To Dis-Establish a Brewery – and what to do next

So I sold my brewery equipment, my brew bro and I found a new tenant for our location and I have taken my business into contract brewing.

*GASP* I gather it’s time for a blog. What the frack happened?

My decision is unusual. Brew Pub is the new black. Growing bigger, buying more tanks is a move people understand, mos def. Contract brewers finding money somewhere and going established – sounds’bout right. But why go the other way? It’s understandable that some people wonder whether I have given up. You may guess that I will tell you it isn’t so. My brewery is not leaving, it is changing. And I’m ruddy glad about it.

First… Let me tell you about about my boat brewery.

1 + 1 = Brewery

My established brewery was a shared venture. I met Llew in 2014 via a real estate agent who was sick of looking for unrealistically small brewery spaces separately for two idiots. And whadoyaknow, it worked! We each brought half the assets, that way we were able to afford more kit. We found a space and away we were… (well, within a year)

Interlude 1: Here’s a best-of our building days. Aahhh

3 years on, we each learned a metric shit-ton about ourselves. Llew learned that he loves to brew, but does not love running a business. While I enjoy being an entrepreneur, but I could be just as happy to experiment with brews at home if it came to it.

Early this year we decided that it was time to go our separate ways. Llew has new plans and dreams to attend to. Knowing him so well now, this did not come as a surprise.

Yours truly had a lot of options to consider: Buy Llew out and double my capacity? Find a bunch of investors and go with a fashionable Brew Pub? Pack it in and just move on? I drew charts of options, I shifted numbers in excel sheets. But most of all, I needed to figure out… what the frack do I want? What do I want for my brewery, and for myself?

My brewery made me happy. But am I sick of pulling 70 hours weeks and still feeling guilty that I didn’t whip more? The feeling that there’s always much more to do, more to achieve – if only you’d only put your damn mind to it. You can sure say that. It wears on you. I think a lot of small business owners can relate.

Is that the only reason I decided to sell the equipment? HELL to the NO! There was more.

Don’t mention ‘Ze Brewpubs’

Yes, a brewpub was the options that I kicked around first, quite a while ago now.

With more competition for the free taps and more ‘pay for play’, it’s not surprising that brewpubs seem to be a safe bet for any rising beer stars. A good handful of projects are in the making in a radius of less than 1km of central Wellington, and more will be peppered through-out the Burbs. I’m honestly about to lose count.

That’s totally dandy though. In fact, I have high hopes that these pubs are mashing in a new chapter in Wellington’s beer scene: where you don’t have to subscribe to any fundamentalist ‘craft or not-craft’ religion – you just go to a nice place because you like it, it’s a sweet location, and the beer, food and service are on point. If that’s how it’ll be, everybody wins!

So why did I not go down that path? There’s 2 reasons.

First, a brewpub is a beast of a project! That’s why it was not a thing when we started back in 2014, it seemed like so much trouble. In addition to commissioning your brewery you got yourself bar and kitchen fit-out, a different universe of licenses, location and leases, public objections, insurances, and staff, staff, staff… As a brewer you may not have to worry about it all by yourself, but it will always be part of your package. Or more like – you become part of the package.

Plus, life in a brewpub is VERY different from life in a production site. And I know myself well enough that this is not the kind of brewing that would make me happy.

And my second reason: To take Tiamana into a brewpub (or any other bigger space for that matter) it would always mean: needs mo money. And unless you have that green yourself (I don’t), then that money is either behind Door 1: Business Partners, Door 2: Investors, or Door 3: the Banks.

We rarely talk about the role of investors and business partners in craft beer. But it’s become central to my decision. So let’s unpack it.

There is no ‘i’ in team… or in beer

I had a business partner before, so what’s the big deal? You meet with people, talk about what you want, make sure you’re all on the same page and if it feels right you start planning together, take it from there.

Llew and I had each had invested equal $ in our arrangement, we were on an absolute 50:50 shared basis. We talked about our decisions and gave each other advice, but in our own businesses we had complete freedom. Only with hindsight do I see how incredibly important that was to my enjoyment of being a brewery owner.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to find trusty partners to start a business with. People clearly do. But there’s no telling how well you and your partners will jell under pressure. At the outset it’s not hard to rally around a shared dream when you’re all passionately tunnel-visioning down the same road. And it’s understandable that people want to assume the best of one another, they should.

A head brewer once told me: There’s no such thing as a silent investor. When someone brings in money, it creates a difference in power basis. In the end, they have a lot more to lose when the going gets tough. And that can stuff people up.

So if I see it working well in a brewery, I assume there’s a lot of people doing an excellent job at keeping their collective shit together. There’s prominent examples of business relationships going sour, for example Kjetil Jikiun from Nøgne Ø, here in his own words why he left the brewery he founded.

I should add, it’s not all bad. In my example, there have been many moments when I felt deflated and Llew was able to carry us on – and vice versa. I have strengths that he doesn’t have, and the same in reverse.  There can be a wonderful give and take between business partners and I count myself lucky that our friendship and care for each other sustained us through all of our rumbles. So there’s that.

Knowing what I know now, my decision became quite easy in the end: I would never be as independent and free as I had been at King Street if I took on investors or partners and threw myself into a bigger project. I value my my flexibility and my power to decide my own fate over all else – at least for now. That’s why growing bigger, establishing Tiamana in another context was out of the running.

If in future the stars align, people, places and things come together (and believe me, I’ll keep an eye out) – all is possible. But this is where I land for now.

Interlude 2: The madness of packing up a brewery: 

So what WAS the blimmin’ solution for your truly?

From there, things went quite rapidly. I knew now that I was looking for a way to focus on the things I like about owning a brewery while preserving my liberty.

Contract brewing doubtlessly has its own pitfalls, but the risk for an existing brand like mine is lower than any of the other options I saw. I know which of my beers sell well. Plus, there’s some amazing brewers around who do contracts. I talked to Kieran from North End Brewing early on – we’ve known each other for a long time, I trust him and his team. He knows European styles better than most. I did the numbers – and so contracting it was.  Scale up some batches, put out some cans, see what happens…

Rakes! North End Brewing got friggin rakes! Pilski has never seen that before… 

North End's first batch of Pilski

And that is not all. I’m also doing this:

20170702_151009

I swapped the brewery equipment for a mortgage on a 1.4 hectare property way out in the Wairarapa. I’ll have a whole new world to explore. I want to meet the yeast that lives on the land, build a lab, see what beers might ferment nicely there. Perhaps open fermentation? Perhaps something completely different?

Who knows – and that’s the joy of it! I don’t have to find all the answers until the next business quarter begins. I can re-discovering my excitement for beer, for experimentation and for learning something new. It’s the BEST.

20170702_151037

I know it’s odd – from established to contract brewer. It’s usually the other way around. But knowing what I know now, it makes SO much more sense to me!

I want Tiamana to thrive and grow. No idea whether it will this way. But none of us do, if we’re honest. We’re getting by on the faith of the single yeast cell. 

So, am I sad?

  1. I’m incredibly fucking sad that this phase of my life is over, this time of owning an established brewery and spending most of my waking hours there.
  2. I’m royally fucking THRILLED to get some of my non-beer hobbies back, to sleep easier, and to know that a new brewing phase awaits me.

And that’s that. The beer scene has a way of connecting people like few other industries do. That’s another one in the bank, my dear friends. Some of them I’ll watch build their inner-city pub empires now, what a thrill! And with some I’ll just be able to hang and laugh, not discuss business matters anymore. What a blessing!

After all this reflection, I know how lucky my alliance with Llew was. What a brew bro. Prost to you most of all, my dear friend! Look at us idiots, before and after:

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