Do you remember where you were when you drank your first Modus Operandi beer?
This nostalgic writer was at The Scratch’s Weekend of Darkness in 2015, where one of the beers was a Russian Imperial Stout aged in Lark whisky barrels from a young brewery down near Sydney. Drinking that beer was like being wrapped in a soft blanket with a hot water bottle and given a glass of whisky, with the option of a top up when I was ready.
The beer had such a profound effect on me that a few weeks later, when The Scratch tapped the remainder of the keg at 10pm on a Tuesday night, I waddled down in my pyjamas to have another glass.
Grant and Jaz Wearin, founders and co-owners, opened Modus Operandi in the Northern Beaches town of Mona Vale in July 2014… but for many of us, it feels like Modus has been around much longer.
They’ve brewed more than a hundred beers. They've gone from keg only, to CANimal, to 500ml cans, to 375ml cans. Their beers have received so many medals they could use them as coasters in the brewpub. They’ve taken out the Champion Small Brewery (2014), Champion Medium Brewery (2015) and Champion Large Brewery (2018) trophies at The Indies (formerly the Craft Beer Awards). And this is despite the fact that, while their volume has increased, their geographic footprint has remained the same.
“Definitely if you look at litres per square metre, I’m taking that trophy – every year,” says Grant. “We’re not giving that to anyone!”
Jaz adds: “People are still quite surprised that this is our only facility.”
But it is. They financed every dollar of it themselves. They tiled the kitchen and laid the bricks that make up the bar. They trained their black Labrador, who was born on the same day the brewery opened and given the name Stout, to stay within the bounds of the property, even when the gates are open and nobody’s watching.
So, ahead of their fifth birthday, I visited the Mona Vale brewery to talk with the founders. They regaled me with countless stories about the early days of the brewery, and brought out photos like proud parents showing off pictures of their firstborn. (To be fair, the brewery did come before their child.) I even saw pictures of how crazy Grant’s hair used to be.
How to commemorate such an occasion as five years of Modus? Given their company motto is "Beer First. No Shortcuts." we figured it made sense to reflect on five beers that helped shape the brewery into what it is today.
FORMER TENANT RED IPA
I remember the days when Former Tenant was a rare commodity in Brisbane. Whenever I heard of a bar that had tapped it, I’d get some friends together and race across town to drink some. When a friend of mine visited Sydney, I asked him to bring me home a CANimal of the stuff, made possible because Modus was the second brewery in the world to use a CANimal machine. Then Former Tenant came out in 500ml cans as core range – a gutsy move by Modus, but one which paid off – and I almost wept tears of joy.
Apparently, I’m not the only one to have a story like this; Former Tenant has a cult following unlike any other Modus beer. It still wins people over at festivals. It has a high female fanbase. There are people who come into the cellar door every Friday to buy a case of Former Tenant for the weekend.
[It was my first Modus beer too, handed over in CANimal form by Grant on the driveway to Crafty Towers. The CANimals had been flown from Sydney to Melbourne in his luggage then traipsed around in his car. When cracked with mates a couple of days later, despite its travels, it was a joyous revelation – Editor]
While other breweries were using easy-drinking pale ales to convert people to good beer, Modus was doing the same thing with a 7.8 percent ABV red IPA.
“When we opened up, we’d get people in here who never really drank beer,” says Jaz. “I used to just throw them in the deep end and say, ‘Try this.’ Former Tenant was our biggest, most aromatic beer, with mango, passionfruit… and they used to love it. I think because it was so different to, like, Carlton Dry, it wasn’t what they were expecting.”
Grant adds: “Just supremely drinkable, very dangerous. But that passionfruit flavour that comes together with the sweet caramel malt has turned a lot of people into hopheads.”
Former Tenant gets its name from a story that’s been told and retold in pubs since this beer was released.
Before Modus Operandi existed, some police were chasing a young guy down an alleyway past what is now the brewery site. The building was being used by some importer/exporter type business at the time… or at least, that was what it appeared to be. But when the police dogs stopped mid-chase to dig and paw at the roller door of the importer/exporter, the cops knew they had something bigger on their hands. It turns out the importer/exporter business was actually one of the largest hydroponic marijuana setups the Northern Beaches had ever seen.
When the Modus crew later moved in and brewed a red IPA with so much hop aroma that their glass couldn’t contain it, they decided to name the beer for the former tenant of the building who'd also had issues containing aroma.
When I asked the Modus crew which five beers had shaped them to be the brewery they are today. Their instant response was: “Former Tenant is a no-brainer.”
Possibly because it’s the kind of beer that takes out Champion Australian Beer at the Craft Beer Awards in the brewery’s first few months of trading. Or maybe simply because when Modus crew are cut, they bleed Former Tenant.
SONIC PRAYER IPA
While Former Tenant was the formative IPA for Modus, popular from the beginning and one of the brewery’s first two beers to be regularly available in cans, Sonic Prayer has come into its own more and more in recent times. It moved from special release to core range a few years ago, has been growing in popularity ever since, and picked up a gold at the 2019 AIBAs.
“It’s a ballsy IPA at 6 percent,” says Grant. “In a day and age where there’s a lot more price competition, it’s really easy to just brew a base malt beer, with no specialty malt complexity. And that’s what a lot of breweries have done.
“But [Sonic Prayer is] a balanced IPA where there’s malt complexity overlaying that grapefruit, hop-piney thing going on. Pretty proud about striking that balance. It’s a beer we’ve worked bloody hard on.”
In a way, Modus designed Sonic Prayer to be the best of both worlds: interesting and flavoursome enough to please the IPA enthusiast, while also being accessible to the person who’s looking to step up from pale ales and XPAs.
“I feel like we’re known for our IPAs,” says Jaz. “So we’re super proud to have an approachable IPA in the core range that’s starting to get a following. Because, if you’re going to do a hoppy beer, you want it moving on shelves. You don’t want it sitting there. Every time you pop one of those, it should be fresh as, you know?”
Sonic Prayer shares its name with the debut album of psychedelic rock band Earthless. Earthless is former head brewer Dennis de Boer’s favourite band, and their music used to pump through the brewery, infusing the beer with its mind-altering reverberations.
When Modus contacted Earthless to ask if they could name a beer Sonic Prayer, the band members were stoked. Years later, the beer’s commercial description shows that the psychedelic legacy lives on: “interstellar IPA brewed with mind-altering amounts of New World hops; resulting in aromatic reverberations of citrus, peach, passionfruit and pine. All followed by an unstinting malt body and bitterness.”
FUTURE FACTORY IIPA/IIIPA
While careful balance and approachability is important for a core range IPA, a brewery can take a different approach for special releases…
“Go hell for leather!”
(I’ve heard this expression maybe four times in my life; two of those times were in my conversation with Jaz. She’s super enthusiastic about beer.)
The haze craze swept across the nation in a major way in 2017, and Modus joined it with the likes of Gadzooks! and Tropical Contact High.
But there was another trend that year in the Australian beer world: a string of breweries sold to multinational corporations. It doesn’t take too much imagination to take a dystopian view of the future if such a trend were to continue: a world where machines take over brewers’ jobs, and costs are cut to save on beer output.
Modus reacted in a distinctly independent brewery kind of way; their last special release of the year was called Future Factory, a hop laden, hazy double IPA with the biggest dry hop they could throw at it. It was 8.5 percent ABV and came in half litre tinnies. It was not a beer brewed to cut corners or save pennies.
Referring back to the brewery’s tagline, Jaz says: “We’re committed to ‘Beer first, no shortcuts’.”
Future Factory was so popular, Modus brewed an even bigger version of it in 2019 – a 10 percent triple IPA.
“We don’t let the bottom line dictate everything we do,” says Grant. “We’ve never shied away from releasing a 10 percent beer.
“And we trust our consumers to do the maths: big beer in a big can, it’s an even bigger experience. And I’ll pay slightly more for that.”
Both versions of Future Factory were fan favourites. The first release of Future Factory made it into the GABS Hottest 100. Both versions made Beer Cartel's 2019 Australia's Ultimate Top 50 Beers list, sitting side by side at number 24 and 25. Punters still ask about it at the brewpub. [Did I mention I'll finally get around to publishing our Best New Beers Of 2019 – So Far article before July is out? Editor].
Modus went hell for leather with this one, and the people approved.
SILENT KNIGHT PORTER
It’s no surprise Modus have a knack for IPAs. But some people are still surprised by their finesse at the darker end of the spectrum; after all, not everyone has the same introduction to their beers.
Silent Knight was one of the first beers brewed at Modus HQ, and it was expected to be a cold weather beer. But the demand has increased over time, which is why Modus recently decided to make it a year-round offering.
Jaz had no problem selecting it for this list.
“We’re known to be a very hop forward brewery, but we take serious pride in our dark beers. It’s taken us five years, but we’ve put Silent Knight into our core range now, which is a big move for us.” With a shrug, she adds: “But that’s my favourite beer.”
Grant was equally certain.
“I’d definitely say Silent Knight. Multiple trophy winner. It’s a sessionable, dry, decadent porter that enables you to have more than one. Typically with your sweet, decadent stouts, you’re done after one. But Silent Knight’s complexity and sessionability as a dark beer is something I’m proud of.”
Modus describes this beer as a “session version of a Russian Imperial Stout… rich, dark and decadent”, taking all the complexity of nine types of malt while staying below six percent ABV. Even Crafty Pint’s editor reckons Silent Knight is the “true essence” of a porter.
It’s named for an Australian fridge called the Silent Knight, which was invented in 1935 by a gentleman named Edward Hallstrom. Hallstrom owned the land where Modus Operandi now stands – I suppose you could say he was the former former tenant. Perhaps it’s his spirit that gave the Modus team their passion for cold chain distribution.
Whether you’re pondering Platonic philosophy or inventing new ways to keep beer cold, Silent Knight’s never a bad option.
PEPPER IN THE RYE SAISON
Would you believe there was a day when Modus had more saisons than IPAs on tap? About a year into the brewpub’s existence, Former Tenant and Zoo Feeder were outnumbered three-to-two by the farmhouse ales, albeit each with a twist. There was Tiny Dancer, a New World pilsner made with saison yeast; the excellently named MOFOS (Modus Operandi Funky Orange Saison); and there was Pepper in the Rye.
Though it’s long since gone, Pepper in the Rye has stuck in the minds of Grant and Jaz. Whether it’s the tangerine and peach aromatics, the spice of the rye, the hit of clove, or simply fond memories of when their brewery was young, this beer holds a special place in their hearts.
Grant takes a practical look at Modus’ foray into the style in the early days.
“Saisons were really important to us here at the brewpub to give us a full range, as we brought people over from wine. Particularly further up north, it’s pretty wine heavy, and a bit upmarket. People had preconceptions, so we had to strip that right down, and build that up, with people’s taste journeys from day one.
"Jaz and I poured every beer over the bar in the first days, and saisons did really well [at the brewpub] on the back of that. But not in the marketplace.”
Jaz takes a more romantic view: “I love saison. But we were a little bit too early. No one really knew what they were.
“I think we used to push them here a lot with tastings. We’d say, ‘Do you like wine? Try this.’ It was a nice little gateway for them. Or someone would say, 'I want a beer that tastes like a beer', but then you give them something like a saison and they say, ‘Wow! What is this?’
"It was like a fun park. That’s why we love the cellar door, where we get to interact with people and offer something they normally would never try."
Head to Modus Operandi on July 27 for their fifth birthday party and enjoy five special birthday brews: Surprise Party, a pavlova milkshake IPA; The Nightman Cometh, a dessert porter; Death Fog, a hazy pale; Brut Kviek IPA; and V, a barrel aged imperial stout. And because International IPA Day is so close, there’ll also be Pangea, their International IPA, and a keg only release of old favourite Zoo Feeder IPA.