Why I left a great business to start a brewery


Flying back to Australia after helping my son acclimatise to Singapore after an unfortunate introduction of breaking his jaw, and I finally have time to reflect on how I got to this point.

Wow. Where did 52 years just go?


It's 2018 as I write this, but in January last year while touring South Africa and admiring the beauty of the wildlife of Phinda with Mel, Paul & Dave, being my closest 50 year old friends and celebrating “festival of the fifty”, we decided that it was time for something new in our lives.

Being seasoned business people, we have amongst us a property development couple, a seasoned accountant and partner in his firm, and myself & my wife, Leanne, both business strategist’s and digital marketers. Each of us has many decades of experience in our fields (and others).

While our trip had been planned for a number of years, the outcome … not so much. Sure, we had casually spoken of “becoming brewers”. A hobby. Something for fun, for us to do in our latter years. For most of us our children had, left the nest so we had some time to focus on other things for a change.

Over drinks and meals and laughs and in awe at what we were sharing as we travelled on safari, we finally agreed that it was time to push the button and start down the path of seeing if we could do this thing.

So last year, a few of us made road trips to breweries and brewpubs around Australia. All up we travelled half the country, visiting around 40 venues, and tasting many beers of course!

Towards the end of the year, we finally managed to avoid the ‘headshot’ and started drawing up plans, designing our venue, brewhouse, kitchen and café; our story was announced at the Beer & Brewer website. It was on!

Of course, I was always hoping that we would pursue this. After all, as cofounder of a successful digital agency for 20 years, it really was time for a change for me. Leanne remains far more passionate about our industry, but I offer that my previous 10 years in developing information systems gave me a decade head start, so I allow myself to bow out earlier.

This being said, changes had to happen in my original business, Big Blue Digital. Thankfully this wasn’t so difficult as our agency is as agile as the digital industry we're in. We had undergone a complete rebrand in 2016 to refresh the company and reintroduce ourselves as a business providing more sophisticated solutions resulting from our maturity and growth in skills and service offerings in that time.

To that end than, I had to hand over the reins. I had to step down and let my team step up and run the show. It sounds simple when abridged into a single sentence but it is far, far, more complicated than that.

Thankfully, I had found a potential leader in a partner service provider and merged his business into ours, and focussed on mentoring him as best I could into someone to manage the business. The team had to become comfortable with this, gain confidence in their new leader, and in turn Paul, our partner had to gain their trust.

I could write a whole essay about that process, but that’s a story for another day maybe.

Suffice to say, while working at building out a plan to start a brewery, I was also working on extraditing myself from my business, and while I feel I've succeeded, the process hasn’t been without much sadness (mostly mine) as the transition “breakup” came to an end.

Same is true of the massive change that occurred in my life and that of Leanne. While Leanne has grown her personal brand to become an industry leader, she brought that immense knowledge back into our company as well.

This extreme value in Leanne, and her being supported by a team both internal and working remotely, provides me with the confidence to move full steam ahead with our brewery.

Have I answered why I left a great business to start a brewery yet? No? Ok, let me explain.

Leanne and I made the decision to take our three children travelling around Australia. We thought they could travel the world themselves but we would do our best to show them Australia. Each year we would take them on a road trip to each state, all around New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia. As they grew older, and to celebrate the completion of their HSC, we’ve been on world trips, (albeit these are throughout Asia) and this year we’re off to Western Australia.

However in 2011, we did a self-drive mobile home tour of Tasmania and as part of the trip we took a tour of the Cascades Brewery in Hobart. Lucky for me this was about the time that I had started appreciating beer. I think the reality is if you're Australian inevitably you end up at a BBQ or event with a beer being the only drinking option.

I’m actually a late bloomer when it comes to appreciating beer and I hated the stuff until I had “my experience”…

After the tour of the factory, we ended up in the famous gardens of the brewery, and the tasting room. Of importance was a single tap, where the beer from it, named the “Green Harvest” was only available once a year at the start of the hop season.

Drinking, what I can only describe at the time as being a crisp flavoured perfume, was a mind blowing experience to say the least. I think I said Leanne could show the kids around Hobart while I just stayed at the brewery.

Sadly, it was not to be, but those one (two?) beers were enough for me to want more of this. I began to seek out obscure labels and brands that weren’t at the local pub. “Craft beer” definitely was not a thing; it was hard to find and I recall my first real “craft” experience was working through the tasting paddle at 4 Pines at their original tiny brewpub in Manly with my friends, two of whom are now on this journey with me.

Drilling down then, and beyond the beer itself, the single biggest reason I fell for craft beer is the industry. The community. The immediate friendship that breaks through class, religious beliefs or political barriers. That single love of a product that brings people together wherever they are, whoever they are with, and, while the alcohol helps “free the mind”, even under sobriety, beer drinkers have that common ground of respect of flavour, admiration for the product, it's presentation and consumption by their fellow drinkers.

Insurance, Finance, Information Technology and Digital Marketing are all industries I’ve been entrenched in for decades at a time. But brewing? On all of our research road trips to breweries and brewpubs, the drop-in’s or emails, phone calls or just bumping into their owners at each juncture we’ve been met with open arms and full transparency discussing their business – the good, the bad and the ugly – and always with an offer of help.

So, now that I'm over the hump, past the midlife crisis and moving into the childless era of our lives, myself, my dear friends,  and our partners, are cutting a course for a new adventure. We’re learning tonnes and are incredibly excited about our Devil’s Elbow Brewery and welcome you along for the ride!

Leanne O'Sullivan