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Wild Card Jack of Clubs, 4.5%
by William Harris, Jaega Wise and Andrew Birkby

The three of us met in Nottingham, working in a high-street shop. Growing up in the Midlands, we were fortunate to be surrounded by a great variety of beers even before the current craft beer boom began.

Wild Card BreweryOur enjoyment in seeking out interesting beers quickly developed into a fascination with home brew, which began to eat up all our free time.

The year was 2008 and punchy, aroma-driven pale ales were becoming popular but, without access to pressure-regulated vessels, it was difficult to get the same effect, so we turned our focus to a more malt-driven recipe that we were particularly proud of.

This was partly inspired by traditional best bitters that once represented a very popular style but had fallen out of favour somewhat. We wanted to do a more modern take that tipped its hat to the original style but also brought in some new ideas.

To achieve this, we used two different British crystal malts – malts that are heated in a closed system and then kilned. This causes some slightly more complex sugars to form which are not fermented and therefore add caramel flavours to the beer. The kilning also darkens the malt.

Incredible Red Colour

The two different grades of crystal malt balanced out some of the stronger hop flavours we brought in. We chose a balance of West Coast US hops – Centennial, Willamette and  Mount Hood – to give a nice spiciness and a bitter finish. The malt also gave the beer an incredible red colour when lit by firelight or candle.

Wild Card Jack of ClubsWe wanted to achieve a fairly clean brew with a little fruitiness from the yeast to complement the hops, so we used Nottingham yeast to do the brunt of the fermentation and then US05, which is noted for maintaining low diacetyl levels and producing a crisp beer, to clean up and condition the beer at the end.

The malt bill was big enough to allow us to get some richer flavours into the beer but, with an ABV of only 4.5%, the beer was still very accessible and allowed you to drink a few.

Inevitably, the idea of trying to brew commercially and make a career of what we loved took hold. We started perfecting our recipe to get it to the stage where it could be upscaled. We brewed it again and again.

We maintained a big spreadsheet of all the variables so we could see what worked well and what didn’t. One of the columns even noted how drunk we were at the point when we were brewing it, which never seemed to detract from the quality of the brew!

To identify which batch was from which brew we got into the habit of sticking a playing card onto the cases of bottles and a making reference to this in the spreadsheet.

When we reached the point where the recipe was exactly what we wanted it to be, it just so happened that the playing card stuck on that batch was the Jack of Clubs, and it hit us that this would be a great way to brand the beer.

We had bespoke playing cards printed and tied them to all the bottles with twine. All of our branding fell into place from there.

Wild-Card Entrants

It was the time of the London Olympics and we thought of ourselves as a wild-card entrant. We didn’t have the money, experience or connections to start a commercial brewery, but we were determined that hard work and gumption would make it possible.

Wild Card BreweryUnder the name of Wild Card Brewery, our first beer, Jack of Clubs, was ready to go and, while people thought we were mad not starting with a pale ale, this would be the only beer we would make for our first eighteen months.

Scaling up Jack of Clubs to get the beer to market presented us with some massive challenges, not least the fact that we didn’t have an actual brewery or a way to finance getting one.

We called round breweries across the South East, trying to find spare capacity that we could use. For the first eighteen months, we were in and out of breweries in Essex, making the beer and funding it with a personal credit card.

It took a lot of work to make the beer succeed on a commercial scale and this is where Jaega’s industrial chemical engineering background really helped. The recipe itself remained fairly unchanged – the same barley, wheat and hops, in the same quirky proportions – but changes were made so we could make the beer using London’s water profile when we moved into our own premises in Walthamstow in 2014.

The next challenge was storing the stock. We struck up a rapport with the landlord of our nearest pub. It was not your typical boozer. It had once been featured on a television programme about Britain’s roughest pubs and, understandably, the landlord wanted to turn the place around.

We made a deal. In return for the use of his extensive cellar, we would organise some beer festivals and music events. It worked. We had a place to store the stock and a new crowd starting coming to the pub. By the time we moved on to our own premises, the pub was in the Good Beer Guide.

Labels and Stamps

Another big challenge was entirely of our own making. We tried to persist with tying our custom Jack of Clubs playing cards to the bottle. This was fine at home, but was completely impractical commercially. Eventually, we moved to a traditional bottle label.

Wild Card BreweryWe had also had a stamp designed with the idea that we would hand-stamp every label as a symbol of the work that has gone into every single bottle.

Again, this was completely impractical. However, the stamp – originally designed by Andrew’s housemate on a WH Smith rubber eraser – went on to become our logo.

Through peer-to-peer loans and equity crowdfunding, we’ve grown somewhat since those early days. But the Wild Card mentality has not changed. We certainly don’t have the flashiest brew kit and there’s no money to spend on PR or marketing.

But we’re convinced that if we work hard, persist and take pride in the quality of what we do, step by step we will get there. It’s a real testament that, despite starting with no capital whatsoever, our beers are now stocked by prestigious companies such as Selfridges, the HIX Group and the Gordon Ramsay Group.

Every time we taste Jack of Clubs it reminds us of the blood, sweat and tears that went into first producing it. But it also fills us with pride about how far we’ve come. And we still can’t get enough of it.

It's a fresh, modern ruby ale with a biscuity sweetness and a spicy finish. There’s a real range of flavours – tamarind, cherries, spiced fruit and toffee – and, when combined with a blue cheese, such as the Stilton from back home in the Midlands, it’s a great flavour match.

We really hope that people enjoy the beer as much as we do and, if our story shows what’s possible and inspires people to pursue their passions, that’s even better.




 




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