Former Saracens stars’ brewery on course to pour 1m pints this year

By Stuart Stone contact

- Last updated on GMT

Ahead of the pack: Alistair Hargreaves (R) and Chris Wyles (L) want Wolfpack to be a brand that fights the corner of using the pub, beer and sport to bring people together
Ahead of the pack: Alistair Hargreaves (R) and Chris Wyles (L) want Wolfpack to be a brand that fights the corner of using the pub, beer and sport to bring people together
Former rugby union internationals and Saracens teammates Alistair Hargreaves and Chris Wyles discuss swapping lineouts for lager and founding their own beer brand

Fixture list - 12-23 September

Thursday 12-16 September

Fifth Ashes Test – England v Australia – Sky Sports

Friday 13 September

EFL Championship – Derby County v Cardiff City – Sky Sports

Saturday 14 September

EFL Championship – Fulham v West Brom – Sky Sports

Premier League – Norwich v Manchester City – Sky Sports

Premier League – Liverpool v Newcastle – BT Sport

Sunday 15 September

EFL Championship – Huddersfield Town v Sheffield Wednesday – Sky Sports

Premier League – Bournemouth v Everton – Sky Sports

Premier League – Watford v Arsenal – Sky Sports

Monday 16 September

Premier League – Aston Villa v West Ham – Sky Sports

Friday 20 September

Premier League – Southampton v Bournemouth – Sky Sports

Saturday 21 – Sunday 22 September

Formula One – Singapore Grand Prix Weekend – Sky Sports

Saturday 21 September

Rugby World Cup – Australia v Fiji – ITV

Rugby World Cup – France v Argentina – ITV

Rugby World Cup – New Zealand v South Africa - ITV 

EFL Championship – Leeds United v Derby County – Sky Sports

Premier League – Newcastle v Brighton – Sky Sports

Premier League – Leicester v Tottenham – BT Sport

Sunday 22 September

Rugby World Cup – Italy v Namibia – ITV

Rugby World Cup – Ireland v Scotland – ITV

Rugby World Cup – England v Tonga – ITV

EFL Championship – West Brom v Huddersfield – Sky Sports

Premier League – West Ham v Manchester United – Sky Sports

Premier League – Chelsea v Liverpool – Sky Sports

Five years after founding their company in 2014 and having called time on illustrious careers in professional rugby some time later, former Saracens teammates Alistair Hargreaves and Chris Wyles can now be found fronting a team of 12 at Wolfpack Lager rather than starring in a starting 15.

After winning four international caps for South Africa and captaining Saracens to a Premiership title in the 2014-15 season, Hargreaves was forced to retire from rugby in 2016 at the age of 30 after sustaining repeat concussions.

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Wolfpack co-founder Wyles made 254 appearances for Saracens and helped the club to four Premiership titles and two European Rugby Champions Cups. He also captained the USA Eagles, attended the previous three World Cups as a player, and represented the US in rugby sevens at the Rio Olympics.

“We were always big fans of the pub and of beer and, ultimately, what it came down to is when Chris and I were playing for Saracens we had to make a proactive step to try and figure out what we were going to do after rugby,” Hargreaves tells The Morning Advertiser​.

“We had a bit of time, a network, and access to a supporter base, so we were looking for opportunities to try and leverage that.

“When Saracens moved into their new stadium, Allianz Park, about six or seven years ago, one of the things we thought was lacking was really good-quality beer for all kinds of rugby supporters. We thought craft beer is taking off and sounded like something we can get behind. We love beer and socialising – it was a big part of what being part of Saracens is all about – so we thought lets start a brewery.”

Landing on lager

However, as Hargreaves admits, he and Wyles knew “absolutely bugger all about running bars or a brewery” and had to immerse themselves in the industry alongside playing and training for Saracens before they could think of pouring a pint and tackling the on-trade.

“It took us about 18 months before we actually put a product on the market,” Hargreaves explains, “so we had to upskill ourselves massively and ask a lot of questions as part of a process of trial and error.”

“We took it very seriously in making sure we didn’t leave any stone unturned,” Wyles adds. “One of the ­first things we did was meet a brewer. We went to the industrial estate where he was brewing and asked him lots of questions both on the practical and ­financial sides of things. That was really our approach in everything we were doing.”

However, despite their ­first forays into the business of beer uncovering a mass of “cool brands and a lot of great brews”, Hargreaves and Wyles found the craft landscape to be a scrum of brewers focused on producing hoppy IPAs.

“We thought that Camden and Meantime were doing some really good lagers but thought there’s de­finitely space there and decided to home in pretty quickly on lager,” Hargreaves explains. “Apart from the two mentioned, we didn’t think anybody was really doing an incredible job of it so we set our mission to be to let the public know about the quality of lager, how good it can be, and try and make it a cut above everything else we’d seen.”

Rugby club’s ethos

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Though beer and elite professional sport may not be a natural partnership, both Hargreaves and Wyles partially attribute their successful conversion to brewing to “fantastic” support offered by Saracens that has helped them and other players plan for life after rugby.

“You can imagine what it’s like going up to your CEO at the club or your head coach and saying ‘we want to start a brewery’ as professional rugby players,” Hargreaves explains. “It takes a pretty special group to say ‘that’s perfect, we support that’. Saracens always felt that if you were happy off the field you’d do more on the ­field. If you were well rounded and had more security in your future it gave you a chance to be a better team-mate and player.

“Saracens had a personal development programme that was absolutely world class. We were probably the ­first guys in our era to really go and do something entrepreneurial and off the back of that we’ve helped peers of ours set up other businesses.

“We’ve got guys like George Kruis and Dom Day – they’ve got a CBD oil business – club captain Brad Barritt has a coffee business, Jamie George has set up a physiotherapy practice, Jackson Wray has set up a cold brew coffee company and Michael Rhodes has set up a gin distillery. We’re really proud of the fact we’re the ­first guys to really put ourselves out there and use our extra time wisely and invest in our future.”

Yet, despite inevitable ties to the club where they ­finished their playing careers, and an enduring presence at Allianz Park on match days with the Wolfpack bus, Hargreaves and Wyles are keen to ensure that their beer has universal appeal and rests on strong communal values – their cans are emblazoned with the message ‘not for sale to dickheads’.

“We’ve taken the ethos of what we learnt at the club, the values and lessons that we learnt there and poured that into our business,” Hargreaves adds. “If you look at the Wolfpack brand, it stands up on its own two feet without any direct association with Saracens. It’s very important for us to be able to say that this beer is not only for Saracens people, not just for rugby players, it’s for anyone who thinks, acts and behaves the way we think the Wolfpack should.

“We think that rugby and sport in general are so good for communities. People are going to the pub less, people are playing less team sports and we want to be a brand that ­fights the corner of using the pub, beer and sport to bring people back together – to have conversations and to be less isolated.”

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Garage conversion

Broadening Wolfpack’s brand appeal beyond Saracens has led Hargreaves and Wyles into partnerships with Urban Leisure, London’s Oval cricket ground, and Gloucester and Newcastle Falcons rugby clubs. All in, Wolfpack pours in about 300 pubs and bars across the UK.

What’s more, just over a mile from the Elgin in north-west London’s Maida Vale, which poured the first pint of their lager to be served in a pub, Hargreaves and Wyles have opened a Wolfpack den in Queen’s Park.

“We found a local guy who had a mechanic’s garage for about 40 years – a really cool, new style building that needed a bit of TLC,” Hargreaves says. “We thought instead of spending our money on marketing and advertising, and all those kinds of things, let’s open up a Wolfpack experience where we can get in front of our customers, we can talk to them and let the word spread through a real-life experience.

“We had never run a bar before, but like we do with most things, with a bit of courage and a lot of naivety, we dived in both feet first and it’s been a really good experience. We’re looking at opening up a few more bars.

“The look and feel emulates a taproom, but with the Wolfpack brand at the heart of it. We do get a lot of support from the rugby guys and from local sports clubs who we support, sponsor and get beer to – it’s a bit of a clubhouse and we’re really proud of it.”

Wolfpack (1)

One of the attractions of their current venue is the prospect of transforming tired spaces into something that can once again provide value and experiences for a local community.

“We like the challenge of taking something that needs a bit of love, giving it a coat of paint, and changing it into something that adds value,” Hargreaves continues. “We’re not looking to buy an existing business and trying to increase trade by 15%. We want to create incredible experiences with our brand and the knock-on effects of that for us will be that, hopefully, people will talk more about us, understand us more and tell the story on our behalf.”

It’s this that, according to Wyles, has given the pair a winning feeling when it comes to Wolfpack. Discussing his stand-out moments since founding the beer company, 54-cap American international Wyles highlights: “Being able to come into the space, reinvent it and for it to become almost a pillar of its community.

Seeing people in there having a great time, connecting and having conversations has been really awesome – particularly from where it was when we actually got the place, it was in a real state and wasn’t really adding a huge amount of value apart from fixing a car or two here and there.”

Wolfpack (2)

More than 1m pints this year

From pouring its first beer on the Wolfpack bus at Saracens’ Allianz Park, Wolfpack is expected to serve well over 1m before this Rugby World Cup year is out. Beyond that, Hargreaves and Wyles plan to broaden their range of lagers and open more bars across the capital.

“It’s been a huge learning curve for us and quite an amazing journey,” Wyles explains. “But your expectations from day one are very different to when you’re five years into the business. In terms of the amount of work and effort you have to put into it, that’s probably something we weren’t expecting back when we were 28 and setting the business up, but that’s what’s required, particularly when you’re trying to play rugby at the same time.”

“The big focus on the next year is opening up two new venues,” Hargreaves adds. “We want to make sure that in 12 months’ time we’ve got our three bars running well. We want to keep the strength of the brand and the quality of our beer above all else.

“A huge saga for us this year is to make a concerted effort to support more communities through grassroots sport. We pour our beer in about 50 sports clubs and those are people that we think are absolutely vital to society and what we stand for as well. The men and women who, after work, go and train in the rain, get up on a Saturday, see their friends and socialise – we think that’s so important.”

Related topics: Beer, Sport

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