So Hot Right Now: The Fearless Folks Behind Quiet XPA, Heaps Normal
It may just be one of Australia’s best alcohol-free beers, that Heaps Normal.By Gemma Plunkett
Meet Andy Miller, Pete Brennan and Ben Holdstock. Three of the four wise men responsible for the birth and growth of crowd-fave Heaps Normal (the fourth, Jordy Smith, was in transit, he says “hi” from hotel quarantine). How would we describe them? We wouldn’t dare – we’ll let them do that for each other. We caught up with this new-ish social and photography client of ours to chat bevs of choice, near-death experiences and the ultimate herb. Crack a can, read on.
Buffet: You’re a motley bunch, how and why did you guys get together?
Pete Brennan: I had an itch that needed scratching. Having grown up with alcoholism in the family, and never having had a good relationship with alcohol myself, building the dream team and having a crack at making the world’s best non-alcoholic beer was something I’d wanted to do for a long time. It all came down to finding the right people. I reached out to Andy, who in turn pulled Benny in, and after convincing Jordy it was a good idea, we became a real business with a purpose-driven mission at heart.
Ben Holdstock: Andy and I had worked together at another craft brewery and we stayed in touch after we both moved on. He approached me with the idea back in early 2019. The more we talked about it, our thinking developed and the more excited I became. As a brewer, able to work on something that is truly unique came as a great technical challenge. Also, the potential to build something together that could contribute (in a small way) to a positive change in people's lives was a great motivator.
Buffet: Tell us about the beer. More so, why it tastes so damn good?
Pete: I’ll let our Head Brewer and Co-founder, Benny, take this one.
Ben: Our beer is an XPA (extra pale ale). It’s a relatively new style, characterised by a slightly lower bitterness than other pale ales but a big increase in hop aroma, most notably a tropical and citrus character. This makes it really drinkable without being dull or boring. It’s brewed with the same four ingredients as an alcoholic beer (water, malt, hops, yeast) and in the same way all craft beers are brewed. Unlike some other non-alcs, we’re not removing any alcohol (and flavour) through any post fermentation processes. The beer is designed and brewed to taste like a normal beer just without the booze.
Andy: Just to add to that, in a less technical sense, it’s a non-alcoholic beer for beer drinkers. That might sound silly. But we’re beer drinkers and there was nothing in Australia that tasted anywhere near as good when we launched in July 2020. Since then, it’s been great to see a handful of indie non-alc beer companies in Australia emerging, each with their own take on the product and their own audience. We all complement each other, really.
Buffet: You’ve come from design, brewing and marketing backgrounds. Has making a physical product of your own been harder or easier than you imagined?
Ben: Brewing alcohol-free beer is slightly more difficult to nail than normal beer. I’ve had to re-learn a few things that brewers normally take for granted and it took quite a few attempts before we were happy with the result.
Andy: As someone with a marketing background, making a physical product is inherently exciting. Compared with services or digital products, you’ll pay a much bigger price if (or, when) we fuck it up. But it really forces you to focus. Also, the reward of being able to share that tin of beer with like-minded people and witness the impact it has on them is the best feeling. It’s a constant reminder of why we started Heaps Normal in the first place.
Buffet: Name something not so (heaps) normal about yourselves:
Pete: I once got hijacked and had a gun stuck in my mouth and the trigger pulled. Thankfully the gun jammed and I survived to tell the tale.
Ben: I was telling Andy the other day how a mate once left a pair of undies at my house. I washed them and started wearing them. Not sure how they got off his body in the first place but I would alway let him know when I was wearing his undies. (Sorry, you said weird).
Andy: I travelled around the world through ten countries wearing a pair of pretty out there flannel pyjamas as a social experiment. Yes, it was cold, but I also had a dressing gown and ugg boots. I learned the painful, but valuable lesson that in anything we do in life, there’s likely to be roughly 50% of people who think you’re a lunatic dickhead, but another 50% of people who think what you’re doing is great. So much of one’s self-confidence and happiness is just about whose opinions you decide to take onboard.
Buffet: What’s your thoughts on where Australian drinking culture has been and where it’s heading?
Andy: Drinking has managed to sneak into every moment in our lives...we use alcohol to celebrate and commiserate, socialise and stave off boredom, to reward ourselves and sometimes to punish ourselves. It pops up at the champagne breakfast, the long lunch and the nightcap. Alcohol is not the devil, but we reckon it’s time for us all to take control over our own alcohol consumption and reflect on how we make it work for us. Having great non-alc options and normalising that choice is a big step towards a positive culture change.
Buffet: And on that note, anything to say to the non-alc skeptics out there?
Pete: I’d say don’t knock it until you try it. I feel like it’s genuinely a fascinating time to be alive - non-alcoholic beers, meat-free burgers, cannabis starting to be legalised… the world is changing and if you're open to change it can be, well, life-changing.
Andy: We’re not here to convince anyone. If non-alc drinks aren’t for you right now, hit us up when it does suit your lifestyle. It’s an option, not a judgement on your choices.
Buffet: Go on, what stuff do you have on the horizon? We won’t tell. (We will tell.)
Pete: We’re seriously considering a cannabis-infused, non-alcoholic, meat-free burger flavoured beer.
Ben: I think the meat free burger might be Pete’s idea – he loves burgers. We have a few interesting takes on traditional beers on the horizon. I can’t tell though.
Andy: Hopefully some new beers and an office. I’m losing the battle for the living room against my six year-old and his lego army.
Buffet: Once you’ve got the office, would you ever consider bricks-and-mortar? Breweries are fan favourites of most Sydney-siders.
Pete: I’ll leave this one to our fearless leader.
Ben: Absolutely. It has always been our plan to build a Heaps Normal HQ. It is in the pipeline for sure.
Andy: Like Benny said, it’s always been part of our plan. We’ve just been saving our pennies... You need a lot of pennies to build a brewery.
It’s Friday night, what are you drinking?
Pete: I’d start with a Heaps Normal or two, maybe have a glass of Non with dinner, and end the night with an espresso.
Ben: I would go a German pilsner, a Heaps Normal followed by a skin-contact wine.
Andy: A couple of normal beers. Anything brewed by Grifter is a winner. Followed by a couple of Heaps Normal beers.
Desert island. You can take one item from your kitchen (power’s there if you need it). Go.
Pete: A case of Heaps Normal.
Ben: Rice cooker. It’s the only appliance I’ve got.
Andy: Ketchup. Makes anything taste good.
What's something new you’ve been really into lately?
Pete: Ice baths! Life-changing.
Ben: Drinking alc-free beers hehe.
Andy: Mountain biking, since there’s no surf in Canberra. Can’t believe it took me this long to get into it – especially because I don’t bounce as much as I did in my 20s. Oh and Beyblades (if you know, you know).
Your serial killer traits…name each others, plz.
Pete: Benny likes to watch me while I sleep when we’re away on business trips, and Andy flicks light switches on and off 23 times before exiting a room.
Ben: Pete says goodbye like 20 times on the phone before he hangs up. Can’t think of one for Andy, which could actually be worse.
Andy: Pete is the most excitable dude and never lets the truth get in the way of a good story (see below haha). Benny is so measured and looks at things from a very pragmatic point of view. He doesn’t respond quite as emotionally as Pete and I. It’s a great counterpoint. We all balance each other out.
If you could only use one herb forever and ever, which is it? You have to include it in breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Pete: Coffee. Coffee’s a herb, right?
Ben: Rosemary I reckon. It’s good for both sweet and savoury.
Andy: Thyme. Who doesn’t need more thyme...amiright? I’m here all week.