Oedipus: Brewhaha

Rick Nelson opens up on what’s it like running a company with your friends

A man walks into a bar

When I walk into Oedipus Headquarters, Rick Nelson picks up the clementine he’s just started to peel, strolls over, shakes my hand and smiles.

“Do you want a drink?”

It’s rather a loaded question to ask during a professional engagement. Anywhere else in Amsterdam at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the answer would be a simple ‘Yes, coffee please’. But I’m in a brewery, sitting at a bar with 12 beer taps tempting me with names like Panty, Swingers and Thai Thai. For purely research purposes, I plump for a Polyamorie. It’s a beer of many parts that twists the light fantastic between a Berliner Weiße (a sour wheat beer) and a US Pale Ale, with a healthy dose of mango thrown in for good measure. It might sound like a bit of a mouthful, but it’s a treat on the tongue. Welcome to the wonderful world of Oedipus, where the madcap mania of Willy Wonka meets the psychedelic trip of Yellow Submarine.

And no, that’s not just the Polyamorie speaking. The walls of the brewery are covered in murals featuring larger than life versions of the characters featured on the eye-catching beer bottles, while a sprinkling of trees and plants hint at the regular Brazilian music nights held here. Oedipus is no ordinary brewery, as its motto, ‘There’s more to life than beer’ attests.

Craft beer for everyone

“We want beer to be part of everyday life, not just a fetish for beer geeks,” Rick confirms. “For us, the key to becoming more approachable is making beer more diverse and adding more flavours like art and music.” I saw the fruits of this philosophy at the inaugural Oedipus International Beer Festival last summer. Brewers from all around the globe descended on North Amsterdam to share their wares, with food provided by local producers and a steady stream of live music as the soundtrack. Instead of the horde of middle-aged men with beer bellies that I had anticipated, the festival crowd was overwhelmingly young with plenty of women in attendance as well. But what really stood out was the spirit of camaraderie and collaboration in the craft beer scene, exemplified by a special series of beers dreamed up together by Oedipus and guest brewers at the festival over the weekend.

“It’s much better to share knowledge instead of beavering away in secret, especially if it means that other people might start brewing themselves.”

“We have three core values: creativity, taste and openness. The collaborative nature of the craft beer world is really part of the third one. Being open to other brewers, and people who are curious about what you do, is such a nice way to run a business. It’s much better to share knowledge instead of beavering away in secret, especially if it means that other people might start brewing themselves. That’s how we got really enthusiastic in the beginning, because other brewers were very open and encouraged us to do it ourselves.”

Dream team

Oedipus has now grown from the four friends (Alex Mager, Paul Brouwer, Sander Nederveen and Rick) who started brewing in their kitchen into a company of twenty-five people. The beer is now available throughout the Netherlands, a success that has sent Rick back to the drawing board for a rebrand.
“When we started selling beer in Albert Heijn (the largest supermarket chain in The Netherlands) it was the first time we didn’t have an event to surround the beer or a salesperson to promote it to a bar or shop owner: just one bottle on a shelf surrounding by lots of other bottles. We’re still figuring out how people can pick up our story without the whole Oedipus world surrounding it.”

“We started out as friends, now we’re co-founders, shareholders and workers here too. Those four functions are hard to combine — they don’t really work with, but against each other.”

One of the ways Rick hopes to do this is via a new, lavishly illustrated brand guide for people that work with Oedipus, either in bars or internally. We drag ourselves away from the bar into the Oedipus office to check it out. It turns out that the office is a wooden cabin in the corner of the brewery, presumably shut off from the rest of the world to protect workers from any sounds or smells emanating from the brewery (or enthusiastic visitors during taproom hours). It’s not hard to spot Rick’s desk: it’s the one overflowing with sketches, scribbles, paint pots and growlers. The latter are bottles that store beer fresh from the tap. Convention dictates that these are bottle-shaped, but convention isn’t an Oedipus watchword, so these ones are distinctly bulbous, and seemingly inspired by the adage that twice the size means twice the fun. This playful nature harks back to the days when the four friends were brewing purely for fun.

“It was a hobby that quickly grew out of hand. We had a dream about the endless possibilities of beer, but no idea how to run a business. None of us had ever had a ‘proper’ job before, but somehow everything worked until a certain moment in time. We needed someone with financial and business knowledge, which was what Tristan brought when he joined us at the end of 2014.”

This is Tristan Spits, General Manager, who was drawn to Oedipus after a successful crowdfunding campaign for a brewpub that raised €100,000. Many people offered significant investment, but Tristan was the only one who really connected with the Oedipus crew. “He was really interested in how we did things on an everyday basis — and he thought we needed a lot of help.” Despite this, none of the original founders were looking for a partner to join them at the time. But over a long period of discussions he eventually won them round by showing how they could grow further in the future.

“Tristan’s an honest guy, and the same age as us, but with experience. During those talks, he gave us insights into what it means to build a company and how to do that: it’s not just about investors giving you money, it’s all the knowledge and connections they offer too, which is actually a lot more important than money. He really opened our eyes.”

The new structure that Tristan helped implement meant that the original founders had to assume fixed roles, a process that was smoother for some than others. “I did art school, so becoming Creative Director was a natural fit. Sander studied hydrology, so he was already looking into all the processes behind brewing when we started. The other two guys are a bit more out there: Alex studied anthropology and is very good at connecting with people, so he does sales; Paul studied business psychology, and now he does sales and exports.”

“We want beer to be part of everyday life, not just a fetish for beer geeks.”

Staying friends

Everything’s working out nicely for Oedipus on a professional level, but on personal level, combining friendship and business, let alone new roles in an expanding company, hasn’t always easy. “We started out as friends, now we’re co-founders, shareholders and workers here too. Those four functions are hard to combine — they don’t really work with, but against each other.” However, everyone is determined to keep the work/life balance in place.

“We’re still friends, but sometimes we’re just too busy to hang out anymore. Now we’ve decided to have nights once a month where we can focus on beer. Not business shit, just drinking beer, talking beer and laughing together. We used to do that a lot when we were home-brewing, and we want to start doing it again. It’s important to spend time together as friends.”

“We’re still friends, but sometimes we’re just too busy to hang out anymore.”

One thing they won’t be doing on these evenings is making beer. That’s up to Sander now, a situation that Rick believes is for the best. “I trust Sander and his team, so I don’t feel that I need to be there to make it happen, especially now that he has developed way beyond the home-brewing we did at the start.” That doesn’t mean that Rick has completely left his brewing days behind him. He remains a proud beer geek and keeps a keen eye on what Sander’s up to — it’s not hard, as all he has to do to see what’s brewing is pop over to the other side of Oedipus HQ. “It’s good to be in touch with what’s going on in the brewery. The more involved in the process you get, the more you understand it and appreciate the final product.”

Rick believes that retaining the values (and enjoyment) they had when starting out will ensure that no matter how big it gets, Oedipus will never become corporate. “Last week we discussed what would happen if we did something that doesn’t feel like Oedipus. It’s actually very insulting, because it suggests that you don’t trust your own company and the people that here. All of us make the culture together, not just the four founders. That’s the basic belief behind Oedipus.” I’ll drink to that.

Interview by Will Georgi
Photography by Jordi Huisman

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