Farm life to the fast-paced world of craft beer, Jaz Wearin takes us on the Modus journey
It was December 2021 when those big sliding doors to Modus Brewing finally rolled open. A project three years in the making, it was a game changer for the Newcastle hospo scene and the seaside suburb of Merewether who have since welcomed the multifaceted brewing facility with open arms.
The Modus story is a fascinating tale as Jaz Wearin, one of the founders explains. Jaz is an absolute powerhouse when it comes to creativity, design and all round ability to shine in an industry that has for much of its history been all about the blokes.
Catching up with Jaz as part of our International Women’s Day Series, Jaz recounts the extraordinary Modus journey, what drew Jaz into the world of hops and what more we can expect from team Modus. Here’s the chat…
You grew up on a farm in NSW, where was this?
Yes I grew up on a wheat and sheep farm in a town outside of Griffith called Rankin Springs. It was an 11,000 acre farm and it was a big business, so I grew up watching my parents run their own show, which is why I’ve found it second nature.
Was this why beer has always been your drink of choice?
It was the drink of choice out there, after a day of shearing or mustering there would always be beer. If it was a good day it was a Crown Lager, remember those days [laughs]. Right near Griffith, in Whitton, there is a maltster called Voyager and they are the first Australian craft Maltsters. They started at a similar time to us (2014). There’s so much grain in the Riverina, and I would never have imagined growing up on a grain farm, when malt is the foundation ingredient in beer, that it would come full circle.
Are you faithful to beer?
I feel like beer is my staple, I like it because it lasts longer than a spirit or glass of wine, I like to be able to sit on a big pint, and I like that you can choose your ABVs (alcohol by volume). There’s so much variety now in styles you never get bored.
Back in the day when I was on the farm there was VB, Melbourne Bitter, NEW, Old, Crowne as a special treat and Corona if you were on holidays. I love now that we can have 36 beers on tap with styles from all around the world.
What is it about the beer industry you love?
Beer has a real Australian ritual about it, mostly because of the climate and we love spending time outdoors. There's lots of commentary around the Australian drinking culture, but if you can be a part of an important ritual that brings joy that’s what I get a kick out of being a part of this industry. Beer has so much breadth, even non alcoholic and seltzers, there is so much we can do in this facility to bring options to suit everyone's tastes and desires.
You and Grant quit your jobs in 2014, sold your house and travelled the US for 6 months to beerducate yourselves, what brought this about?
We were both working in finance, and caught in that trap of working long hours, doing the same thing every day, and you're like ‘Oh, this is it?’ It felt like I was in the matrix.
One day we were sitting on our balcony in Manly, drinking Cooper's red and I just said, ‘You know what, we've got to have a crack.’ Let’s take 6 months off, the worst thing that could happen is we'll go back into our jobs, the best thing that could happen could be amazing.
You often hear that travel inspires and it really did, six months of travelling the US gave us the space to develop the business idea.
Before you left to travel was the idea of brewing already there?
It was in our head, Grant loved home brewing, and at the time a small brewery opened down the road from us and we could see ourselves doing this as a career. So the plan was to go to America for 6 months, learn as much as we could, then we'd have a sense whether we can do it.
We left in 2012 and visited a different brewery every second day, and what we learnt about was the community and how the breweries brought people together, that’s what was appealing. It was kids, dogs, grandparents, young people, families, other brewers would drop over hops they didn't have. It was a big community. About halfway through our trip we decided, this is us!
When we returned home we sold our apartment, and put everything into the business. We lived above the brewery for nine months and that's where it all started.
You opened in July 2014, given you had invested everything there must have been scary times at the start?
Um, yes! Although when you start a business quite young, I was 26, there's a lot of naivety, which can be a brilliant thing, because you hit every obstacle as it comes up. At the time I still had my full time job and I would work at night, and all weekend, but I didn’t continue that for very long as it wasn’t sustainable.
How did you know when to leave full-time work and jump into the business?
I have noticed when speaking to other women about startups, there is a tendency to have your day job and a side hustle, and find a way to balance that. But you have to know when the right time is to stop because you'll never ever get your baby off the ground.
It's that scary step of saying ‘this is it, go go go’ and we hit that tipping point about three to four months in and I knew I could give so much more if I wasn’t working in my day to day job.
You must have been one of very few females in the industry at the time,
It's always been a male dominated industry but it has changed a lot. In Australia, in the last five years, there's been a lot more vocal drivers in the industry, female drivers saying ‘please come there’s equal opportunity’. There's so much breadth in a brewery, and that's always been a big focus of mine. It helps having a female founder in place and we've always got that balance, because it's my husband and myself. In our head office it's very 50/50, however it is really challenging to get female brewers, there’s just not enough out there yet - if you are one - please get in touch with me!
Why do you think it is?
I think it's similar in wine as well, it seems manufacturing type industries tend to have a lack of uptake, but we’ve had a few female apprentice brewers in the last few years, which we haven't had before. They’ve since headed overseas to get more experience and fit in some travel but I take it as a really good sign.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry since you launched Modus in 2014?
The industry has almost tripled since we started. There were around 300 breweries in Australia at the time, now it’s climbing to 800+.
What we were doing back then was extremely innovative and 100% focused on quality. Fast forward eight years and it’s the standard. We're constantly being pushed to innovate, and we love that, that's what I get the biggest kick out of; constant innovation and creation.
I need that in a business, otherwise I get stagnant. We’ve moved away from being a brewery to a beverage company, producing a non-alc range (NORT), seltzer (Perky) and a number of new products in the pipeline, which is very exciting.
What is your role within the business now?
Day to day I'm looking for trends and the next big thing, then rolling that out with our commercial and production team plus constantly working with our marketing team to ensure our venues and current brands are alive and well and are engaging to our customers . I am having supplier meetings, working with designers, creative agencies and packaging suppliers.
It’s all well and good to have a great idea, but unless there's someone that it’s going to resonate with and buy it, it won’t blossom. I had no idea about any of that at the start if I am being brutally honest. I was like, ‘I have a good gut feel on this, let’s just whip it out’ and fortunately it worked. Today it is a lot more methodical.
How do you stay creative?
Travel! Our plan is to go back to the US this year and visit some of the breweries we know have evolved since we were last there. I am so excited, it’s a real perk of the job.
Travel for me is my biggest inspiration, it's not just the taste of beer, it's how people have set up their venues, the packaging, and how they're interacting with their customers. Being in Australia, you can sometimes get tunnel vision as to only what’s happening here, when there’s lots of great things happening in the world.
Social media helps to keep your finger on the pulse, but beer is a very sensory thing. So whether it’s emerging breweries in Japan, US, who are still doing some really creative things, or Europe, who are the traditionalists but there’s also a lot of innovation coming out of there, nothing beats being there in person soaking in all the beery goodness.
Back in the day, and even now, were people ever weirded out that you as a female were working in the beer industry?
I still get it, especially when Grant’s not around, people will ask me what I do and when I say I'm in the beer industry they make the comment ‘so you pull the beers?’ I then find the confidence to say no, I'm actually the founder.
I often hear people saying ‘what Grant has done is really amazing, and Grant should be so proud of himself’ and yes he absolutely should be (I am very proud of him!), but in this case it’s taken two to tango for Modus.
My experience of the industry is that it is now a relatively even playing field, however I know people have had other experiences and acknowledge that. Within our business I know what’s happening, I am on it like a hawk, but I do understand there is still some disparity between what should be happening.
The difference between now and when we started is I have the confidence and the attitude of, this needs to happen and you are going to have to deal with me, and be okay with that otherwise it’s not going to work and I'll have to go somewhere else. It’s challenging and you get annoyed, and you think surely we’ve moved on, but it is changing.
You opened in December 2021, do you have any big plans for the business that you can share?
We are very excited to announce that we have just launched a dual bottling and canning line, which is the first of its kind in Australia. It’s a really big deal for us (cue; all of our savings!) as it will allow the business to bring NORT in-house, launch exciting new products and brands and allow for partner brewing, so anyone who has a great idea, but doesn't want to invest in their own brewery can come to us, and we'll help you along the way.
The venues, Modus Beer + NORT is now operating at 100%, it's taken time to get there, as an independent family run business it does, it's a huge investment and after three years we're at the end of it. Now we get to make beer and other beverages and spread our wings because we've got a lot of ideas to tackle!