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Elephant in the brewhouse

The hours are long and lonely, your creations are constantly criticised and alcohol is everywhere – is it any wonder many brewers are struggling?

Content warning: suicidal thoughts

From the outside, the beer industry seems like a brilliant lifestyle choice. What could be better than making beer all day, drinking free beer at night, selling beer to happy patrons, talking about beer, and going to beer events? And at the end you can sell your brewery to a global corporation and become an overnight millionaire. Fab, huh?

With brewers increasingly given “rock star” status and elevated to god-like positions thanks to the nature of their creations, brewing can look like an A-list occupation. The truth is – forgive the pun – sobering. The job involves long, often lonely, hours. Many are spent cleaning tanks or washing kegs. Then you make a beer – nay, you create a beer, pouring your heart and soul and more hops than you can rightly afford and … you can’t sell it because supermarket shelves are full and taps are crowded with your competitors’ equally delightful drops. Then, when you do sell it, some clown on Untappd tells the world your new kettle-soured fruit-infused beer tastes like donkey piss and that he hates sours and wishes it was an IPA.

Next, you have to pay the bills. And people won’t pay your bills. But you need that money to buy more ingredients to make more donkey piss for an unappreciative audience. So, you sit in your empty brewery late on a Monday night and have a couple of pints of your own product just to decompress before you try to sleep amid a jumble of negative thoughts and money worries.

Sure, you don’t need to be a brewer – or work in a bar – to suffer from stress, anxiety and depression. But the elephant in the brewhouse is the brewhouse itself. In many ways brewing is like farming – it can be an isolating, lonely experience; it’s just that in New Zealand’s agricultural sector, the mental health statistics are well documented.

According to Statistics New Zealand, suicide rates are higher in rural areas, with 16 per 100,000 people compared with 11.2 for every 100,000 people living in cities. As a result, support services such as Farmstrong are readily available for the rural sector.

Brewing can be an isolating, lonely experience (Photo: Getty Images)

The brewing industry is only just starting to have the conversations that have been going on in the rural heartland for years. But even then, those conversations come with a risk. In the United States, Shaun Hill of the famed Hill Farmstead Brewery looked like he’d become a champion for mental health issues in the industry there. In an interview earlier this year, Hill talked about his own mental health issues and how he misused alcohol.

“I was doing 12-14 hour days and … there was very little decompression. I would typically drink too much in order to artificially decompress and then I wouldn’t sleep well. Then when I woke up, I would drink as much caffeine as I could which would then accelerate an overall sense of anxiety. It was a vicious circle.”

Hill later backed away from the article, saying the conversation about mental health had been a small part of a wider interview and he hadn’t meant to make headlines – in particular, his assertion the beer industry had a huge problem with alcohol misuse associated with mental health. Many had sympathy for Hill for becoming an unwitting spokesperson but others were equally upset he’d backtracked from something that needed to be said.

In that light, everyone who’s talked to The Pursuit of Hoppiness for this story knew what the subject was and agreed to open up in the hope others would follow suit and talk about any problems they were having.

Mike Neilson of Panhead Custom Ales has seen first-hand the devastation mental illness can wreak in the small, tight-knit beer community. He’s had friends and staff members suffer from mental health issues and he’s personally experienced the stress and anxiety associated with trying to make it in the beer business.

“You have a hard day at work or you don’t know where the next dollar is coming from – and you self-medicate to get in to what you believe is a better mental state, [which] makes for a very depressing morning. It’s a vicious cycle,” Neilson says.

“I know there are a lot of people in our industry who have taken their own lives.

“And alcohol certainly doesn’t make it easier. Within our industry there’s a risk of it exploding due to the nature of how alcohol and mental health work. Every individual is different, but in an industry where there’s easy access to alcohol, when it’s not used wisely it can exacerbate issues. We know it is a problem – how do we collectively talk about it?”

Mike Neilson of Panhead (Photo: Supplied)

Neilson believes the wider alcohol industry should be backing a mental health campaign – “it’s our responsibility to address it because we do make a drug” – although he acknowledged the great work being done at Lion (more on that later).

“I don’t have the answers but maybe stories like this can alert people to it and let them know they don’t have to be alone. If you’re struggling, let people know. I know there’s people in our industry who struggle with it on a daily basis.”

Neilson said he and his wife Anna, along with their wider families, were all living on the edge as Panhead went from zero to 100mph in a short time before it was sold to Lion. Homes were at stake if the investment hadn’t paid off.

“There was an unhealthy amount of stress and we were lucky we came through the other side of it – and our family was part of that journey too. The good thing was that we were all close enough to be able pipe up about it. Our board meetings were us sitting around on a Sunday cooking, eating and drinking and laying it all on the line – that took away a lot of stress and set us up for the next week.

“As we grew, we had a whole bunch of staff and wondering how we were supposed to pay them was the next biggest burden. Then you have to keep them safe because they’re under stress as well. We have had one staff member who couldn’t return to work because of mental health issues.”

That said, Neilson has a surprising revelation – his hardest time was after the brewery was sold in a multimillion-dollar deal. “The toughest thing for us mentally was the year after the acquisition – you’d think it would be a big, happy time, ‘yay, we don’t have this financial stress any more’, but there was stress around how people perceived you as selling out; reading stuff online and the mental beating you take for the decision you’ve made to sell this business you’ve grown.

“Beer is the only industry in the country where you sell a business and not everyone is celebrating for you. That was really tough. People don’t realise there are still faces behind the brand, that there are real people working there – Panhead is still run by 40 passionate people and for people to slag them off really hurts the team, the morale.”

While Neilson knows the upside of reviews on Untappd – who doesn’t love Supercharger? – he sees the “nasty side” of beer reviews too. “One person’s comments on a beer can ruin a brewer – I know some brewers who take it very personally, which is maybe not a good thing, but that reflects how seriously and passionately we take our beer, it’s everything to us.”

Anita Mitchell of McLeod’s Brewery with her dog Harley (Photo: Monica Mead)

Anita Mitchell of McLeod’s Brewery in Northland knows how hard depression can strike. She moved from Three Boys in Christchurch to Two Birds in Melbourne last year and when the pressure of work built, she found the lack of a support network was a critical missing piece.

“It really became a problem for me when last year after we moved to Melbourne – just completely changing country, starting a new job – it was a lot harder than I thought it would be and I was not coping with it,” Mitchell says.

“I was under huge pressure to get things done. Two Birds was the next level up from Three Boys – the expectation was that I could easily wash and fill 150 kegs in eight hours. The pressure and not having my network of really good industry friends created this perfect storm of depression and I went quite deep into it – and it got to the point where I wasn’t performing at work.

“I just wanted to get out but didn’t know how to get out. My partner Kelly couldn’t get full-time work so without my income we were stuffed. I felt trapped because I had to provide. I hated my job. When you’re in that position and you feel so stuck it’s easy to get into a downward spiral – the beer’s in the fridge and a couple of beers on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday becomes three and by the end of the week you’re adding a bottle of wine and some whisky.

“It got to the point on a couple of mornings where I couldn’t get out of bed – I just couldn’t face it any more. I would do the late shift there and I was thinking about what tanks to hang myself between. It was horrible – I felt so stuck. The beer community in Christchurch is really strong and to lose that circle of industry folk was huge for us and we never got that in Australia.”

Mitchell was determined to grind out a year so it would look better on her CV, but the law in Australia allows an employer to sack an under-performing worker who’s been there for less than a year.

“They had picked up on my poor performance and one Monday they called me in and said we’re going to pay you out. Empty your locker and go.

“It was huge sense of relief – they’d made the decision for me. Luckily, Kelly had picked up a contract to start a job the next day so money wasn’t an issue.”

Mitchell picked up another job quite quickly but when the chance came to move back to New Zealand and join McLeod’s, she practically leapt across the Tasman. “I was broken, I had lost my confidence but moving here and working at McLeod’s is the best move ever.”

Despite the employment law being ruthless, Mitchell says the one positive in Australia was the health system – but it took opening up to her employer to get pointed in the right direction.

“Before I left Two Birds, I was open with them about my challenges and they had suggested I talk to someone about it. The health system has a mental health plan there that you can go on for a discounted rate. That gave me access to psychologist – and just talking to someone who knew how to deal with it and give me professional advice really helped.”

The other thing Mitchell did was look at her alcohol, coffee and social media consumption.

“Alcohol was one of the things that I recognised as a destructive element but it was coffee as well – when you’re physically and emotionally drained and doing a job you don’t want, you think ‘I’ll just have a couple of coffees, it’ll see me right’, but it actually accelerates anxiety and those bad feelings – and your mind’s going 100 million miles an hour about the things you’re doing wrong.

“I dug myself out by cutting out coffee, cutting off most of the alcohol and going off social media for a while. I also found this good app called Headspace and that had little exercises to do which really helped. People said try meditating – but when you’re depressed and anxious and constantly worried, you can’t just sit and switch off. That app helped coach me into how to do that. You get a lot of clarity when you stop and clear your mind.”

Matt Kamstra of Moon Under Water (Photo: Tim Newman)

The subject of alcohol and mental health is well-researched and documented but there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to what constitutes a safe level of drinking. We all know – or should know – that alcohol is a depressant. The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) has plenty of resources on alcohol consumption but their main point is that “long term alcohol misuse can cause big problems for our mental health. It’s linked to a range of issues from depression and memory loss to suicide”.

But the MHF also accepts that the effects change according to the individual. Matt Kamstra, owner of Christchurch bar Moon Under Water, has suffered chronic depression for over 20 years and yet – yes – he owns a bar and has worked in the hospitality industry for most of his adult life. He knows well the toll that bar work and late shifts can take on mental health but he also comes to beer – and bars – from the point of view that they offer plenty of positives as well. He’s not going to rail against advice that alcohol and depression don’t mix but he’s a big believer in talking, sharing, and just being with other people.

“The demonisation of alcohol for the sake of it isn’t useful – like anything, it’s all to do with how you use it. Too much can exacerbate depression and anxiety but how much is too much? It’s different for different people,” Kamstra says. “I have a beer every day – is that bad for me? Some people might say yes but there’s also a positive benefit to being out, sharing a pint with people and talking that overrides the potential downside. That’s one of the ways I deal with my mental health issues.”

In setting up Moon Under Water, Kamstra was heavily influenced by The Great Good Place, a 1989 book by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg who argued that “third places” – where people can gather, put aside the concerns of work and home, and hang out simply for the pleasures of good company and lively conversation – are the heart of a community’s social vitality and the grassroots of democracy.

“I see my role and the role of the pub as being a place for community, a place people can go if they’re feeling alone, where they can talk to other people. That idea of the traditional European pub may seem clichéd to some, but there’s plenty of people who just have to get out of the house for their own mental wellbeing. In that way, a pub can be just as important as a sports club or a garden centre. A pub can be a place of refuge for a lot of people.

“It’s about making sure pubs are not just about drinking – that’s been a guiding light for the way I’ve done things.”

He laughs as he realises he’s describing the bar in Cheers, but as corny as that might sound, it’s the model he’s working on.

“New Zealanders as a rule don’t talk enough – but I see people who come in here and they brighten up when see their favourite bartender or someone they know. That cheers me up on personal level.”

All that aside, Kamstra is well aware mental health issues are rife in the hospitality industry. There’s the late shifts and the disconnect from family and friends that come with the hours, the fact it can be emotionally and physically exhausting, and that when you finish work at 11 or 12 at night there’s not really many options for winding down – at least not the way 9-5 workers might.

“You can go home – like any 9-5 worker – and you might want a beer but then you have stigma of drinking by yourself late at night. You could go to another bar with a late licence, but it will be full of people looking for more drink at the end of a night which is not the right environment to have a quiet drink in the corner.

“Then there’s the stress of not having the easy access to friends and family that you would have if you worked a normal job – your support network is not as readily on hand.

“And it can be mentally draining working in hospo – it’s like you’re on stage the entire week and to cope with that some people spend their day off getting wasted.”

While there’s certainly a link between alcohol and depression, heading to a pub for a beer can be a chance to get out and have some much-needed social contact, says Matt Kamstra (Photo: Getty Images)

The beer industry is slowly changing its approach to mental health – and what’s happening at our biggest brewer, Lion, should offer some confidence.

Andy Graves, safety and wellbeing leader at Lion, says about two years ago, the company (including the Australia and dairy-drinks arms) noticed more and more people were away with mental and emotional issues and staff were asking questions around wellbeing.

“It seemed every week my team was dealing with someone who had a mental wellbeing issue. It became common practice to talk about this but we had no formal structure in place for it. Everyone was dealing with it in their own way.”

Graves said where the safety team traditionally focused on keeping people physically safe at work, they recognised personal wellbeing also had an emotional aspect, so created a programme called Best ME, as in, best mental and emotional wellbeing. Best ME is designed to give staff the best support and advice, as well as tools to identify people with issues and guidelines for keeping them safe.

This year Lion also went into partnership with Lifeline to launch a Zero Suicide Workplace Scheme. “We got a lot of stick for it because there are people who don’t believe a beer company should be partnered with Lifeline because we’re the biggest problem – which I think is nonsense. This isn’t about selling more beer, but keeping our people the best they can be.”

Lifeline executive director, Glenda Schnell, understood the reasons the partnership might not go down well with everyone, but said it offered a chance to improve and expand existing services. “We know there can be an association between mental health issues and addiction or misuse … This is an opportunity for us to work alongside them [Lion] and provide some key education and support.”

She said several other companies had expressed interest in piloting the programme, but Lion was chosen because of far how along it was on its “mental health journey”. As a result, Lifeline has run a number programmes at Lion, including resilience training.

Cynics might say resilience sessions are about trying to get people to do more work without getting stressed, but Graves said it offers tools to build resilience, including mindfulness. “Resilience isn’t about doing everything, but knowing when to put your hand up and say ‘I can’t do this I need help’.”

Lion is also using Lifeline to train their leaders on how to recognise people who may be feeling anxious or stressed before they reach crisis point.

But what about that key issue – the link between alcohol and mental health issues?

“We have a really good responsible drinking course – and that course has been delivered to so many external companies and so many external people. It’s something we are really pushing,” Graves said.

“It’s great to be able to sit down and have a beer with some mates and have a chat and have a laugh – it’s great for mental and emotional wellbeing – but equally there will always be people who aren’t able to do that.”

Again, Graves knows there will be critics about a giant alcohol company touting responsible drinking but insists: “We are doing this for the right reasons – I’m not saying it’s perfect but if it feels right, it’s probably the right thing to do, and this feels right.”

WHERE TO GET HELP

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Alcohol and Drug Helpline – 0800 787 797

Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202 (to talk to a trained counsellor about how you are feeling or to ask any questions)

This story was originally published in the December issue of Pursuit of HoppinessPursuit of Hoppiness is published by SOBA (Society of Beer Advocates), a consumer-based organisation with a mission to educate, advocate and promote quality and diversity in beer. It was republished by The Spinoff.

Published inNewswork