WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND AND WHAT DREW YOU TO A CAREER IN BREWING?
My background is in engineering. I’m a chemical engineer by trade and dabbled in homebrewing at uni. I was also drinking lovely beers in the Midlands [where I grew up], and then I moved down to London. A couple of friends of mine were thinking of taking the whole brewery thing more seriously, as a career. It was recession time, and I hated my job anyway, so quit with no plan and started working in a pub where I learned more about the trade and it just went from there. That was over 10 years ago now. Beer was something I was interested in from my later teenage years, but I didn’t think I was going to be a brewer or anything like that. It really wasn’t until I moved to London, and I got a job in a pub that I started taking it seriously as a potential career choice.
WHAT WAS THE MOTIVATION BEHIND STARTING WILD CARD BREWERY?
Wild Card started in 2012. I remember at the time there were very few breweries around. Camden Town Brewery was only about a year old and so was Beavertown – there wasn’t anywhere near as much going on then as there is now. To put it into context, back then there were something like 10 breweries in the capital and today there are 110. So, you can imagine the speed of the growth. We just wanted to turn the thing we did as a hobby into a real job – and I don’t think you can underestimate the power of the recession. Our original plan was to start with a nano-pub but it became apparent that the space wasn’t big enough and the demand was higher than we would be able to generate, so we very quickly had to change our plans. It was definitely good timing, but it didn’t feel like that – it’s only with hindsight that you can look back and realise it was.
BREWING IS QUITE MALE DOMINATED. HOW HAVE YOU FOUND IT AS A WOMAN IN THE INDUSTRY?
Beer has always been massively male dominated, and that’s always difficult for women working in that space. Things have improved a lot in the past 10 years from when I started; there have been massive leaps in what’s acceptable in terms of labelling, etiquette and the way women are treated in the industry. We’re seeing a lot more women operate on the brewery floor and going into managerial and ownership positions. But there are issues that are prevalent across lots of businesses: the issue of the glass ceiling, of there not being enough women at ownership or managerial level. It’s certainly improved, but I would say there’s still a long way to go.
We’re seeing a lot more women operate on the brewery floor and going into managerial and ownership positions.
SIMILARLY, DO YOU THINK THAT BEER HAS ALSO LOST THE “LADETTE” STEREOTYPE AND THAT WE ARE SEEING A MORE DIVERSE CONSUMER?
It’s funny, I remember being told by a female friend, ‘You have to order a half pint of beer because it makes you look more feminine’. There’s a concept called “pink it and shrink it”; meaning in order to appeal to women, it has to be pink and it has to be small and dainty. I think it’s really interesting when you look at the roots of that and where it comes from in our society. Beer is one of the country’s most gendered drinks whereas countries such as Spain and Italy don’t gender beer in the same way. It’s much, much more common to see women drinking lager. I think a lot of the reasons have to do with advertising. Even though you don’t see those kinds of adverts anymore, the fact that we were bombarded with them for years has a legacy and that’s going to take a long time to shift. And the other thing is just pub culture generally. Back in the day, it was very common to have the bar and the lounge in the pub. The bar was for the men and the lounge was for the women and children. So, it was physically separated. I would say our gender split at Wild Card is 50/50. But context is important. I brew in the middle of East London so it’s a very multicultural and diverse place. It’s different when I go to a pub back home in Nottingham. Things have improved a huge amount but it’s really easy to be in the craft beer bubble. It’s important to try and improve your environment as much as you can to bring as many different types of people into your own space. Our goal as brewers is to sell more beer, so the more types of people that drink our beer, the better.
THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY WAS HIT HARD DURING THE PANDEMIC. HOW DID YOU NAVIGATE IT?
We’ve always been quite a diverse business and done a lot of events and things like that, which I think really helped in the pandemic. We had a canning line, so we were able to physically package our product, whereas a lot of breweries just weren’t in the same situation. Like everyone else, we set up an online shop overnight, and we delivered beer around the clock. Adapting was key but we had to do it in major ways, very suddenly. We just made the decision to keep going because from the beginning it was really unclear as to what was going to happen. And we were really terrified that if we stopped it would all be over.
HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE ASKED TO A JUDGE FOR THIS YEAR’S FORTNUM & MASON FOOD AND DRINK AWARDS AT THE ROYAL EXCHANGE?
Fortnum’s is like the Oscars! So being asked to take part in any way is just incredible. And it’s an event that I’ve been wanting to attend for years, so it’s honestly like the pinnacle of your career to be invited to take part in the judging panel. It was awesome.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE CATEGORY AT THE AWARDS?
Obviously I love it all but the things that are very much in my wheelhouse are best drinks book and best drinks writer – those kinds of categories. I read most drinks books that come out in the year because I do the BBC Food Programme Awards as well. So, I always have my eye out as to what’s going on.
WERE YOU FAMILIAR WITH ALL THE NOMINEES OR WAS THERE ANYONE NOT ON YOUR RADAR?
There were plenty of people who were not on my radar this year. And it’s great because the awards cover every sector imaginable in the world of food and drink. There were so many people that I wasn’t familiar with. But I don’t really pay too much attention to the names attached; everyone’s on a level playing field and I want to judge the entry according to what comes in.
FINALLY, WHAT IS YOUR DREAM MEAL AND ACCOMPANYING DRINK?
Mine would be a posh hipster burger. It has to be a cheeseburger that’s made with the highest quality meat – maybe with some bacon – cooked medium. Inside it’s got gherkins, raw onion, lettuce, tomato, mustard and ketchup. And there has to be pickles in there as well, with freshly made onion rings and well-cooked chips on the side. Oh, yeah, and a pint of IPA!
Jaega Wise (@jaegawise) is the co-founder and head brewer at East London taproom Wild Card Brewery. She is part of this year’s judging panel for the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards, which are being held at The Royal Exchange on Thursday 12 May.
This year’s panel is chaired by celebrated chef Angela Hartnett OBE; alongside Alice Lascelles, drinks writer and author; Freddy Bulmer, drinks communicator and buyer at The Wine Society; Georgina Hayden, author, food writer and presenter; Jaega Wise, head brewer at Wild Card Brewery and broadcaster; Mark Diacono, food writer, photographer, author and cook; and Tara Wigley food writer, cook and author. To learn more about the awards and previous winners visit: fortnumandmason.com. Follow on social media @Fortnums and #FandMawards.