Today, our International Women’s Day coverage continues as we talk to Jaega Wise who has not one but two dream jobs: making beer at the Wild Card brewery in London, and TV and radio presenter.
It’s hard to believe that back in the mid ‘00s, there were only two breweries in London, Fuller’s in Chiswick and Meantime in Greenwich. Now there are hundreds. Playing her part in this beer renaissance is Jaega Wise at the Wild Card brewery in Walthamstow, East London. She’s seen how the capital has regained its historic role as a beer powerhouse. “We started in 2012, and in the late 2000s, I think there were ten breweries in London. To put it into context now there’s about 110 breweries,” she said.
As with many people in the drinks business, she fell into her role accidentally. “I grew up in Nottingham and I was just drinking beer, like a lot of people do in Nottingham”. She studied chemical engineering at Loughborough and in 2012 ended up helping out at a brewery founded by some drinking buddies, Wild Card. “And then I never really left,” she said, “My training is perfect for brewing but I wasn’t doing it consciously.”
Making beer more inclusive
She’s now head brewer. I asked her how she found being a young woman in what is still a male-dominated profession. “I’m a brewer before I’m a female brewer,” she said. She’s clearly someone who takes no nonsense from anyone. “I’ve been doing this for a long time now and the kind of things that would probably have upset me when I first started in the industry, now I have very short patience for it,” she said, “I’ve had many a slinging match with a driver. If you say something to me, you don’t come back to our site.” But, things are changing: “I think things have improved and we’re seeing lots and lots more women who are coming up and getting into much more senior positions.”
It’s an important thing for Wise to make the industry as welcoming as possible to everyone. “There’s been an active effort in the beer industry in the last few years to try and include those marginalised groups. There is now the International Women’s Day Brew, where we try to encourage as many women as possible. There’s been amazing projects started, like the Queer Brewing Project, so it’s been a trend that hasn’t come about by accident,” she told me.
As someone who comes from a wine background, I’ve always thought beer was more egalitarian but Wise disabuses me of this notion. “Beer has a kind of hipster snobbery,” she explained, “the only way I would describe it is it’s quite similar to music. It does have that hype factor.” In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing as it gets people enthused: “I would say that beer generates opinion in a way that I don’t think any other sector of the food industry can generate the same level of opinion”. But, it can be alienating for those not in the bubble. “It’s really off-putting for new drinkers. It’s one of the things I think all of us have to be mindful of just being as inclusive as possible to the customer and treating everyone that comes into the bar or the taproom, just treating them all the same and trying not to put those barriers up.”
Sadly, at the moment the taproom is now closed. Wise admitted that Covid has been hard for the business: “You can’t just switch off production with 48 hours notice. That is what has been the most damaging. If we’d have had more notice then things might have been easier.” So for example, they switched everything to cans last year, luckily they’d just had a new canning line installed, but then things opened up again with Eat Out to Help Out, and suddenly everyone wanted kegs.
There have been benefits though, she explained: “I can’t believe we didn’t have an online shop before. We’re doing lots of things like same-day deliveries and that sort of thing the customer appreciates.”
The British beer scene
Covid aside, she thinks Britain is one of the most exciting places in the world now for beer. There’s so many breweries, constantly raising the bar. “The standard in the UK brewing scene is just phenomenal. We make some of the best beer in the world. The UK has always been a powerhouse for beer, in terms of traditional cask, there is nowhere else in the world that produces cask beer like we do.”
She thinks, however, the trends for bold hoppy flavours is far from over, despite many beer writers tipping a return to more traditional British styles. “I don’t think the public are done with the hoppy styles,” she said, “we’ve had a period in the UK of an entire year of no cask beer, pretty much. When this is all over, is there going to be a mass swing to people wanting those kinds of beers because they’ve been missing them for a long time?”
Wise juggles work at the brewery with a burgeoning career as a presenter with regular gigs on BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme and ITV’s The Wine Show. Again, she rather fell into this career. “I kept being asked to do stuff,” she said, “and it turned out I didn’t totally suck at it and so I got asked again. Learning from the BBC in that environment is just the most humbling of experiences. The whole team is like a juggernaut of experience. Learning how to interview people properly and how to deal with some really tough issues. It’s been really great learning from that crew.”
She sees her two professions supporting each other. “When I go into pretty much any food manufacturing environment, it means that I know what is going on. I hope when I ask questions it comes from a knowledgeable place. The two are not mutually exclusive.” Having two jobs she loves, getting to travel, her work with The Wine Show has taken her to Japan and Germany, “it’s pretty much a dream come true,” she said.
All photos credit Miles Willis.