I interviewed Jayne Lewis, inspirational female founder and head brewer of Two Birds Brewing, one of the fastest growing craft breweries in Australia. Read on to learn how Jayne approaches brewing, her work/life balance and tackling the structural barriers in the Aussie beer industry.
If you’ve spent time in Australia, you may know that Australians suffer acutely from something called cultural cringe. There can’t be a country in the world more attached to a set of stereotypes than the land down under (I mean I’m kind of doing it by calling Australia the land down under), and, in the main, its inhabitants hate it. Australia is a modern, diverse, vibrant country, so it’s not surprising that the locals get a touch peeved being constantly asked directions to the bar from Crocodile Dundee.
For that reason, breweries don’t tend to use Aussie clichés in their naming conventions – the names of their breweries or the names of their beers. There’s no Boomerang Brewery, no Alligator Attack! IPA, no Cuddly Koala Smoked Ale.
But there is one exception to this rule: fast-growing Two Birds Brewing Co. in Melbourne’s western suburbs. You see, in Australia bird is slang for woman, as in chick. And Two Birds was founded in 2011 by – you guessed it – two women. Two women unafraid to put a colloquial joke in their brewery’s name. And given that breweries founded and managed by an all-female crew are as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth, who can blame them?
Danielle Allen and Jayne Lewis are fast friends hailing from Perth, the largest city on Australia’s west coast. In 2010 the pair took a long trip down the West Coast of the US to experience the food and drink scene, right as American craft beer was tipping from interesting niche to unstoppable force. The two fell in love with the idea of running their own brewery.
Jayne Lewis, trained as a wine maker, was already a pretty experienced brewer, having worked for the Matilda Bay, Little Creatures and Mountain Goat breweries in Western Australia and Melbourne. Danielle Allen worked for Woolworths, Australia’s biggest grocery chain, and had a good grip on how her small food and drink suppliers operated.
The two began with a contract brewing arrangement, launching their Golden Ale in 2011, and in 2013 got the capital together to open their own production brewery in Spotswood, outer Melbourne. (It’s a 10 minute train ride from the city center.) The brewery is of course known as The Nest.
One sunny Friday afternoon, I was welcomed to The Nest by Lewis, fresh out of a meeting to arrange food and beer pairings for an upcoming event. “I love talking about food and beer,” she remarked as we walked through the brewery. “I take inspiration from gastronomy for my brewing. I’ve worked in wine and beer, but food is my first love.”
Indeed, Taco Beer, the brewery’s wonderfully zesty coriander- and lime-infused wheat beer, was designed by Jayne to mimic her favorite food experience. “There’s nothing I love more than eating a super-fresh fish taco in the sunshine in San Diego!” she enthused to me. “San Diego is one of my favorite places in the world so I wanted to make a beer that evokes the feeling of being there.”
She isn’t doing too badly. Taco Beer came in at #13 in the GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft beers for 2015, as voted by the drinking public. Yep, Jayne’s taco fantasy resulted in the 13th most popular craft beer in Australia.
I tasted the rest of the Two Birds portfolio as it was pouring that day. Their biggest sellers are their flagship Golden Ale, a crisp, quaffable light ale, and Sunset Ale, a maltier, rounder amber ale brewed with crystal malt and some Australian-grown Cascade. (“Aussie Cascade tends to be a bit juicier and fruitier than the US-grown stuff,” Jayne informed me.)
I also tried the deliciously aromatic Bantam IPA, a self-proclaimed 4.7% ABV session IPA with plenty of light tropical fruit hoppiness; but I got stuck on Citra ‘n Ella Saison, a hoppy, light saison with a new world focus on fragrant hops. It was so delightful I had more than one. And maybe more than that.
“We’re so pleased with how quickly we’re establishing and expanding our brand just 18 months after having opened our own brewery” Jayne explained to me. “It’s really about managing our growth at this stage: not getting ahead of ourselves. We brewed 400,000 liters of beer last year [that’s just over 3,000 US barrels] and we’re on track to grow pretty significantly in 2016. Our kegged beer is made here on site and our bottled beer is still made under contract, so our next big target is for 100% of our beer to be made in house. We have the market potential, we just need to manage the business side of things.”
What does she feel the Two Birds brand means to people now? More than just being beer made by women, I’m guessing? (Worth noting that Lewis is the President of the Pink Boots Society, a group supporting women in beer, for Australia. It’s something she takes seriously.)
“I hope so!” Lewis exclaimed. “And I genuinely don’t think that’s the case. The Australian craft beer scene is growing like crazy right now, and I think Two Birds has carved out a reputation as a brewery that makes very approachable, food-friendly beers. I’m also incredibly proud of our quality controls – I believe we have a reputation for high quality beers. Overall I think people see the brand as light-hearted and fun with a very dependable, accessible product.”
I left The Nest with a belly full of delicious beer, and a lot of respect for Jayne Lewis’s calm but determined drive to succeed. To me, a true Aussie stereotype is a hard-working optimist who laughs off a problem and sees the glass in front of her as half full. That’s a stereotype Two Birds readily lives up to. And I hope they don’t mind me saying that.
10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Jayne Lewis, Co-Founder and Head Brewer, Two Birds Brewing
- Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?
Makes approachable, easy-drinking beers that we like to drink ourselves.
- How long have you worked here?
Working on this business for four and a half years, at this site for just over 18 months. Two Birds has been around for a while, but it’s really the last year and a half, since we started brewing on site, that I’ve felt like we’re taking off. Being the master of your own destiny is what owning a business is all about.
- How and why did you come to be here?
Is sheer bloody-mindedness an acceptable answer? I had been making beer for other people for a number of years, and like most brewers I had the idea in the back of my mind that I’d rather be brewing for myself.
On the one hand I feel like it’s been years of strife to get to where we are, but on the other it’s actually happened pretty straightforwardly. It’s been a lot of hard work, but it could have gone a lot worse. Let’s put it that way!
- What is your daily routine?
On a good day, get up, get to the gym and get to work by about 8.30. I’ll have breakfast here and either spend the day on the brewery floor if it’s a brew day or try to conquer the mountain of emails and admin that I always seem to sit on.
We have a good group of employees, and my main job is making sure they have what they need and are doing what they’re supposed to. My job these days is probably a third PR and marketing, a third ingredients ordering and brew-planning and then a third traffic controller.
I finish up about 5.30, head home and have dinner, then hit the laptop for another three hours or so. I’m usually done by 10pm.
I’ve drawn a bit of a line in the sand about weekend work recently – I try not to do it. Obviously a lot of beer stuff happens on weekends, so sometimes it’s unavoidable, but I try to keep my head free on the weekend if I can. It didn’t used to be that way!
- What is the hardest thing about your job?
Managing a work-life balance, which is probably the case for most people. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and I think as an entrepreneur you have to learn that, accept it, and deal with it. Starting a brewery from scratch means you could work 24/7 if you wanted to, you wouldn’t run out of things to do. But you would run out of juice, so you have to manage your time to manage your energy.
- In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?
There’s no secret – it’s a 50-50 blend of good beer and good business sense. You can get along for a while with just one of those two, but you can’t go all the way. Sooner or later you’ll get tripped up.
- What is success for you?
Getting 100% of our beer brewed on site is our next big milestone – our bottled beer is still brewed under contract elsewhere.
In the longer term I’d like to be playing a bigger role in the industry, helping it to grow. I hope I’ll still be here and I’m confident that Two Birds will be a healthy business, and hopefully it’ll give me the freedom to play a wider role in beer in Australia. Not sure what that looks like, but I like helping people in this industry, as I currently do with the Pink Boots Society. I’ll always be in beer: it’s my life.
- If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
Excise tax, for sure. I spend a bit of time in the States, and I think the biggest difference between here and America is tax on beer. I literally carry a table around with me that shows me the different tax rates for the ABV of beer, and it has a huge influence on how I brew. And it does for everyone else too. If you brew a strong beer – even 6% or 7% ABV – it’s going to be extremely expensive for the consumer, and it’s very hard to build your business around that.
I’m very proud of our portfolio of beers, but I’d like to brew a few more outlandish, challenging beers from time to time. It’s almost impossible for me to do that right now.
- Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?
- Saison Dupont, because it’s beautiful and amazingly crafted and so well put-together.
- Anything from Cantillon. I love their history and the delicate but powerful beers they make. Total game changers.
- Founders All Day IPA. The amount of hop character they squeeze into every bottle blows me away. Flavorsome and drinkable.
10. Apart from Two Birds tasting room, where’s the best place to get a beer in Melbourne?
Forester’s Hall in Fitzroy is a good default bar – 20 plus decent taps, good beer, awesome staff. Otherwise the Reverence Hotel in Footscray is a place I get to often. It’s not that “beer-y” but it’s fun, grungy, with a cool atmosphere. I like spending time there.