meet the maker

Selling Tea to the English

Michael Donaldson talks to Yeastie Boys brewer Stu McKinlay about taking Earl Grey beer to its spiritual home

There are many scientific reasons why a beer made with the addition of Earl Grey tea might work well.

Earl Grey is infused with oil derived from the rind of the bergamot orange. This same oil is one of the most common ingredients in perfume, and bergamot is highly prized because of the way it blends so well with other fragrances. One of the traditional ingredients in beer – hops – contains essential oils, some of which are used in the perfume industry and some of which deliver the same citrus notes as Earl Grey tea. As ingredients go, Earl Grey tea and hops are not a million miles apart.

That’s the science of it, in a nutshell. But it doesn’t account for the x-factor; the special touch required to actually make a beer containing Earl Grey tea and creating a finished product that’s not only drinkable, but, as in the case of Yeastie Boys’ Gunnamatta, something truly unique and wonderful. That genius comes from the brewer.

Gunnamatta, which means sandy hills in Aboriginal and is the name of a song by Australian artist Paul Kelly, is definitely a New Zealand beer, despite the Aussie name, and the fact it was first brewed for the 2012 Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular in 2012 where it walked away with top honours. Since then it become something of an adopted favourite among Aussie craft beer drinkers and in the 18 months since it has become Yeastie Boys’ biggest selling beer – overtaking its flagship Pot Kettle Black. And now Gunnamatta is about to go global.

Yeastie Boys has been invited to exhibit the brew at the annual JD Wetherspoons real ale festival in England, where for two weeks in April Gunnamatta will be poured in 850 pubs across England – exposing a nation of tea drinkers and beer lovers to what might just be their ultimate brew.

For two weeks in April Gunnamatta will be poured in 850 pubs across England – exposing a nation of tea drinkers and beer lovers to what might just be their ultimate brew.

By New Zealand standards, Yeastie Boys is still a small brewery; by world standards, it’s tiny. So when Stu McKinlay and business partner Sam Possenniskie head to England to brew the beer at the famed Adnams Brewery in Suffolk, they’ll be making more Gunnamatta in a single day than they normally make in a year.

The equation is slightly daunting for McKinlay, especially working out just how much tea they need and how that tea will behave when used in such huge volumes.

“It’s a scale of brewing beyond anything we’d dream of and, with more than a million people visiting those pubs during that fortnight, it is undoubtedly the widest exposure we’ve ever received on that side of the world.”

Gunnamatta is an unusual beer. McKinlay still has people asking, with raised eyebrows: “What? Tea in beer?” But it’s typical of the Yeastie Boys’ philosophy of “going against the flow” and doing their own thing. Even so, is McKinlay surprised such an unusual beer has become a best seller?

“Because I love it so much it doesn’t surprise me but you never know what’s going to appeal to the public.”

It’s a good point. But the combination of Earl Grey beer served to English, a nation of tea and beer drinkers, may just be the perfect storm. 

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