Jody Thomas is not the only university student who took beer seriously but there aren’t too many who forge a career out of it. The Little Creatures head brewer was studying genetics and microbiology at Washington State University, on a rowing scholarship, when the seed was planted.
“I was working part-time in a lab and while I loved the science I knew I didn’t necessarily want to be in a lab for the rest of my life so I started thinking about different options,” Thomas says.
There was a thriving brewing scene in the area, in the mid 2000s, that piqued her interest.
“I loved beer and became a bit fixated on becoming a brewer. The American experience really enlightened me,” she says.
But the career path for when she returned to her home country, New Zealand, wasn’t necessarily clear.
“How do you even become a brewer? It’s not like winemaking where there are courses offered.”
She did some online research and ended up applying to various breweries in New Zealand. She was staying with a friend in Boston when she had a Skype interview with Lion for its graduate program.
The ‘certified beer nerd’ was invited back for another interview in person. She was surprised to discover at the group interview that everyone present wasn’t an aspiring brewer: some wanted to work in marketing, HR, sales. Thomas was offered a job at Speights, a craft brewery, in 2006.
“The head brewer was a bit unorthodox but he liked me. He could tell I was genuine,” she says. “I started out very hands on. In my first week I learned how to do so many different things – from opening the roller doors to actually starting a brew. It was super rewarding.”
At the time she had lots of friends starting full-time work and she realised that loving her job was a privilege.
“I just kept thinking ‘My gosh I am so spoilt’,” she says. “Lots of my friends were realising that work wasn’t what they expected. I absolutely loved having a non-conventional job. It was academic and hands-on in a vibrant industry.”
She has moved around the business between New Zealand and Australia working on different products since then but has remained with the same company.
“Each brewery is quite unique in its personality, history and culture which for me has kept my job fresh. This is my eighth brewery.”
It was – and remains – a male dominated field but she’s worked with some strong female role models and mentors and says there are more women coming up through the ranks.
“Go for it” is the advice she has for any woman aspiring to a career in beer. “There are so many opportunities.”
Missing out on a job she had assumed she had in the bag was a pivotal experience. After stewing on it she got some feedback that she took on board.
“I hadn’t backed myself,” she says. “I challenged myself to put myself out there and to approach roles with the enthusiasm and confidence that I was the best candidate.”
The next time a role came around she was successful.
“The chap who had previously knocked me back was part of the same panel and he was impressed,” she says. “That felt rewarding – missing out was a good thing to have happened to me.”
Being promoted to Little Creatures Geelong head brewer in December of 2018 was a dream. “It was returning to my roots in a way,” she says.
Thomas says she has felt supported by the employer she has stayed with for 13 years and is unsurprised it has been recognised as a WGEA employer of choice for women.
Lion’s chief executive, Stuart Irvine, says gender equality and diversity are paramount for the business.
Back in 2016 a pay-gap analysis revealed some pay discrepancies. “This caught a number of us by surprise,” he says. “As an organisation that values meritocracy and inclusion, we didn’t expect to find anything. So, the pay gap we were then faced with raised some tough conversations internally.”
The decision was taken to immediately close the gap between like-for-like roles, an action that delivered 1,600 employees a $6 million pay rise.
“Why should people wait, for example, five years for equal pay?” he asks. “Organisations must do their own pay gap analyses so that they know where the inequality hotspots are and then act to equalise them, in my view, straight away.”
Overconfidence and complacency are what Irvine describes as “key barriers” to creating diverse and inclusive workplaces.
“The mandate must come from the top and be continually cascaded through senior leaders,” he says. “It’s not set and forget and target-setting is vital.”