Having great female role models in the brewing industry gave Little Creatures Geelong head brewer Jody Thomas the confidence to say, “If she can do it I can too”.
Thomas’ own role model is New Zealand-based brewer Tracy Banner, whose 30-plus years in brewing has seen her work as the head brewer for some of New Zealand’s largest breweries. Banner is regarded by some as the “mother of New Zealand brewing”.
While Banner was a source of inspiration, Thomas became convinced she wanted to work in beer during her time at university in the United States. Having won an All American Rowing Scholarship to study at Washington State University in 2004, Thomas embarked on a Bachelors degree in microbiology and biochemistry.
Thomas said that while she was studying she really started to enjoy the brewing community over there and became obsessed with becoming a brewer.
After her studies, and missing her New Zealand home, Thomas made the decision to return to the Southern Hemisphere in 2007 where she made her start in the brewing industry as a trainee brewer, first at Mac’s Brewery in Wellington and then at Speights Brewery in Dunedin.
From Dunedin, Thomas travelled up to Auckland where she took on a brewery and beverage team leader role at Lion’s Greenfield multi-beverage production facility.
“I became obsessed with becoming a brewer.”
Her move to Australia came in December 2011 when Thomas started as the new product development brewer for Lion’s cider business just as the cider boom started taking off in Australia.
“I was heavily involved in making products like James Squire Orchard Crush Apple and Pear range, a few different Perry ciders and a few beers on the side as well but it was mostly focused on cider,” she said.
“I think I’ve always just loved learning different things, for me, it’s all about learning new things and getting new experiences.”
From there, Thomas spent some time as the quality brewer at Tooheys. She said that liaising with the likes of the Heinekens of the world around licenced brewing and learning from some of the heavyweights in the industry gave her the deeper, more technical knowledge.
Thomas achieved her first head brewer position in 2016 for Lion’s West End Brewery in Adelaide. The production facility had just gone through a $70 million redevelopment.
At the West End Brewery, Thomas said she gained a lot of experience in brewing both mainstream beers and what she describes as gateway craft beers as well.
“I got the opportunity to run a whole department and get some really good exposure to the financial aspects of running your own budget,” she said.
“I was really able to brush up on my technical, acumen side of production and got more exposure to procurement, supplier, quality assurance and that sort of thing from that role.
“It was a really great learning experience.”
There’s a palpable change in her voice when Thomas describes landing the head brewer role at Little Creatures Geelong.
Having begun her career in craft, Thomas said that starting at Creatures was like coming home.
“Creatures was brought out east about five years ago where it was started by 11 people,” she said.
“We now have a staff of 47 and we’re currently doing around 30 million litres a year and a lot of that growth has happened in the last 18 months.
“So, we’re sort of busting at the seams a little bit, so it’s a really good challenge in terms of how we stabilise what we do and how we make sure all of our processes are working well.
“When you grow so quickly that can be a challenge in itself.
“We’ve probably still got a little bit more investment and expansion to consider and that’s pretty exciting as well.”
With three hospitality venues on site and financial and business decisions to be made, Thomas said the role has been varied from operations to the commercial side of the business.
“Honestly, the team here at Creatures is just fabulous and a talented bunch of brewers,” she enthused.
Having operated on all brewery scales, from the pilot side of brewing onto one of the largest breweries in Australia, Jody said they have been very different experiences.
“In craft it’s around making best use of your resources and thinking smarter about what you’re doing and it’s quite hands-on and manual and you’re really quite connected to your raw materials and your suppliers and your products, in sort of a different way.
“It can be challenging, [in craft] we do a lot more innovation and there can be a lot more drive from the brewers in that space.
“In the larger systems you get unlimited access to brewing technical knowledge and experience, so you really have access to develop yourself technically into becoming a really proficient brewer, both at a technical level and also at a leadership level and a business acumen level.
“You’re quite well supported at the larger sites in your professional development.”
Thomas said that she’s never had many mental barriers when it came to being a woman in the brewing industry.
“I probably do have to talk myself into doing things sometimes like everyone else but I never thought that I couldn’t do it,” she explained.
“When I was first trying to get a job in the industry, I don’t know why it was, but I just gravitated towards Tracy Banner.
“I knew that she had her name on the Mac’s bottles and I knew that she had developed all these great beers and I was like, a super fan.
“I remember when I met her for the first time, it was like, I was actually having a fan moment.
“It’s so funny, it could have been Lady Gaga walking down the street or meeting Tracy Banner and I would have been more excited about meeting Tracy.
“If someone is sort of like you and they’re doing it, you sort of never second guess that you can do it too.”
With a role model such as Banner, Thomas always felt that if other women were doing it then why not her as well.
“It could have been Lady Gaga walking down the street or meeting Tracy Banner and I would have been more excited about meeting Tracy.”
When it comes to the physical barriers to working in the beer industry, Thomas said that she has been working with her colleagues to challenge traditional notions of strength and capability.
“One thing we want to achieve here at Creatures is that every role on site should be that pretty much anyone can do it,” she said.
“If you have to bend over backwards to do stuff, you’re probably not doing it safely.
“You don’t have to be a young, fit 20-year-old to be working in brewing so it’s about how do we make it sustainable for everyone.”
Assessing the craft beer market, Thomas said that customer experience is now more important than ever. She said that consumers will leave a brand if they have even one bad experience.
“There could be a few ticking time bombs out there in terms of people who have grown really quickly or who might not be 100 per cent in control of their quality,” she said.
“People don’t complain in the ways that they used to.”
Of the beers she now oversees the production of, Jody said her favourite is still the Little Creatures Pale.
“I honestly just love having a chalice of the pale ale,” she said.
“I will have the other beers that we make here but I will go back to that one because if the pale is tasting great, things are good.
“I like that word too, right, I think you know the glassware there’s something romantic about it, you’re at the home of little creatures and you’re having a chalice of pale.
“In a way, the experience of enjoying the beer at the end of the day recalibrates you after a long day.
“It always just keeps you grounded, you’re making beer no matter what’s gone on that day it’s not brain surgery.”
It’s all for the love of beer.
“It’s got such a deep and romantic history, the craftsmanship involved in creating different styles and the connectivity to farmers and agriculture,” she explained.
“Beer and being lucky enough in my life to have had a great experience with brewing, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”