career plan in mind?
SM: No, I had no idea at all. In hindsight, I probably should have taken a year or two off. I was a really good golfer at that stage in my teenage years, which was quite unusual. There weren’t many teenage golfers around; it didn’t seem to be a pathway to lots of money like it is now, I think, to a lot of people. I had toyed with the idea of trying to get a scholarship to a university in America, but I decided that I didn’t really want to because I didn’t want to make it my career. I loved match play golf, but all the money – if you make it a career – is made from stroke play golf, which is completely different: instead of being one-on-one, it's you playing against everyone.
So I could see that it wasn’t going to be a future other than something I liked, so I just decided to go to university in Wellington instead. I had moved out of home by that stage, even though I could have stayed at home. I kind of looked at my parents and felt a bit sorry for them, after having gone through five children.
LR: Were you the youngest?
SM: Yeah. I thought, the quicker I leave, the better. They can have more disposable income and more of an opportunity to get out and about and remember that they once were a couple. So I did that, and then sort of traipsed through all sorts of different careers. I did a commerce degree in commerce administration, and then after a couple of different jobs through my early 20s, I stumbled into a career in the health sector, which I ended up doing for quite a number of years and became the only independent specialist in the country. I was working in metadata, a form of health data standard that was used worldwide for health systems communicating with each other. I just felt I was skilled at it and I learnt it really quickly, and then kind of discovered no one else was.
So I continued doing that for around ten years, actually, and loved the job. I worked with clinicians all the time – everyone from midwives through to oncologists and everything in between, across the whole health sector. It was really great and really interesting working with fun people – all had a great sense of humour.
LR: And you would feel that you were making a difference too.
SM: Yeah, and working with really interesting data. I mostly specialised in data around people as well, which is a really interesting space to work in – especially in health, where people obviously don’t want their personal information kind of bandied around, and there are loads of privacy concerns. So I was the go-between between people who knew about data, knew about people, and knew what the requirements were from the government side of things; and with the clinicians who knew what they needed in regards to medical care and injuries.
I did that for ten years – loads and loads of fun. A very creative job, but no one was ever interested in the creative side of it. You mention metadata at a dinner party and that sort of immediately swings the conversation to anything else. I loved it and had an enjoyable, creative time working with excellent people. It's so different now; everyone wants to know everything about what you’re doing: how your business is set up, why you do certain things, what your beers taste like, do you like lager or ale, or what the difference between them is, and those kind of things.
LR: It's an easy conversation starter?
SM: Yeah, definitely.
LR: What was it that changed your career? Had you met your partner while you were still working in health metadata?
SM: I had. We had been friends since we were about 18, and we had always talked about opening a brewery together, or a pub, as I think a lot of people do when they’re in their 20s, when you spend a lot of time in pubs with your friends at university. We went separate ways. He went to Auckland, and then to London for many years, and the only time we ever communicated was around beer. I became a home brewer and became really interested in the idea of leaving the office life for something a little more openly creative. I toyed with being a chef because I really love food, but I love being involved in the party as well, and if you’re a chef, you’re always behind the scenes working hard while everyone else is having fun.
I thought about what things I could do in food, or food-related, where I could be part of the party as well, and beer just kind of kept coming up. I was really interested in beer already, and I had done a little bit of home brewing. It was strong in my family because we’re from Scotland. At the time my parents left Scotland, Edinburgh was one of the great brewing cities in the world. Everything just started to fall together in that way, and I got into that more and more, continuing my day job.
Finally, through volunteering in the industry and getting to know a lot of people in bars and breweries – and behind the scenes at the New Zealand Beer Awards and things like that – it got to the point where I decided that I really wanted to do it. It was almost like I did a free apprenticeship, learning where I felt like my place was going to be, and then I launched the business.
LR: How long were you working on the business in theory before it was a full-time job, or before starting to build it up?
SM: Well, it was officially six years between starting the business and going full-time, but it was longer than that because I was working in the industry in a volunteer capacity for three or four years before that.
LR: Did your partner go full-time before you did?
SM: No, he just started late last year, actually. He never worked full-time while we were solely focused on New Zealand, but once we came over here, he was finding he was getting dragged in way more than he wanted to, and I kept wanting him to come and work in the business. He’s the perfect day-to-day business partner, as well as at board level as well.
LR: What does he do? What’s his background? And, actually, his name?
SM: Sam Possenniskie his name is, from Eastbourne originally – so another Wellingtonian. He lived there until his mid-20s and then moved away, and has lived in Auckland, London, then back in Auckland, then a year in a little village in France when he was having a year off. From there he came back to London to work with us full-time. He does the logistics, financials and everything that side of the business; then I do the more creative side around the brewing, the marketing – all the speak.
LR: How did you conceive of the brands you would create? And how has that played out in reality, in terms of making a company that was interesting or different from what was available on the market at the time? Yeastie Boys was definitely one of the very early craft beer companies.
SM: I became a really prominent home brewer in the New Zealand scene – there was quite a strong home brewing scene at that stage, unknown to the rest of the country, and quite a number of the people who were prominent at that time have gone on to start some of the most well-known companies: Liberty Brewing Co, Panhead, 8 Wired, who I think of as all being in the top ten breweries in the country. They’re all from people who were in that same group as I was at that stage. Because I was the one who would put up my hand to volunteer for running beer orders and things like that, I was involved in the start of this consumer organisation called SOBA (Society Of Beer Advocates), a nice sort of jokey, ironic name.
We ran the first New Zealand Homebrew Beer Awards. I had a cellar at my house and I received all the beer that came in, documented it all and everything, and then ran the judging for it. At the award ceremony a lot of home brewers put on their beers to be served. The one that I put on was the beer that ended up becoming our first commercial beer: Pot Kettle Black. It was really, really well received. It was loved by so many people, but everyone else had names for their homebrew and I didn’t. I felt a bit despondent after that, that everyone loved my beer so much but it didn’t have a cool name.
So the next time I home brewed, I started thinking, ‘What can I name my brewery?’ I was listening to Beastie Boys that day, I think, and ‘Yeastie Boys’ just came out of the middle of nowhere and that was it. It became the name of my home brewing business and then, about a year later, we started the commercial business. Since then, all our beer names have had a musical theme. A lot of the stuff that we do kind of revolves around that.
LR: It captures that kind of whimsical ‘90s bro’iness.
SM: Or irreverence, I think we call it. We probably associate ourselves more with modern, older Beastie Boys, when they were less bro’ey. They were occasionally douchebags when they were kids, as most people are in their 20s, but they grew up and were quite fine individuals, I think, all of them.
LR: What made you decide to come and live in the United Kingdom permanently?
SM: In late 2013 we got invited to come over to brew for this beer festival in early 2014. The moment I got that email and they said they were going to pay us to come over and be involved in this festival as an international brewer, basically the penny dropped immediately. I thought, if we’re going to come over here and brew a beer here for that festival, we may as well look at brewing our beer here long term as well. We’d been asked for quite a number of years to send beer to the UK, and whenever we had done the figures on it, it just looked too expensive. By the time you ship it here and land it, and it gets onto shelves, it becomes a price point that people can buy once because they’re interested in trying it, but they’re not really going to buy it sustainably. Fun for me to send beer to the other side of the world – so I can say I’m selling it in my parents’ home city that they grew up in, lived in, and started their family in – but there wasn’t really going to be a sustainable kind of business in it.
So, we came over to brew for that festival and Sam came with me. We actually travelled around and visited some breweries, and had a look at what opportunity was here to brew the beer. During that trip we found a brewery that we were happy to brew with, and the ball just started rolling immediately. Essentially, we got back to New Zealand and I decided that I was going to quit the day job to focus on it, so we could build the business plan to raise the money to then recreate the business model over here.
At that time, we realised that we had gone into the New Zealand beer scene being so creative at a time when it wasn’t that creative. Like, we did only seasonal beers – we never brewed the same beer twice in a row. That was really unusual to people then, so we kind of limited our market in some ways. We created a reputation for ourselves for only seasonal beers, which meant it was really hard to crack into the mainstream market when we finally decided that we wanted to. So the UK was almost an opportunity for us to start again from scratch, and have a little bit of a reputation here among a very, very small group of people, but to come over here and sort of say, ‘These are the three beers that we’re going to hang our hat on, and we’re going to build the business on the back of that.’
LR: How has the journey been for you on a personal level and on a business level? Do you still brew in New Zealand at all?
SM: Yeah, we still brew there. Since then we’ve actually started brewing in Australia as well, so it's been quite a journey. We looked at brewing in America earlier this year, but decided it was just a bit too much at the moment with how much else we’ve got going on, which I think has been a good decision. We’ve grown a huge amount. I’ve packed up my family and moved three boys to the other side of the world with my wife, who doesn’t have a British background at all, although she had lived here in the past. So that’s been really interesting. Personally and professionally, it's been quite a journey. The growth here has been pretty phenomenal and the opportunity for growth here is phenomenal as well. Even now, we’ve still hardly tapped the market. We’ve not even looked at Europe because we can’t brew enough beer at this stage, so that’s our main focus.
We’ve also grown our team. I arrived here on my own with my wife, who did a bit of work for us, and does a bit more now (she does our design work), and now we have five UK staff. We also have four people with a New Zealand beer collective company, and they spend the majority of their time working on getting our beer into market as well. So, the team has grown considerably – got lots of people with English accents now in the team, which is quite nice. We’ve got an Australian accent as well, which is interesting; but it's great. It's a really vibrant beer scene here. It's kind of behind where everything was in New Zealand when I left, but catching up really fast and will probably overtake, based on the population and the amount of money here for investment.
I mean, we’ve set ourselves a benchmark of when our UK sales are 15 times higher than they are in New Zealand: that’s when we’ve achieved our first goal. According to population, that’s how much we know we should be selling. I think we’ve done it in the right way here. We’ve got into supermarkets early, establishing a reputation for being kind of the coolest beer on the supermarket shelf, rather than trying to be the coolest beer in the craft beer pub, because that’s a very, very tough battle – getting a lot tougher in New Zealand, I’ve noticed, since I have left.
LR: Too crowded now.
SM: Yeah, there’s been a lot of talk about how difficult it is. I see a lot of stress on a lot of people in that space.
LR: Finally, why Wellington? Is it home for you still? Is the UK now home?
SM: I think the UK is home now, and it always was, in some respects. I would look at maps of Edinburgh as a kid, to the point where the first time I went there I could walk around without a map – way before mobile maps on your phone or anything like that. My ex-girlfriend, who I was with at the time, was like, ‘How on earth do you know your way around here?’ and I’m like, ‘The map is like ingrained in my memory.’ I’ve always felt at home here. I love pubs here. I love the way of life here. I love the countryside. I love New Zealand as well. I’m kind of lucky that I’ve got two homes. I’ve got two siblings there, and two siblings here as well, so I’m kind of nicely split.
I get to travel back a lot for work because we still run the New Zealand business, so I have the best of both worlds in many respects. I’ve got the bonus of being a Kiwi here, and I think a lot of doors open for us that don’t open for English people. I think we probably just push doors open, as well, because we’re not too worried about class structure or anything like that. It doesn’t really exist in New Zealand, so we don’t worry about it too much. But, Wellington – I mean, I was lucky that my parents took me there. I think it's one of the great cities in the world. I love the fact that the weather is shit. It makes people creative because you’ve got to do something to get through your days; you can’t just go and spend every day at the beach. I find that my favourite cities around the world are always a little bit like that. I think the ones that are truly creative tend to have a lot of bad weather, so people have to do things indoors, or they have to be creative with what they do outdoors.
LR: Your father is from Scotland, is that right?
SM: My mother and father, and my two older siblings as well, were born there. They moved out to New Zealand with two kids and then had three more once they got there.
LR: That’s awesome. Is there anything else you would like to add (or any shout-outs to any recently brewed beers that you think people should know about or try)?
SM: No, not really – just a big shout-out to all my friends, family, and colleagues back in Wellington. I miss them. I’ve gone twice a year, every year since I arrived here, except for this year. This year I’m going back in a couple of weeks and it will be my first time this year. For the first time, I’ve found that I’m really missing the place because, when you’re going every six months, you tend to just get back here and be so busy that you don’t get a chance to miss everything. So I’m really looking forward to popping into the Garage Project taproom finally, and maybe (if I get a chance) I’ll whip up to Upper Hutt to see all the new breweries there as well around Panhead, just to see all the old bars as well that I used to drink in – Little Beer Quarter, Golding’s, and The Hop Garden. I’m a shareholder of ParrotDog as well, so I will try to pop out there.
LR: I love that. I got like this big friend-crush on Matt Stevens when I met him.
SM: Yeah, I had a friend-crush on all three of the Matts.
LR: I haven’t met the other two, really. I met them briefly, but I just really liked them. I was like, that’s so cool.
SM: They’re great. I feel really privileged that they kind of paint me as an important person in their picture because they got advice from me when they were first starting out; but I wish I had started it when I was their age. Going in that young was so brilliant. It's a lot harder once you start having kids to start your business; but it didn’t stop us moving to the other side of the world, I guess.
LR: Gives hope to the rest of us.