Interview - Jaega Wise, co-founder and head brewer, Wild Card Brewery
Jaega Wise co-founded London’s Wild Card Brewery 10 years ago. Now, Wise is a TV presenter, author, and pioneer brewer.
The former chemical engineer tells Lucy Britner how the idea grew from a passion for homebrewing and a penchant for visiting beer festivals with her friends.
After spells as a cuckoo brewery, using other brewers’ facilities, Wild Card started production at its Walthamstow base in 2014.
Friends Jaega Wise, Andrew Birkby and William John Harris continued to drive their business and a few years later the brewery outgrew its Ravenswood facility, moving to a bigger space. The original site was retained as a barrel store and taproom, while another taproom also features at the larger Lockwood site.
Head brewer Wise says Wild Card now makes 5,000hl a year. And the name? It came from being a bit of a wild card in the industry, with no major financial backing. “We always felt like outsiders in a way,” she says.
“To say we set it up with a credit card is not an understatement, And we’re a very lean company as a consequence, which is really good,” she adds, citing a tough few years for the industry with breweries “collapsing under the weight” of ongoing pressures, including Covid.
“Because of the size of us, we are able to pivot quite quickly and easily,” she says. “I remember our online shop - that was created within a day. It was not pretty, but it works.” She also reminisces about how, when the on-trade locked down, the brewery was “sitting on a mountain of kegs because we were prepping for summer”.
“Within about a week, we had all the kegs in bottles. We had bar staff pouring kegs into bottles and we were delivering them around the country. I did every scrap of media I could and was like ‘we have an online shop! We have an online shop!’.”
Wise says the online element of the business was something she and the team intended to get around to, but the pandemic brought focus. The brewery also won a Sky competition to have a TV ad, at the same time as a “really cool” company approached it to make a free ad for its portfolio.
“We were just like, oh my god, suddenly we have an ad on telly. It was a wild time. But all of us were thinking ‘what else can we do?’. I knew at the time, it was just like, we cannot stop because if we stop, we die. And there was so much uncertainty.”
She says the online shop is now an integral part of the brewery’s business. “The shop has added something that I can’t believe we didn’t have before.”
HERE FOR THE BEER
Wise is doing this interview from a sort of storeroom-cum-office, surrounded by boxes, books and beers. And speaking of books, she has recently released Wild Brews, which she says sold out on Amazon (though she reassures us it’s back in stock now).
“There’s loads of beers in the book that I have been working on for years and have not released commercially yet,” she says. Highlighting the company’s barrel store, she says the brewery is slowly releasing barrel-aged beers onto the market. “They are going to be the highlight of my career,” she adds.
Other recent releases include the Monsters series: Barbara IPA, Keith espresso stout, Lesley NEIPA and Alex pale ale. The labels were created in collaboration with east London artist Anna Borup. She also mentions a collaboration with Georgina Young, the brewing director at St Austell, with whom she recently made a New England style IPA called Locus Amoenus.
“I was so blown away by her,” says Wise. “She’s a very smart woman and not only did I enjoy the beer we made together but I was blown away by her knowledge – she’s been doing it for decades and if I can be half the brewer she is in my career, then I’ll be ecstatic.”
When it comes to beer styles, Wise points to a trend away from higher abvs.
“Right now, I cannot make enough hazy, very hoppy pales from 4.5-5.5% abv. Extremely hoppy and extremely hazy is the trend right now. Whenever I put them on sale, they sell out really quickly.”
She also flags the company’s 2.7% abv Table Beer. “I’m seeing lots more table beers out in the market. For alcohol-free, there’s a brewery in our area called Nirvana and we did a collab alcohol-free. It was extremely hard to make but I was pleased with it.”
And for those of you wondering where you recognise Wise from, you probably saw her star alongside James Blunt in the recent Amazon series Beer Masters. The AB InBev-backed show saw amateur brewers pitted against each other in a Bake Off-style brewing competition, with visits to some of AB InBev’s breweries thrown in.
She says of the experience: “You couldn’t ask for better. You get to travel around, drinking beer, working with amazing home brewers, working with James Blunt. It was great.”
And will Wild Card ever become one of, say, AB InBev’s breweries? “It’s not in our plans,” she says, adding: “I would never begrudge anybody who chooses to go in that direction. Brewing is bloody hard. It’s hard. It’s cold, it’s wet, and it’s long. It’s exhausting. And I know how hard it is to raise finance, so I would never begrudge anybody the decisions that they make for their business in order to put food on their table and for the staff to have jobs.”
Now, Wise is excited about the book, about impending new releases and eager to get off Zoom and back to the brewery.