A little while ago I did something that I had been avoiding for months. I wrote a message to my customers offering up my remaining beer stock for a highly reduced price. I gave my reason for this move as such:
I will not continue brewing Tiamana beers in contract, as I’ve done over the last year. There’s many reasons for it, but in short: My life is different from what it was a year ago. I still love to brew, in fact I’m more interested than ever in all things fermentation: cider, schnaps, wine. But running a contract brewery is not the right thing for me anymore.
And there it is. I’ve finally come to accept that my commercial brewery has become a chapter I want to close. In fact, I need to be free from it. It’s taken me a while to get there.
The best of both worlds?
Since my last post ‘How to dis-establish a brewery’, I turned my attention to the countryside and learned my first lifestyle block lessons. Getting to know the Wairarapa has been truly joyful! Something is different and new every time we’re there, and the fruiting season has brought enticing opportunities to ferment sweet things.
What I did not foresee at the time I wrote my last post: Keeping Tiamana as a contract brewery, commissioning 2,000l batches at a time to sell in my existing networks would prove to be… a challenge.
Not spending long hours in the brewery anymore, not going out to drink with other brewers and bar managers afterwards, changes things. Not being at every beer event behind my stand, changes things. Doing a normal 40 hour job with its own challenges, and feeling busy and content with that, changes things.
I might have been naive to think that I could exit the production brewing context in which I generated my sales, but still keep up the network that came with its exploits.
The pride, the guilt and the shame
Being a brewer and an entrepreneur has become a part of my identity. It has made me proud of myself. I enjoy the attention it gets me. I love telling people that I own a brewery and I’ve gotten used to the admiring looks that follow. It has made me feel special and interesting. I even reveled in the opportunities to complain about how ‘difficult’ the industry is, and how no-one understands what it’s really like. Look at me, poor brewer, suffering for my art! *World’s smallest violin, and all that.*
Without the brewery, what am I?
From there the guilt and shame began: If I give up the brewery, will my peers see me as a failure? Will people think I wasn’t strong enough, or good enough of a brewer? Or that I ran my business badly and now have to bail in desperation?
For months I’ve been afraid of losing face, afraid of what people will say or think.
I would not have been able to put a finger on it though, for a long while. I knew that things were rumbling inside, but I resolved back to my pride to make it all go away. I kept telling myself: “I can still do it, I can surprise them and myself! Sure thing, I can have a high-intensity leadership job in an office AND run a successful contract brewery, plus make schnaps, wine and cider on the side – just watch me!”
I just need to put my mind to selling, that’s all…
I allowed this roller coaster to ride me for the better part of this year. I procrastinated and found ever new reasons why I’m “just too busy at the moment” to really buckle up and get back behind the sales and more batches. Because that fact is still true – it’s all about sales.
I kept my mind busy and avoided any thought of Tiamana, until I was ready to realise that I’m the only one who can release me. No one will throw the towel in the ring and tell me that it’s over.
The stories we want to hear
It truly feels like I’m not living up to the dream we’re selling. We love the underdog. The small brewery out of the shed or garage that starts as a silly dream. That makes amazing beer and with lots of honest work keeps inevitably growing. Or even if we start large, with impressive premises and a massive brew length – we still challenge Lion and DB, the big guns – don’t we, we hero brewers? Compared to them, we’re all underdogs.
But for the underdog motif to work we need us a happy ending, no?
“The story of us, is a couple of guys who start out at the bottom, and with a lot of hard work continue along the bottom, and finally end up at the bottom.” Jemaine
With so many breweries starting, only few will still be here in 5 years. No one wants to count themselves as the ones who ‘did not make it’. Me included. I don’t want to. With all the good rational reasons in the world… Absolutely not.
Yet, I might be. Now.
You can take the brewer out of the business…
I had a moment recently where I caught up with a dear brewer friend of mine. I opened up about the fears that I’ve had around not running my brewery at full steam anymore… A few minutes later I heard myself finish an extended monologue about the amazing scent and complexity of the yeast in the mash for my feijoa schnaps. I looked up and saw my friend giving me a look, and I realised: I just had a 5 minute rant about yeast… I might still be a brewer, after all! I might not be out there trying to sell and grow my brand day in and day out. But something remains, and that may not be too shabby.
That moment was an immeasurable relief. Because, what makes me a craft brewer, and what gets me kicked out of the club house?
Perhaps most importantly, when I allowed myself to close this chapter with conviction, I started telling people the truth about my brewery, and not what they bloody want to hear. “So how’s the brewery going?” is still a pretty common questions I get. For too long I’ve made excuses at this point, or just said “good, good” – cringing on the inside at the thought of my long overdue to-do-list. Now I tell people:
Oh yes, I closed that right down. I’m spending time with other things now. I still love brewing and I make schnaps and cider. But it was time to move on.
And in many ways, this forms a very satisfying cycle back to my first post.
More people than I expected approached me to say nice things about my reflections on starting a brewery. It seems to me most people read it as a warning of the industry overall (which is not completely wrong). However, I meant it to be a praise of the pleasures of brewing at any size – and the massive value of keeping goddamn money out of the equation!
I’m more convinced than ever that that is true.
I don’t blame people for trying the small brewery dream. Even though it appears to me that more often than not, this story doesn’t end so well. And in a few cases, the story ends quite bad indeed.
But I still tried, didn’t I?
Writing down my story has been a great release in itself, having to put honest words around what I’ve been trying to manage with a stiff-upper-lip.
I hope a few people read this and find liberty in it also. Not in necessarily having to close or change things, but in knowing that when you invest your care in good people, things will be OK one way or another. It’s just important not to allow the fear of how you’re being seen get the best of you.