From our Blog

Toxicity bubbling in craft beer industry

Hi, my name is Pyry and I’m the co-founder of Sori. Today I need to speak up on one delicate matter, that is a big taboo here. But it won’t stop until we make it stop.

Let’s see for this picture and its comments here. A friend the poking other publicly on Facebook and being funny? Nope. Far from it. The opposite.

Edit: Comments from Põhjala‘s Enn Parel and Samu Heino added below the post.

Enn Parel, CEO of Põhjala Brewery commenting on Sori Brewing photo publicly
Click for full size picture for context

Waking up to this

Last night after midnight a fellow brewery owner and CEO, Enn Parel, from our neighbouring Põhjala Brewery took the time to write the following text publicly on our Facebook page. I was about to leave it be and shrug it off as a witty comment, but it took me a second to see that this was a comment intended to hurt me. I stopped to think about it for a minute, as this wasn’t the first time from him nor in this industry. Thought I would handle it privately, but it’s made clear to us that we are not friends for some reason I don’t understand. And Enn writing this publicly gives the best example of the toxic behavior happening right now in this industry, so let’s go through this in public.

It’s not the first time I’ve been bullied by colleagues like this. But it is the first time a CEO of a brewery, who I look up to and used to admire, has decided to do so in public. To give background, sadly we don’t know that well with Enn that we would joke to each other, nor I’ve seen him for a very long time. So to an outsider it might seem as just joking, but when putting this into context, it was meant as an insult. That was bullying.

To shed some light to our background

I like to think Põhjala guys were our friends back in the day. They helped us a lot in the beginning. They even were our first audience when we introduced Sori in Tallinn. They also took time to come talk with us openly before they hired one of our original co-founders (which we are genuinely very happy about as it worked out better for everyone, and he knows that). 

Then came the competition. Suddenly, a cold air swept and they wanted nothing more to do with us. We were not small anymore. We were actually doing pretty ok. Soon importers wanted to start selling Sori Brewing beers alongside others. One day we were told by a major importer that, and I quote: “we would like to sell your beer – but apparently we can’t, as we have agreed to a peculiar deal not to sell other beers from your country, and we regret we did such a strict deal. We did not think too much of it then, but we had no idea Estonian craft beer scene is going to be so awesome. No one makes such deals.” Indeed. A new rules and new way of doing craft beer had landed to industry, blocking other brewers instead of cooperating or just living side by side. Never heard anyone else doing this except big multinational companies. Such behavior would actually be illegal in some countries.

From a business background, I understand such a game. But it shouldn’t be like that in craft beer, nor between small Estonian companies fortunate enough to export. We should stick together and make it work for all of us, because we all know already, that there’s plenty of room. Both of our brewing teams have built strong personal relationships. They are proud to be in the industry, let’s justify that. We still have huge respect for the hard work these people have put into Põhjala and how they have pioneered in Estonian craft beer. To be honest, we want to be friends with them. The phenomenon of Estonian craft beer would not exist as it does today without their (and of course other hard working breweries) contribution. 

But this industry has changed a lot of us. It changed me. We should be coming together to fight back and change things for the better. Competition is fine, but hits below the belt have no place in good sportsmanship what we strive for is a culture of fair play, a culture where we can shake hands before and after the race. 

We swore to ourselves before we would not talk about these things publicly, but I personally feel a line of some sort was just crossed. Previously mentioned issues gives you background where we are coming from. Also a lot of things I need to leave out, but there have been tough days.  We have discussed these themes with related parties straight in the past, but we have been made clear that “it’s just business” and “there’s no discussion”. Maybe we are just a bit too idealistic.

Toxicity in craft beer industry

Now we need to talk about this toxic behavior that is killing the industry. Depression and mental issues are today more real than ever. Working in this industry is a breeding ground for that as well. Paul from Cloudwater wrote very well about the very issue a year ago. We see and feel a lot of our colleagues struggling with mental health, alcohol and drug problems. A lot of social issues in and outside of family, especially if you are an entrepreneur. This is exhausting industry. Trying to conquer the world with a kettle and reinvent yourself everyday, as that’s literally what some of us try to do. Frustration ensues, when you face the reality that it’s not always possible. It has taken lives. Even here in Estonia.

I’ve been bullied before and suffered from that my whole childhood. I was 15 when I was bullied last time for my appearances, but never knew that some would today do that in public with their own name. A colleague and a person I always saw sort of as a big brother in craft beer.

We are not saints, far from it

This type of toxic behavior is fuel for depression that is strongly present in this industry. People know it and they also use it against you. Some years ago I became ill with severe depression and a big time burnout. I could not get out of bed in weeks, literally. I also became a poisonous human being who had drunk his own poison. It cost my my longest relationship and also her mental health. It all was ignited by this industry, too big workload and the people. It spread like a cancer. It also got to our workplace every now and then, we became those very toxic people I’m here warning about. Lashing out unnecessarily often. Yet, never bullied anyone and understood to get away to get healthy again.

Thrive for success is a double edged sword. I used to be a bad leader, a bad example. Me and my business partner made a lot of mistakes along the road. But we always stop, reflect and apologize to the people caused any pain or trouble. Doing our very best not to make the same mistakes again. We feel we are still young, have a lot to give and we really want to make a positive impact on people and this industry.

What happened to me (and many others) in this industry?

Now I’m here blowing a whistle, that we need to stop this. Craft beer industry used to be awesome and it still can be. The modern and vicious competition has gotten into people’s heads in this industry. What used to be about cooperation, fighting together against nonsense laws and macro breweries killing the industry, it’s now small ones against each other. Especially in small countries like Estonia, where you easily get a tunnel vision what’s sensible. It sure happened to us as well and takes often a reality check to see that there’s life outside of this craft beer market and the world is bigger than beer. To be honest, the whole industry is terrified that customers might think so as well. That we are not the center of their universe anymore. Craft beer boom was awesome, but we are now living the hangover from it. The industry is struggling to reinvent itself. But don’t get me wrong; it’s not declining, but it’s certainly transforming.

Here’s a picture how gaining back your mental health Iooks like. On the left I was working round days in Tallinn, dealing daily with this toxic environment. A brewery entrepreneur when he turned 30 years old. Depression and toxic environment will wear you and people around you. On the right, it’s the same person today, two years later. Joy inside and over 20 kilos less and counting. Most of all, healthy now in every way. Yes, I rather wear collar shirt than a brewery shirt. None of your business how I look like. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I’d want to say that I never thought it would be just easier to end the misery back then, but something kept me going. I have a passion for this craft beer industry, I had it even when I was sick of it and it tried to kill me. It’s still there, even though there are plenty of people making sure it’s not easy. I do my very best being a supportive person to all in the industry, no matter how well you are doing the same thing I should be doing. That’s just awesome.

The difference between 2017 and 2019

So today, hell yes I’m proud to say I’m again happy to be in pictures. There was a long period I couldn’t participate publicly. Today I’m again proud to give my best to craft beer industry. And hell yes, I’m a finance professional and proud of it. That’s what brought me here. Even so much, that I’m currently finishing on my M.Sc. from Finance and Accounting at the University, which I thought I would give up because I want to live my life in craft beer. Life is more than beer – life is more than a career and your company. I haven’t been this healthy and happy since we started in the industry. It tells too much that it was a necessity to get a bit further from it and live in Helsinki. Thanks to good environment, supportive people and healthier lifestyle, I’m alive today. Even bullying is not putting me down anymore.

Sori Brewing is growing fast and our whole team is excited about what’s coming now that we are starting to build a new brewery. It’s tough work, but it definitely can be rewarding. We were about to build it already two years ago, but we were in no way ready back then.

P.S. I wrote this as I was discussing with a friend, who is also a respected brewery owner and has his beers all over the world. He’s currently fighting depression just as I was back then. For the same reasons, the toxicity and what it does to us. I wish you well my friend and I love you. Will come visit you as soon as I get a chance.

When you are asking where our slogan Serious Beer for Not So Serious People comes from. Now we know. Now I know.

In reply to Enn Parel’s comment:

Public bullying is not a joke. People contacted me “what does this mean, is he a good friend of yours – that seems very mean”. I usually have a thick skin. But I have zero tolerance for bullying people, but now I need to stand also for myself. You don’t have a right or justification for your actions. If you find a person’s appearance or behavior funny and for you it’s a joke, keep it to yourself. People look different, they act different and they even talk differently. There are plenty of different people in this industry and I would not laugh at anyone’s personal appearance or make public comments on their mannerisms. That would be bullying. There’s never a need for anyone to do such a thing. This industry wants to show higher morals compared to for example macro breweries, but this is way worse. They would have zero tolerance for such toxic behavior. A CEO of Põhjala shouting these posts on their competitors wall is very troubling fact from this industry and I just wished it was an isolated incident. We need to talk about this. This behavior is not fine.

There never was an apology, there’s only blaming the bullied person that “they don’t get the joke”. No, because it’s only a joke to the bully. It always is. They see justification for their action. That is the key part of bullying, that the bully does not see any problem in their action and refuses to see.

P.S. Enn: Regarding the reference on people not being present at the funeral, removed the part right after posting. I made a mistake and it was bad judgement from me. Small group that understood the reference from the general description. The point was, that I had self destructive thoughts back then and it hit me close. I saw my situation and seeked for help. In any case, I apologize for bringing it up.

Open here Enn Parel's original comment
There’s no beef. Everyone has his or her peculiarities. Some people are hygiene enthusiasts. Some are afraid of flying. I find exorbitant self-promotion really funny. And I like to troll people who engage in that. This is my peculiarity. That’s why I find it funny when people call themselves something like a ‘Finance Professional building businesses’. Or post on Facebook how you take your “workers” on a company lunch. Or take meticulous care of building a brand of themselves as a ‘business person’. I much prefer modesty. And I like to call our crew ‘colleagues’ not workers. Because I’m just a guy. I’m a guy who loves beer and happens to be in the business of making beer. No more. So you should have just taken it how it was meant – a tongue-in-cheek joke. I see some of your colleagues understood it just like that. Don’t be so fucking serious, dude, your brewery’s slogan says something else. Of course, the things you are saying about toxicity etc are pretty mind-boggling. I’m friends with most people in the industry and there are some that I click better with on a personal level and some that I don’t click so good with. Like for example the guys from Pühaste Brewery with whom we hang out regularly and to whom I have said things jokingly that are far more tongue-in-cheek than this comment. It isn’t about size or fearing competition. Pühaste are as big as Sori and I have publicly praised their beers and supported them in every way I can. So it’s not about that. Never has been. Everyone does their thing as good as they can. It’s just some people brag about it a lot (or beg Untappd raters to change a rating on a beer) and some don’t. What I don’t find funny is the bit about the craft beer bar owner. There are reasons for everything and I knew him very well for around a decade, well before he got into beer business. Our Tap Room Manager was one of his closest people and she was present at the funeral. So on this subject, I really do encourage you to shut the fuck up. It’s extremely distasteful. I feel extremely annoyed that you are discussing such matters in front of a 6k+ audience. You think you knew him but there are people, including me, who knew him better. And by the way, your colleagues (or ‘workers’ if you prefer) hang out at our tap room on a regular basis. We always talk. And just yesterday your partner Heikki asked me for advice on a subject which I gladly gave. So I don’t understand why you are making this something between Põhjala and Sori. I think Sori being invited to every TCBW is good proof of the fact that we respect your work. If you have a beef with me, take it out with me. I don’t have a beef with you, I just find you a funny guy. And this whole thing ridiculous(ly funny). Peace!

In reply to Samu Heino’s comment:

Samu Heino from Põhjala also wanted to comment publicly on his behalf. Samu we got to join us originally as a brewer, but who quit before we started the brewery and went to work Põhjala. As mentioned in the original text, we are not saints and wasn’t an easy situation for us either back then 5 years ago. Their manager Peeter took the high road by coming to talk, that “Samu applied and they consider hiring him, and just wanted to check that we are okay with that.” And of course we were. We could not offer him the dream work he pursued for. We were actually genuinely happy, that it worked out for him as he already settled in Tallinn. Also genuinely sorry that the beginning was very tough for all of us and he’s absolutely right, first months wore all of us down,. Also the fact that we did not know each other so long before and none of us had experience from the industry. Yet, we still had some fun times together as well – before it got to that tight squeeze of actually building a brewery. 

Luckily, when the brewery was up and running, we could see light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a tough process and it takes more than humanly possible to do, but we are still happy we did it.

Open here Samu Heino's original comment
Since I’m referenced in the post, I feel inclined to respond. I was the third guy co-founding Sori Brewing, who has been now pretty much eradicated from the history of Sori. They write that Põhjala came to talk to them before hiring me. Truth is that I don’t know, maybe they did, I don’t know. Does it really matter? No, since I had left Sori Brewing months ago before I got hired. I was the one to make the first contact. I was the one who made the decision to leave the company I helped to bring into live. It was my dream to come true. And I left it behind. Why? Not because I got better offer from competition like it is made sound in the post. I left, because I couldn’t take the toxicity anymore. I left because as a brewer, ”I couldn’t understand the business”. I left because I was not taken seriously at any point of the process. The post here is the epitome of why I left. I got frustrated to all the bullshit fed to me. One thing is true tho. I am much happier were I am now.