Modus: Ten Lessons From Ten Years

April 12, 2024, by James Smith

https://craftypint.s3.amazonaws.com/crafty/learn/Insight-icon-230620-122146-230706-154349.png
Modus: Ten Lessons From Ten Years

This weekend marks a decade since a small brewery called Modus Operandi, based in Mona Vale in the Northern Beaches, launched their first beers, complete with a logo featuring a silhouette of a hatted man with a cane between a pair of rhinoceros. As they celebrate ten years of beers with friends, family and fans, founders Jaz and Grant Wearin do so having come rather a long way, and having followed a path that's very much their own.

The gent and his rhinos are long gone, replaced early on by the sharper, contemporary MO branding that's evolved little since. They now call a schmick brewery venue in the Newcastle suburb of Merewether their home, after opening a second site there in 2021. And while they've released a limited edition anniversary version of the beer that helped bring them to the attention of many a beer geek back in the mid-2010s, Former Tenant, these days much of their focus is on them Mexican-inspired range kick-started by their biggest seller, Modus Cerveza.

Along the way, there have been awards aplenty: the story of their sweep at the Craft Beer Awards, the forerunner for the Indies, just three months after launching has become part of modern Australian beer folklore. They've been pioneers in many areas too: one of the early adopter of cans (and CANimals), as well as testing the country's appetite for beer in 500ml cans; one of the first indies to create a non-alc range (NORT); among the loudest advocates for the "fresh is best" message once they had beer lovers' ears; and today they're using their Cerveza to push the environmental benefits of supporting local brewers using local rather than imported ingredients,

Even if you've never tried one of their beers, there's a good chance you've had something excellent brewed by one of their former brewers. When they launched they did so with DJ McCready at the helm – you might have heard of the brewery he's since launched with wife Harriet in the Blue Mountains – who was followed into the head brewer hot seat by Dennis de Boer, who went on to become the joint head brewer with his wife Jess at White Bay in Balmain.

Other Modus alumni can be found doing great things elsewhere in the beer world too, both close to the OG Modus home in the Northern Beaches (Jonny Bucknall at Freshwater Brewing Co) and further afield (Amanda Baker at Lost Palms on the Gold Coast) to name just two.

But why rely on us to tell the tale of their first ten years when you can get it straight from the Wearins themselves. Given their path to today is unlike any of the hundreds of other brewing companies that have operated in Australia over the same period, we were pretty sure they'd have plenty of reflections and insights to share, so we invited them to feature in our Ten Lessons From Ten Years series.


Jaz & Grant Wearin

 

1. If you're going to dedicate your life and savings into what was a hobby then make sure you fucking love it – Grant

You pour your savings, sweat and tears and a good chunk of your life and working career into this challenge so you need to find ways to continue to love it: evolve and entertain your love of this game. Whilst new beer days continue to keep us engaged, there are more grown-up things that keep us motivated nowadays, and they carry a lot of weight. 

Career acceleration is a continuing theme in our industry; we have helped accelerate so many careers and seeing someone or a whole team face that challenge and grow into it is immeasurably rewarding.

Having a mum and dad and a cute family walk in with their son or daughter who works here for a meal and a meet and great and a yarn is incredibly rewarding. I had one dad with tears in his eyes come up to me quietly one day and just thank us for giving his son, who had no experience, "a chance". Stuff like that makes you love it beyond the products you create, and the broader impact within the communities you operate in is where we find additional love for the game. 

Take our Modus Cerveza and Rural Aid partnership – giving back to rural communities in need by buying locally owned and brewed lager – in clear glass! – and reducing our carbon footprint along the way; Our Ten Men "Can It" brewing collab where we collaborated with a Ukrainian Brewery called Ten Men, tipped the hat to the futility of the War on Ukraine and helped start Ten Men on a global quest to collaborate with breweries worldwide to rebuild their brewery. It's purposeful stuff like this that ensures we continue to fucking love it.


2. Being innovative is way cooler than following the pack – Jaz

The US road trip that inspired Modus.

 

We have all seen it in beer: someone comes out with something really cool and then, in six months, the same or very similar vision is recreated. We thrive on innovation and it is a huge factor for why we love doing what we do. 

To go that extra mile and create something unique and then see something very similar in the market six months later used to really get our goat, especially when they were a multinational brewery with more budget and would smother us! But, now, we recognise we played an important role in the last decade from CANimals, 500ml cans, stickered labels on cans, really big tap decals, a prolific limited program, gradient coloured cans, a big fuckin' beer bus, non-alcoholic bottled beer, bottled cerveza etc – it's been a privilege to be bring some of these things first to market and see them live on. 

Innovation and creativity has been a key for our longevity – it keeps us excited to poke our heads around the next corner. 


3. Working with your better half is actually a lifesaver – Jaz (after winning rock paper scissors)

Grant and Jaz building the original Modus Operandi in Mona Vale.

 

"How do you work with your husband?"

It's a question we get asked a lot. I am not going to lie, it is not all beer and skittles, especially when you are growing fast and you are all up in each others grill, BUT, ten years later, I feel so grateful to have Grant by my side. He still pisses me off, and there are some meetings where our team slides down in their meeting chairs when we disagree on something, but we have learnt to work really respectfully with each other. We have our own lanes and trust each other on what decisions are made in those lanes. We can bounce ideas off each other without ego or judgement and we really are on the same side and want the best for each other and the business. 

This has been particularly pertinent in the last few years whilst the industry has taken some tumbles. It's harder to lead when times are tough, but to have someone by your side during these periods is a lifesaver. I do not feel alone in the business, ever. 

The one thing we are very firm on, however, is that there is no work talk when we get home, and we don't go to as many breweries on holidays because we inevitably start talking about Modus. But the most rewarding element of working with your worse half is that we share drop-offs / pick-ups / school holidays with our little man Arch, and can be really present with him because we can share the workload around and understand where each other is at. Luv ya, Wearin – thanks for doing this crazy arse business with me for the last ten years x


4. You can always be better: Tough times grow you into better leaders – Grant

Celebrating Mona Vale's completion with some Former Tenant.

 

The trading headwinds began on the east coast with the bushfires in summer 2019. They stretched nationally through COVID into November 2022 with the added supply chain aftermath and rampant cost push inflation into the current day today. 

That's four years of unimaginable headwinds and it's an amazing achievement to see small breweries still standing today; it's important to separate your energies into what you can control and what you cannot. 

Much of the above is beyond your control but your staffing, operational and financial decisions are within your control. For example, Modus made the decision during COVID not to lay off a single employee. We stuck to that, perhaps somewhat over-heroically from a numbers point of view, and, yeah, we were partially subsidised by the Australian Government with the Jobkeeper program. But the longer term impact of that empathy driven decision goes far beyond the numbers in this instance. 

The upside to Modus from that decision has grown today's team into one of the leading teams in Australian brewing today, across all aspects of our business. Those headwinds forced us to make a decision, lead in a way that spread decisions further across the business and to others, but the payoff is clear today – our team is best in class and we are proud to have them alongside us running this business across multiple brewing and venue operations. 

The lesson here being that empathy and your own moral compass in times of need can drive your best decisions.


5. Not letting ego drive your decisions – Jaz

The expanded Modus family in front of Modus Merewether well before it looked like...

 

Egos. They are dangerous things in a business. We learnt years ago that brewing from ego limits your customer base and stifles your team creativity and culture. 

When we got into brewing, we were passionate about high ABV IPAs, bitter hoppy pales and spicy saisons. But those people that enjoyed those brews with us have evolved. Yep, the hipster in all of us in the early 10s (you remember: Mumford & Sons, checkered shirts, lots of facial hair and, of course, high ABV beers) has evolved. And that's OK. 

We still enjoy those same beers – all hail a limited program! – but we also enjoy some lighter styles to go with our evolved lifestyles. We didn't think we would have a non-alcoholic brand (NORT) or brew Modus Cerveza in clear bottles when we started, but we let our egos get out of the way and listened to our customers. I can't wait to see how this evolves again in the next ten years!

Bring it on. Ego be gone. 


6. Having your own brewpub is a mighty good stress relief – Grant

...this.

 

Self-explanatory. Cold, tank-fresh beer at the end of a shift. Enough said.

It also gives you immediate and direct feedback on all that you’re doing in your operations to the two most important elements of your business: your customers and your staff.


7. Budget for everything then triple it – Grant 

The beer that introduced many craft drinkers to Modus, which has made a return to celebrate their tenth birthday.

 

You've heard it before in brewing, we've lived it: building our 3,000m2, 10 million litre capacity per annum Newcastle facility through COVID from the ground up. Maybe not triple but, if you triple it, you'll at least have a buffer for times like we see now.

I am so grateful we do not have to build another one in a hurry – although see Jaz's comments on enjoying the journey below, ha!


8. Brewing your beer in your own facility is a great luxury – Jaz

 

We have always been passionate about owning our own equipment, our own facility, and having complete control over our production. It is what has made us champion small, medium and large brewery in our ten years, and what continues to propel us forward. We know not everyone has that same opportunity but, somehow, we have bloody done it. 

We have also had experience on the opposite side of the glass: we did have a contract brewing period when we released NORT into the market and it was a great lesson for us. Short version, we much prefer to be at the helm. Long version, we were reliant on another party and giving over that kind of control can be terrifying, especially if you aren't given 100 percent visibility and things have the potential to go south. Massive headache, as you can imagine. 

This propelled us to install a new bottling line in our new facility in Merewether and we haven't looked back. There are some attractive elements to contract brewing, like not having to look after your line when there are mechanical failures, staffing resources etc, but to be the master of your own destiny is priceless. We actually now offer contract brewing at our Merewether facility and it is something we take very seriously after our experience. We have learned some valuable lessons and applied that to our partner brewing process to the benefit of the customer.


9. Enjoy the journey – Jaz

 

You read this in those inspirational entrepreneur books you read a few times in your life. And I have to be honest, we are not good at this all the time. But when we do remind ourselves, wow, what an achievement and a privilege. 

We made a conscious decision to get out of our cushy day jobs, throw caution to the wind, sell our apartment and put everything into this business and, you know what, even during those tough times, I wouldn't change it. I mean, when you list it out sometimes, it's seriously a dream job. You get to taste new beers all the time, go to pubs and chat to good people, come up with any beverage that tickles your fancy, make funny videos and take the piss out of yourself, dream big and create a flagship brewery, head to surf, marathon, music, footy, beer festivals etc on high rotation and work with awesome legends that don't have an ego. 

We have loved living a life outside the norm and this business has been the catalyst for that.


10. People make a brewery not any individual – Grant  

 

There is no I in Team. 

It's taken time and growing maturity to find balance and realise the importance of the whole team in your journey as opposed to one or two individuals. Even from the get go, we had a close knit team that relied wholly on each other to balance strengths and weaknesses. What started out as a handful of people dreaming together, creating together, brewing together and succeeding together has fruited into so many incredible breweries. 

Huge lesson here is on how immeasurably rewarding it is to see how many new breweries have been started off the back of working at Modus. All of them – six by my last count! – both individuals and breweries they've moved on to lead or create, are extremely successful in various ways.

I’d love to ask the same question of Stone & Wood or 4 Pines? How many breweries did ex-staff create? I bet the number is mind-blowing. 

The greatest mistake you can make is turning any one person into a hero or personally having an ego yourself. Doing that gives you no room for team recognition or to make your brewery better. Pedestalling owners or brewers into the sole source of success in a brewery's journey – we’ve learnt it's always the team that drives and leads success, never one individual making all the decisions. Another huge lesson for us as we grow into the future...


You can read other entries in the Ten Lessons From Ten Years here.

https://craftypint.s3.amazonaws.com/crafty/learn/Insight-icon-230620-122146-230706-154349.png

Discover more Insight & Analysis articles

If you enjoy The Crafty Pint, you can become a supporter of our independent journalism.

You can make a donation or sign up for our beer club, The Crafty Cabal, and gain access to exclusive events, giveaways and special deals.

Obsidian 2024
Lallemand May 2024 B
Cryer E
Bintani- Updated Behind The Brew- E