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Will ‘Queen Beer’ Jaega go for the jugular in the MFDF battle versus the cocktail kings?

Question. What the devil is the owner of ‘the UK’s toughest pub’ doing at Manchester Food and Drink Festival debating the food matching merits of craft beer over cocktails?

Of course, every city boasts a roughhouse contender but the Kray twins’ locals around London did have the Wild West edge back in the Sixties. Notably the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel, a local of mine too for a while, as it happens. a quarter of a century after Ronnie Kray notoriously shot gangster rival George Cornell there in 1966.

Brewer and media star Jaega Wise now runs another past Kray haunt, the Victorian Tavern on the Hill in Walthamstow, which once had a “a reputation for being a bloodbath,” according to Sky TV’s Britain’s Hardest. It’s not like that these days with a Jamaican food menu and beers from Jaega’s award-winning brewery, Wild Card, samples of which should feature in the Octopus Books showcase at the MFDF Hub on Saturday, September 24.

Jaega, named Britain’s best brewer in 2018 by the Guild of Beer Writers and winning an equivalent award this year, is promoting her recently published Wild Brews (Kyle hb, £22). At 6pm she comes up against Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley, co-authors of 60 Second Cocktails, to determine if beer or cocktails should be crowned the winning beverage.

It’s not a straight stand-off, hops and malt versus spirits and botanicals, since her primer for home brewers is subtitled “from sour and fruit beers to farmhouse ales”. A sophisticated far cry from the Boots kits of yore, then.

34-year-old Jaega’s talents are spread interestingly these days. I listen to her regularly when she presents on BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme. Her most recent assignment explored the racial connotations of fried chicken. Her telly career includes Channel 5’s The Wine Show and Beer Masters, available on Amazon Prime, where Jaega and James Blunt judged “Europe’s best home brewers going head-to-head across five challenges brewing popular beer styles and taking on creative and technical challenges.” Think Bake-off with ‘stuck mash’ instead of ‘soggy bottoms’.

Filming the latter show appropriately coincided with the gestation of Wild Brews. “The book took me three and a half years… writing’s not really my thing,” Jaega laments. Modesty from a Nottingham girl, who once considered studying English at university before a volte face into chemical engineering. “You see my scientific training in the technical side of the book, but I was determined to make it accessible. It’s both an introduction for the beginner and of use to a more advanced brewer, who wants to be more adventurous with styles.”

Certainly when Wild Card was launched a decade ago sours and saisons, lambic and goses didn’t trip off the average beer tippler’s tongue. London, where Jaega had moved, had only 10 breweries. Multiply that many times now.

She had dabbled in home brewing at university. But it was not until, disillusioned with the day job, she started working in a pub, she was swept up in the hop-driven zeitgeist, joining friends William Harris and Andrew Kirkby, who had first dreamed up Wild Card over a kitchen table. After nomadic years ‘cuckoo brewing’ on others’ kit Wild Card eventually  found their first Walthamstow site, before moving to the nearby Lockwood brewery in 2017.

Result: today’s mini-empire at the northern end of the Victoria Lime with a taproom at Lockwood and another in their Barrel Store, plus the Tavern, overlooking gentrifying Walthamstow, with a Jamaican food residency from The Jam Shack.

Jaega says: “We are very proud to have taken over the pub, the only one in the Higham Hill area. Pubs are incredibly important. They and the role of the publican are not given enough credit. There are issues of loneliness that they can help combat. Weddings, funerals, all kinds of community activity –  pubs can be central.”

And, of course, there’s the beer. Like pubs, it’s under threat too in economically perilous times. Wild Card, by necessity, concentrated on more traditional styles to start off but is now in the forefront of US-inspired ‘craft beer’ with – you guessed it – benchmark NEIPA. Matthew Curtis in his definitive Modern British Beer (my review) described it as “redolently juicy with a fruit cocktail of flavours including peach, apricot, melon and pineapple that’s typically characteristic of the New England IPA.”

Peruse the Wild Card website, though, and you’ll discover a much more diverse array of beer styles that live up to the ‘Wild Brews’ tag. Alongside the current Twilight NEIPA there’s an Amaretto Sour, a Damson Sour, a Cuvee Saison sharing bottle and a Tropical Stout. 

I wonder which of these head brewer Jaega will bring up  to Manchester to pair with probable barbecue accompaniment? “You’ll have to wait and see,” she says.

What she can reveal: “This is the food and drink world I’m lucky enough to operate in. We are so lucky in this county to produce drinks of such  high standard. Our whisky is so delicious, and then I can get the used barrels and the chance to ply with flavours. It’s my life.”

That professional life has obviously encountered pitfalls. As a young woman of Caribbean heritage from the most deprived area of Nottingham entering a male-dominated profession. “Change is slow,” she says. “Statistics clearly show considerably fewer women in senior positions across the whole UK economy, not just in brewing.”

Jaega is obviously not one to shirk a challenge. So watch out Team Cocktail this Saturday.

“Wine has for too long been seen as the obvious match for food and I can see cocktails pairing well with some dishes, but beer is hard to beat. It handles spice better and is a perfect accompaniment to cheese.”

If you don’t catch Jaega at MFDF’s Octopus Cookbook Confidential on Saturday, September 22 don’t fret. She’ll be back in Manchester the following weekend as Wild Card makes its pouring debut at IndyManBeerCon.