Playing the Wild Card

What brewery better to rise to a challenge than perennial innovators Wild Card?

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It’s like an episode of Ready, Steady, Cook, except with beer, and Ainsley Harriot is played by a friendly hop supplier with sacks full of fresh, fresh Waimea New Zealand hops. What brewery better to rise to the challenge than perennial innovators Wild Card?

Wild Card was founded by three homebrewing chums in 2012 – William Harris, Jaega Wise and Andrew Birkby – who quietly beavered away, serving fans with a constant stream of new and creative brews, and picking up more than a few awards along the way. Things really started ramping up in 2018, when Wild Card moved from its original Walthamstow home, now used as a barrel store and taproom, to a cool new brewery at Lockwood way. 

The brewery is now so well known to UK craft fans that retelling the story seems almost superfluous – Jaega in particular is now as close to being a celebrity as our little community can hope to get – but this fame is well deserved; the brewery is as friendly and community-spirited as it is inventive.

And it’s that inventiveness that we’ve tapped for this month’s box, in the form of Wild Card’s Waimea IPA. Waimea is an unusual hop in the UK and, as William Harris explains, represented a brewing opportunity that was simply too good to pass up.

“Almost all brewers have contracts in place for their hop supply and order well in advance,” he says. “But we’ve also got a great relationship with our supplier, and they know we’ll generally take anything that’s good and fresh when they maybe have a bit of excess. So we’ve kind of brewed a series of beers based around super fresh hops that we’ve been able to get hold of on an ad-hoc basis.

“This batch of was absolutely at its peak, with massive amounts of resinous hop oils, and really exhibits the variety’s unique and interesting flavour profile. It balances a massive citrus fruit hit and heady tropical aromas with a pine character.

“So we kind of moved quickly, did some practice brews to get a recipe ready and then created a beer that really focuses on bringing out the best of this specific hop. We’ve done the same with batches of Ella and Sabro recently, and they’ve been really well received.”

This sort of creative collaboration with suppliers is not limited to hops, and William talks with passion about pushing Wild Card’s other partners to challenge them with unusual ingredients.

“We’ve been experimenting a lot with different kinds of fruit, seeing what our suppliers can get us, even if it’s not the kind of fruit that’s fashionable to put into beer. For example, the brewers are really keen to try and brew with this South American fruit called Soursop, which has poisonous seeds and this vanilla-flavoured, almost ice cream-like flesh.”

Despite lockdown, William is relentlessly upbeat and more keen to talk about the great things that have been happening at the brewery over the past few months.

“We’ve had a couple of really good new starts,” he continues. “Kwame has taken over packaging, which has been great. He’s brought loads to the role and is a really experienced guy, who’s helping us get the most from our new packaging line. Remember we started off with no investor, so the whole thing’s been done on loans and prayers, so seeing everything from brewing to canning being done in-house, with that level of professionalism, feels like a huge milestone.”

The new packaging line has been one of several significant investments in kit that Wild Card has been able to make since moving to its new home, each of which has brought a step change in capacity, versatility and quality. Which is just as well, as the team works flat-out to meet its goal of putting out one new beer every week. If this sounds like hard work though, William assures me the team also has a lot of fun.

“We’ve always had a tiny practice kit, like a posh homebrew set really, which the brewers experiment on. We’ve made that a bit more competitive this year, pushing each other. So earlier this year we were working on a recipe for a pecan stout, and had the two brewers each do their own version and then blind tasted it among the whole team. One of the brewers actually voted for the other’s beer. That’s proven to be really good fun among all this coronavirus stuff. The guys are already wheeling and dealing about who’s going to go first next time!”


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