Heaps Normal · Peter Brennan

See how a designer, a brewer, a pro-surfer and a bearded marketer started Heaps Normal. They've created a stunning non-alcoholic beer that skips the hangover.

August 8, 2021
Share this story

Table of contents

  • Heaps Normal
  • Founders - Peter Brennan, Andy Miller, Ben Holdstock and Jordy Smith.
  • Based in  Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Australia
  • Started in 2020
  • 4 founders, 10 employees
  • heapsnormal.com

We caught up with Pete, one of the founders Heaps Normal. Heaps Normal has become one of the leading alcohol-free beer companies in Australia. Pete's story is a unique and creative story of someone who's worked in many industries in several countries. Plus, there's a bunch of great book and podcast recommendations. Enjoy.

Peter, what's your backstory?

I was born in Leamington Spa in the West Midlands of England.  I moved to South Africa at the age of 9 and grew up in a town called Umhlanga Rocks near Durban.  

After school, I studied Graphic Design at a time when QuarkXpress and Freehand were the designer’s tools of choice. Shortly after that, I studied Marketing & Business Management. My first role was as a junior designer for an advertising agency in Durban called International Concept Organisation which was full of incredibly talented creatives that I soaked knowledge off like a sponge.  I learnt from people like Paul Kraus, Glen Cherry, Neville Trickett, Li Edelkoort, Shane Small and Clint DeGoede and was so in awe of how creativity and business collided.  

I grew up surfing competitively as a junior, and after cutting my teeth at the ad agency was approached for a designer role at clothing brand Quiksilver, which was a dream job at the time. 

After the novelty wore off I longed for creative freedom and doing things my own way, and started a side hustle called Vintage Industries, which was a t-shirt manufacturing company where each unit went through heavy industrial washes with stones and enzymes to make them look unique.  

That was my first crack at running my own business and after getting into around 30 independent retailers in South Africa, I moved to London.  My best friend and I had signed a two-year lease on an apartment and were in no rush to get a job. When the estate agent informed us that no landlord in London would lease out an apartment to someone without proof of income and that we’d lose our deposit if we didn’t get a job within the week, we scrambled to take anything we could. 

Within 48 hours my recruiter had given me a temporary job at the recruitment agency in order for me to keep the flat. I left 6 years later and moved to Sydney with my now wife. I launched a 3D photo app called Viewpop that made the top 10 startups at Web Summit in Dublin for a couple of years, before starting a branding studio called Electric And Analog, and a non-alcoholic beer company called Heaps Normal, both of which I still operate.

Tell us what your company does?

Heaps Normal is an independent Australian beer company, brewing great tasting beer without the hangover. We brew beer for people who love a beer but want to drink less.  

Whether identifying as sober or just wanting to cut back, we’re part of a global movement trading the standard drink for a new drink standard. 

We’re turning up the volume on the moments that make you feel alive by reducing the role of alcohol in our culture, telling better stories and normalising mindful drinking.

How did you come up with the idea?

My dad was an abusive alcoholic.  I lost him to suicide when I was 11 years old, and I think growing up without a dad gave me a massive chip on my shoulder.  I always had something to prove.  Now that I’m older I’ve also realised that losing my dad so young gave me a lot of anger.  

This would show itself through emotion when I had too much to drink, and subsequently, I never had a good relationship with alcohol.  In my 20’s and 30’s I’d either go out with friends and feel fearful that I might lose control and make a fool of myself, drink a soft drink and have to explain to everyone why, or avoid social situations altogether.  

Then in between client projects at Electric And Analog, I started building the brand for a non-alcoholic beer, purely as a passion project. 

How did you go about building and launching the business?

I started building the brand internally at my branding studio.  It got to a point where it felt like it could become something, but I had no idea how to make beer or build a beer company.  

I approached some local breweries through introductions in my network, but none were really interested in helping me make a non-alc beer.  I then reached out to my good friend Andy Miller and pitched him the idea.  Andy’s worked in the beer industry for some time and knows his stuff.  Halfway through our first meeting, he was in.  He reached out to Benny Holdstock who had 10 years of experience as a brewer.  

I reached out to a childhood friend of mine named Jordy Smith, and we incorporated the business.  The four of us refined the brand and after about 7 brand names settled on ‘Heaps Normal’.  Benny home-brewed 5 batches in his kitchen until we were all stoked with the outcome.  Heaps Normal was suddenly a thing.

How have you grown the business?

After being accepted into the Startmate accelerator programme run by Blackbird Ventures, we raised a seed investment round backed by the likes of founders from Adore Beauty, Koala, Linktree, Culture Amp and Airtree Ventures, amongst others. 

In a relatively short period of time, we've built an engaged community of fans by having a clear brand tone of voice:  We don't preach sobriety, and we're not anti-alcohol.  We simply encourage people to create their own normal, whilst being respectful of and celebrating the normal of others, who may not think your normal is heaps normal. 

What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?

Firstly, I truly believe that failure is necessary for growth.  I also believe that previous ventures of mine failed because I lacked purpose.  Vintage Industries (clothing company) and Viewpop (3D photo app) were driven by the wrong reasons - financial reward.  That’s sometimes the benefit, but it should never be the reason why you do what you do.  

After suffering pretty severe burnout a few years ago, I did some internal searching and got some therapy, and started to question why I do what I do with both businesses, and I slowly started to uncover my purpose.  These are my personal reasons, but for Heaps Normal, if we can start something that is going to prevent another child from growing up with alcohol abuse in the family and, also, help me make sure that my kids don’t have to experience what I went through, then right there are two pretty powerful why’s to get out of bed every morning. 

Similarly, with Electric and Analog, we’ve built a really robust process of how to create and reinvent brands.  Running a business is hard.  Like, really hard.  We work with ambitious consumer and technology companies by helping bring their stories to life through the brand.  If we can help alleviate some of the stress of running a business by injecting our expertise in brand building, then it gives me a real sense of purpose.  For me, that’s everything.

What’s your biggest selling product?

12 months after launching, Heaps Normal is now the best-selling beer at many bottle shops and bars across the country, even outselling alcoholic beers. 

Our Quiet XPA is a top-seller for online stores too and is currently Beer Cartel's best-selling product nationally out of more than 1,000 beers (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic). 

Sales KPI's aside, the stories from our community are what excite us. We get messages daily about how Heaps Normal has changed the lives of our customers, whether that be people with a history of alcohol abuse, beer lovers who have been told to cut down alcohol for medical reasons, or pregnant women who no longer feel alienated when out at the pub with their mates.

What day to day digital tools do you use?

Notion is a workspace project management tool and I run my life on it. It’s honestly the most incredible tool I’ve ever used and I can’t recommend it enough. 

I’m also a huge fan of Motion which is a focus and productivity app.  I was diagnosed with ADHD a few months ago, and realising why I am the way I am has led me down the path of trying to optimise my focus, attention and productivity. I recently invested in an Oura Ring that tracks my sleep and performance, which is a game-changer.  

We run Dropbox for storage, Google for email, and Close.io as a CRM.

What books have been a great inspiration to you as a founder?

Mind Power by John Kehoe was one of the books that had a really big impact on me as a kid.  It focuses on techniques like visualisations and affirmations in order to achieve things you want to achieve.  I read it when I was 16 and I still use a line in the book today that states “Consciousness creates reality, and you create consciousness”.  

Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson was the next book that impacted me in a really big way.  

More recently:
The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
Built To Sell by John Warrillow
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
Start With Why by Simon Sinek
Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull
and IKIGAI by Hector Garcia & Francesc Mirrales have all had a profound effect on me.

I’m currently reading Cult Status by Tim Duggan and can’t put it down.

Here’s my list from last year of 20 books to read in 2020 that will make you a 20X better person & company.

Any podcast/websites that help you run your business?

I subscribe to the podcasts, YouTube channels and email lists of:
Funny Business (Rob and Lach are legends),
The Futur (with Chris Do),
Australian Design Radio,
The Entrepreneurs (Monocle 24),
Business Wars,
The School of Greatness (with Lewis Howes),
Masters of Scale (with Reid Hoffman),
How I Built This (with Guy Raz),
The Diary of a CEO (with Steven Bartlett),
Business Made Simple (with Donald Miller),
Dent (with Glen Carlson),
Akimbo (with Seth Godin),
Startup (Gimlet)
and Business of Hype (with Jeff Staple).

What quotes do you live by?

My good friend, Carl Addy, who is an incredible creative director at Mill+ in London once said to me,

“Stupider people have done more with less”.

I tell myself that every single day.

What do you do to look after your mental health as a founder?

I gave up alcohol in February which has changed my life massively.  With two beautiful young children, two businesses and an amazing wife I just felt like I had too much to lose, especially with a history of alcoholism in the family.  

I use the Headspace app to meditate most mornings, and try and do exercise in the form of a 15 minute HIIT session most days.  I need to surf more than I do, and I’ve recently become really conscious of how much sleep I’m getting.

In a few words what does it mean to be the founder of a business?

 It’s so, so, so hard running a business.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster.  You either feel like this is the best day of your life because something amazing has happened, or you want to jump off a cliff because you’ve fucked something up.  

You give up the 9-5 for “more freedom” and a “work/life balance”, but I joke that I work 8 days a week now compared to when I was an employee.  You’re always learning, and I mean ALWAYS. 

To sum up, being a founder, for me it means you need to 100% absolutely love what you do.  And you have to have a purpose and a why.  When those two things collide, as clichéd as it sounds, it doesn’t feel like work as you genuinely love it so much.

What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?

My grandfather was a wonderful man named Raymond Pratley and he was my idol. A few years before he died he said to me:

“There’s two rules in life. Rule number 1 is to not be a dick. Rule number 2 is to never forget Rule Number 1”.

That’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given.

Where can people find out more about your business?

For our Heaps Normal non-alcoholic please visit us at heapsnormal.com

For Electric And Analog, our branding & design studio, please visit www.eanda.cc

Share this story
Back to all stories