On a recent trip to the UK, family duties meant beer business had to be squeezed into small windows. But, with Good Beer Week hooking up with London as its Good Beer Mates partner city for 2018 – and strict instructions to bring back samples for a chef preparing a course for the Mega Dega – a couple of trips into the capital were slotted into the schedule.
Thankfully, on one of them, the opportunity arose to cover plenty of bases: meeting up with one of the country's small number of female brewery owners, with a brewer campaigning against sexism in the British beer industry, a brewery owner who fronts a "post-rock, electric, trip hop" band and one who is a TV presenter as well.
Better still, it was possible to achieve all of this under the one roof, that of Wild Card Brewery in Walthamstow. And that was because brewery co-owner and head brewer Jaega Wise is all of the above – and was set to head to Good Beer Week in Melbourne with fellow brewery owners from Fourpure and Affinity Brew Co and British beer writer Melissa Cole.
Jaega and her team had just moved into their second brewery, still in the same suburb as their first but allowing them to increase output from 8,000 to 20,000 litres per week and turn their first home into a barrel ageing space. With just one brew having gone through the system at the new site and installation ongoing, the broad-ranging conversation was occasionally interrupted by strange noises from the brewery floor, causing Jaega to cast concerned glances over the tanks.
Yet, while sampling the last of a NEIPA, a porter, blonde ale, saison, IPA and an excellent "English lager" (so called for its use of English hops to create an otherwise authentic European lager), in the few hours we had before she had to prepare for a gig fronting Hell and Hope across the city, there was still time to gain an insight into the Wild Card story, Jaega's own multifaceted career and a feel for the beer scene across London as a whole.
Starting with the last of these, it's a city with a beer scene that's been experiencing turbo-charged growth. Jaega places Wild Card in the second wave of London craft breweries to open – in the same cadre as the likes of Beavertown and following on from others, such as Meantime (which sold to SABMiller and is now part of Asahi) and Camden Town (now owned by AB InBev).
While Wild Card released its first beer in 2012, she says it was in the following couple of years that things really exploded to the point today when there are more than 100 brewing companies calling the city home.
“The London scene is growing at a ridiculous pace," she says. "There’s a lot of new people in the scene. A lot of people that used to work at other breweries have set up their own place and then there are people who see beer as an opportunity."
It means beer is reaching more places: like the mini-markets of Melbourne's outer suburbs, beer from small breweries is appearing in London's corner shops. At the same time, there are more people playing in those spaces.
"If you speak to a lot of other people they might tell you it's saturated. I don't see that at all personally," she says. "We do have to work harder. Just in terms of the potential places you could sell, you could have an entire business just selling to London pubs. That said, having spoken to our sales team they say you can now walk into a venue and you're twentieth person they've seen that day."
"With the competition you just have to be smart," she adds, pointing out that Wild Card has just sent its first shipment to supermarket chain Tesco in a deal that will see their beers appear in 240 stores. "The worst thing you can do in 2018 is do nothing, whether that means working with supermarkets or having a bar. I wouldn't like to be a brewery with no tap room."
It's not just the massive growth in new brewing companies that makes it an interesting time in the UK. If you're producing cask as well as keg beer, there are other challenges. On the one hand, there are far tighter margins when it comes to cask beer, with venues and drinkers generally unwilling to go beyond a certain price point even as the price drinkers are willing to pay for craft beer – local or imported – continues its upward trajectory towards those we pay in Australia.
And then there is the well publicised situation regarding CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). According to commentators such as Pete Brown, the association that helped keep real ale alive and bring it back to prominence over the past four decades seems to be attempting to shoot itself in the foot while stepping, Sideshow Bob style, on a series of rakes.
Fellow London Good Beer Mates Affinity launched Cask2018 with an aim "to start a positive conversation about cask-conditioned beer", conversations hopefully more positive than those Jaega has faced from real ale purists.
“I was at an event in Essex on Easter Sunday and I got called the devil because I 'make that keg beer'," she says. "He was deadly serious and shaking with anger.
"We were serving the Queen of Diamonds [IPA]. It was cloudy – he sent it back without even trying it. 'I refuse to drink that cloudy nonsense.'
“It's easy to get caught in a bubble – easy to talk in an echo chamber. I sat there and spoke to [his group] for ages. He didn't try the IPA but did try the porter. I come from the land of the pale ale you don't get this irrational hate."
Her business partners, William Harris and Andrew Birkby, also hail from the land of the pale ale, Nottinghamshire in the East Midlands, and initial met through school and friends. The three ended up working in London after university and, when William and Andrew suggested they should take their homebrewing more seriously and launch a beer, Wild Card was born.
They started out gypsy brewing – or cuckoo brewing as they term it – and with just one beer, the Jack of Spades red ale. Initially, Jaega, who had quit her post-uni job in international chemical import and trading to "work in a pub and sing for my living" was the driver, but now holds the title of head brewer. And, in the years since launching as cuckoos, they've gone from opening one venue to the second and raised a quarter of a million pounds via crowd-funding in just one week to facilitate growth along the way.
It means they now operate two tap rooms within the same London suburb: the one at the Lockwood site where we meet is a stripped back affair within a warehouse, with wooden benches on a mezzanine and beers pouring from taps in the wall of the cool-room. Despite its basic setup, it's a bar that pays London minimum wage, something Jaega says not many bars do but which offers an insight into the ethos behind the brewery, one where the owners are happy to grow at their own steady pace.
"We want people to be able to live on their work," she says of the decision they took over pay from day one. "It's pointless being able to have a full-time job and not have a standard of life.”
As for their lives as brewers, it's been a trajectory as colourful as the beautiful labels that adorn their beers, designed by collage artist Valero Doval, a friend of Andrew's. By a quirk of fate, when they took the keys to their first site in Ravenswood, God's Own Junkyard had just opened next door. It's an operation that creates neon signs, owns the largest collection of them in Europe and was open as a venue on weekends.
"They've moved into days before us," says Jaega. “We were like, 'This is amazing.’ We put a pallet outside with some bottles on top and, for the first couple of months, every customer that came out of there was offered beer."
They offered up their own and those from other small London breweries and, slowly but surely, from early takings of around $70 a day, they built a following.
"We tried to sell beer and a lot of people felt sorry for us,” says Jaega.
These days, it's less a case of feeling sorry than looking on in admiration as the brewery continues on its upward trajectory, all while keeping a focus on doing the right thing, from its pay structure to supporting community initiatives and installing environmentally sound upgrades in the new brewery.
As for Jaega, the transition from chemical engineer to driver to head brewer is only part of the story. We have to wrap up our conversation so she can get ready for that evening's gig, while she's become a central figure in the fight against sexism in beer (you can read more in this article) and to push for greater diversity in what remains an overwhelmingly white industry, even in this most multicultural of cities. On top of that, she appears on ITV's The Wine Show and will be stopping in Sydney on the way back from Good Beer Week for meetings about potential opportunities here.
"We've all just got on with it and do our own thing and follow our own path,” she says.
Given she only turned 30 with a party at The Catfish earlier this week, it's one worth following.
Jaega is at The Catfish tonight (May 16) for a Wild Card showcase. You can catch Melissa Cole discussing independence on an IBA panel at the Festival Hub on May 17. And there are London beers pouring all week at The Catfish, plus other British and Irish beers appearing as part of Pint of Origin.