Jaega Wise has been crowned Brewer Of The Year not once, but twice, and coincidentally, she is exactly the kind of person you want to share a pint with. The co-founder of Walthamstow’s Wild Card Brewery, Wise left a career in chemical engineering and began her stratospheric rise through the beer industry, from living room home brewer to the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme. This year she launched her book, Wild Brews, a personal and entirely approachable how-to, that has delighted novices and experts alike.
Staff Writer, Heidi Lauth Beasley, caught up with Jaega to discuss wild beer, sexism, and just how much you can achieve with a Wilko’s syrup set.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Heidi: First all, congrats on your book, Wild Brews. It’s fantastic. In it you say that one of the great things about beer is that it welcomes all. Why do you think beer is so welcoming?
Jaega: I think beer has always been the people's drink. Beer has always had a lower price point and it’s always been something that's been consumed by the masses. There shouldn't be a barrier towards enjoying a drink like beer. And from my experience, it's an incredibly social drink. It's the kind of drink you enjoy amongst friends, you drink in times of heartbreak, in times of joy. That's how I feel about it.
H: Absolutely. I think because of all the talk of hop and yeast, some people feel intimidated by wild beer. What advice would you give people who want to get more involved in brewing, but don’t have that knowledge yet?
J: It depends on where people are on their beer journey. I wrote Wild Brews because the beer industry can, in my opinion, gate-keep. You see it all the time. People say “oh no, you can’t brew that, it’s a bit complicated”. Whereas my approach has always been, just have a go. You can go to Wilkos and you can have a go with a syrup kit. Literally, get some sugar syrup, add water, and you’ll make something alcoholic. You can go hard and get all the best barrels and whistles but in my experience, it’s just not necessary to make really great beer.
H: I feel ready to make my first pint. You’ve also spoken about being part of the British brewing boom. What do you think it is that’s set you apart and led you to becoming Brewer Of The Year?
J: My approach has always been to be as open as possible. Ever since we started [the brewery], we were doing tastings and tours and brew days. Just kind of welcoming people into what we do. It teaches you a way of talking to the public and I think that has definitely helped me a lot in my television and radio work.
H: Between presenting Radio 4’s The Food Programme, co-hosting Beer Masters, and the book, you’ve had such amazing success as a brewer. Do you have any advice for people who want to get into the brewing industry, especially people from less-represented backgrounds within the industry?
J: I would honestly say, wind up your local brewery. The beer industry is quite casual but it’s also very friendly. Even now, whenever I travel around the world I visit local breweries and nine times out of 10, they’ll open their doors to you. Because there’s not a lot of money in beer, people generally get into it for the love, so people want to talk about it. Ask, can I have a job? There may not be a job at that particular time, but you know, Fred down the road does have a job for you. I think the key thing is talking to people. Get talking, get out there.
H: I know your background is in chemical engineering. Did that affect your approach to brewing?
J: Oh yes, absolutely. When you come from an engineering world, it’s very male dominated. So for me, I think that kind of prepared me for the brewing industry because the two are not dissimilar.
H: There’s a great bit in the introduction of Wild Brews where you talk about ordering half pints back at uni because someone told you it was more feminine. I can definitely relate. Do you think that the super male representation around beer culture is changing?
J: Things are changing for the positive but I think we’ve had to force a lot of that change. When you look at beer in other parts of Europe compared to the UK, you really realise just how gendered beer is here comparatively. But I think we’re absolutely heading in the right direction. A woman with a pint is absolutely a normal thing now. Not everywhere, absolutely. But my gender does not define the size of my drink. There’s always been an inclination to shrink it and pink it for the female, make something smaller to fit in our hands. And that’s obviously just a load of utter rubbish. I think it speaks to the wider glass ceiling in business and generally the lack of equality between the sexes.
H: Is there also a sense of responsibility that goes along with being from an under-represented background in the brewing industry?
J: The concept of we’re stronger together than we are alone is something I like to live by. The tokenistic thing of Jaega is brown and a woman… I’m incredibly proud of those things but I’m a brewer first. That stuff doesn’t win you awards when it’s [a blind tasting]. I am seen as a Black woman in the industry and that in itself is unusual. I know the things that I value and I’ve chosen every year to do the International Women’s Day Brew. The amount of friendships and relationships that have been forged through that is so helpful to the industry. I’ve struggled and groups like Crafted Beer Girls have been incredibly helpful to me. I like to think I’m an idealist but also very practical. I do think we can hold each other up, hold each other to account, and push each other forward.
H: Absolutely. Have you got any big things lined up in the coming months?
J: I’m one of the presenters for BBC's The Food Programme and I was very lucky to be able to interview Ainsley Harriott this year. [Brief interlude of rightful Ainsley Harriott swooning]. I’ve got a few more exciting people in the pipeline so it’s gonna be fun.
H: It sounds it.Thank you so much for taking the time to talk. It’s been lovely.
J: Well, thank you so much for having me.
Wild Brews: The Craft Of Home Brewing, From Sour And Fruit Beers To Farmhouse Ales (Octopus Publishing) is out now.