Jaega Wise has changed the beer industry for the better. She trained as an engineer, but her deep adoration of beer and the culture surrounding it led her to seek out her true calling: brewing. From humble homebrew beginnings, she worked her way up the ladder. Currently, Wise is the Head Brewer at East London’s Wild Card Brewery and — in a pretty epic testament to following your dreams — she was named “Brewer of the Year” by the British Guild of Beer Writers in 2018.
But this story isn’t all floral hops and bready malts. Once Wise got a view from inside the beer industry, she felt duty-bound to empower other women and push for greater representation in brewing. With this aim, she spearheaded an industry-wide ruling in the U.K. that banned sexist, homophobic, and racist labeling on beer. Next, she worked closely with her brewing mentor to build and grow the International Women’s Collaboration Brew network, bringing female brewers together across the globe to learn, talk shop, and network.
We were lucky enough to chat with Wise recently about her fight to get women more seats at the table in the brewing world, the power of the International Women’s Collaboration Brew network, and how Wild Card is fairing during the continuing pandemic.
Tell us about how you got into brewing.
I got into brewing just like everybody else. It’s really being just a big beer fan. I was studying for a chemical engineering degree. At the same time, I was doing lots of beer drinking, going to beer festivals, and the like. Then I graduated. The same drinking buddies I used to homebrew with and hang out with, they were like, “We’re starting a brewery. Do you want to come on board?” Well, that’s not really what happened. I basically said, “Let me help you.” And then that was it. Then I never left.
Wild Card started in 2012 in the basement of a pub in East London. First of all, we were storing beer in our living rooms and then we were swapping cases of beer for rent in a pub. We quickly outgrew that pub and then we got our own site in East London.
Was there a beer that gave you that “Ah-ha!” moment that keyed you into how great a well-made beer can be?
Yeah, for sure. I come from the Midlands in Nottingham. It’s Robin Hood territory. It’s also really close to Burton on Trent, which is a global powerhouse for brewing — they have amazing cask beer, but pale ale is the standard.
There was a brewery called Castle Rock Brewery who was making a beer called Harvest Pale, which is a 3.8 percent pale ale and that’s really drinkable. You don’t realize just growing up where I grew up the training you’re receiving just by being in the pub all the time because it’s just what you do. It’s how you socialize. So I would say being a Midlands girl, it gave me the grounding and the experience I didn’t know I was getting at the time.
You’ve folded your work in beer into being an advocate for women and people of color in brewing. Can you walk us through how you started turning your love of beer into advocating for people who aren’t fully or fairly represented in beer?
It wasn’t something that was particularly purposeful. I was giving a talk a few years ago at this amazing building, the Institute of Civil Engineering, which is opposite Parliament, for God’s sake. So it’s a beautiful building and it’s a fantastic location. And it was quite obvious by the room and my experiences over the years how women were treated and the way they were spoken about. It was off-putting and it was harming us as an industry.
I pointed out that if we want to sell more beer, why are we trying to isolate 50 percent of the population? It doesn’t make any sense. That’s kind of where it started and then everything kind of went a bit mental after that. I had to make a choice to continue and put up with Twitter and being in the papers and the horrible stuff that comes with it or do I stop?
You didn’t stop.
I decided to continue because I figured it’s not every day you have an opportunity to help change the rules of the game. I got involved with our trade body and I decided to try and change the rules of the book essentially. In the UK, we managed to pass a rule that says that “there’s no alcoholic drink in the UK that it is allowed to have branding that is sexist, homophobic, racist or anything like that in the UK.”
I’m super, super proud of being able to get that through. And it’s kind of shocking that wasn’t there before, but it wasn’t. So if there is a brand that someone comes across and it breaches those rules, then it can be complained about to a group called the Portman Group, who regulates branding in the UK alcohol industry. Then that will get investigated by an independent team and they have the power to pull beers from the shelf, et cetera. So they’re quite a powerful adjudicator. That’s been really good. It kind of covers all the “isms,” basically.
The whole point is we want to have a beer industry that is as inclusive as possible because surely we want to sell beer to as many people as possible. It’s really hard for people to argue with the financial side of it. Like you want to sell more beer, why are you actively trying to exclude a particular group or particular person? You don’t want them to feel that way, you want them to buy your product because it means better things for you and your business, as well as all the other advantages.
And it’s good for society!
How has the reaction been? Have people been reacting positively or have people been pushing back?
I mean, it’s not my job to call out a particular brewery. I’m in this industry. These people, I know them, a lot of them are my friends or I see them at conferences. They’re my fellows in my industry. But that’s one of the reasons why I decided to join our trade body. I can have a quiet conversation, it doesn’t have to be a public thing.
I often get breweries that come to me for advice and say, “I’m not sure about this.” Those conversations are often the most useful that you can have, rather than doing it on Twitter or what have you. I do think that’s great and it has its place and it is excellent to bring attention to stuff. But I think there can be a lot of echo-chamber behavior happening in the brewing industry where you’re talking to very like-minded people who agree with you. And that’s not the point of this. The point of this is working together to make a better industry for us all. And that is often a lot of quiet conversations. Which is, I think, the most useful.
Let’s then talk about the International Women’s Collaboration Brew. Can you sort of walk us through how this got started and how you gathered such an amazing group of brewers?
So this started eight years ago. It was started by a brewer, Sophie de Ronde, who works a brewery called Burnt Mill. She was very much my mentor. So when I first started to learn to brew … yes, you can read all the books you like, but nothing really shows you your path more than learning from another really good brewer. She taught me a huge amount and she invited me to the first International Women’s Day Brew. So we did a launch at our taproom at Wild Card, and then that was eight years ago and every year we just got bigger and bigger and bigger and more people came every year.
Every year, I put an open call to all brewers — around the world, really — and people show up. You can come and brew for the day. It’s a great place to learn, to network, to educate yourself. And lots of people have become lifelong friends because they met at the International Women’s Day Brew. It’s also just a good support group for each other. It’s a really good network.
It’s a day that is now sacred in the brewing industry, especially for women. This is a day you put aside. This is the day where you go and you hopefully learn something.
What did this year’s look like?
This year, I did an education on hops called “Know Your Hops.” So lots of blind smelling of hops from all over the world and trying to really hone everyone’s palate. If you want to be able to sell a beer, you should be able to identify the hop and where they come from. And there’s not a huge amount of that kind of work that’s done in the brewing industry, especially compared to, like, wine. So that was really fascinating.
Usually, we’d both be at beer shows and booze conventions. That all, of course, has changed drastically. I feel like we’ve all become Zoom tasters now.
I know. I know. I know! I’ve literally just been judging two beer competitions in the last week on Zoom.
I’ve drunk so much beer on Zoom now. It’s ridiculous.
How are you looking at the future now? It seems like the end of this pandemic horizon keeps getting further away.
From the beginning, we’ve really just battened down the hatches. We had never sold a single can of beer online. It was never our business. Literally overnight, we set up an online shop. We did it within 24 hours. To put it into context, we just decided to basically put a call out to everyone to say, “We are now delivering beer, same-day delivery in the local area.” And we put it in our car — the really rubbish Kia we have here — and we just started manually delivering beer to people in East London. And we kept on doing that and it was going really, really well.
Our sales manager started working on the packaging line. Our taproom manager started running the online shop. Everyone pitched in. I think for us, the team is tired and the team is pretty exhausted really because of just, I think, the stress of it all. I know I’m certainly tired. To keep that fear level up and to remain working in a period of a global pandemic while constantly being aware of what is going on and to make sure no one gets sick and that sort of stuff, it’s quite mentally tiring. Now with bars reopening our taprooms are back up and running but the rules are constantly changing there too.
We’re serving everything in recyclable plastic pint glasses so the staff doesn’t have to touch anyone. The tables are all two meters apart. And we have a really good food vendor every week. Over the summer, the weekends were really actually quite packed. We’re really lucky. A lot of breweries are not in the same situation. Nothing comes easy if that makes sense. It’s been a horrible time. And I think the brewing industry around the world is in for a horrible time. It’s not pleasant.
Yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see who’s standing at the end of just this year of the pandemic.
Yeah, I think … You have to adapt and innovate. It’s the only way. And if you’ve not done that, that’s going to be hard times.