Blood, sweat and beers - and they've only just started
How two rugby bruisers created a craft lager brand from Google. Welcome to the Wolfpack!
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For my launch interview, I talked to ex-rugby union pros and Wolfpack co-founders Alistair Hargreaves and Chris Wyles about the unmatchable highs of winning, how to launch a lager brand with no knowledge and their brotherly love.
Blood, sweat and beers - and they've only just started
Two ex-professional sportsmen open a pub. So far so unremarkable. Setting up your own refuelling station may be the obvious retirement plan for rugby players fond of amber refreshment, but for former Saracens Alistair Hargreaves and Chris Wyles, this is serious business; serious enough that Wolfpack Lager is now about to open its third venue in Fulham, London after two promising experiments in Queen's Park (a converted car mechanics yard) and close by in West Hampstead.
By any professional standards, Alistair and Chris had remarkably successful first careers and despite other dalliances, Saracens was the sustained pinnacle. During the 2010s, the club won Premiership and European titles five and three times respectively. Alistair also won four Springbok caps and Chris represented his birth country USA at three World Cups collecting 54 caps for the Eagles.
The sheer joy and childlike enthusiasm that Al and Chris bring to Wolfpack, the 'F*ck me' surprise that here they still are seven years later with their crafted brew being poured in pubs around London, should not mask the meticulousness with which this enterprise was mapped out and continues to be run. Their London pride is deserved and this 5.2% ABV lager tastes good too; centred on the noble Tettnang hop from Southern Germany, the drink is refreshing with a herby, floral kick that elevates it beyond the norm. The new Czech style Pilsner is even better with a richer flavour profile and more lingering notes on the tongue.
The start of a trend
Wolfpack is part of a generational shift to rugby players starting drinks businesses versus drinking other people's businesses as 'turn up at...' ambassadors for a brand. Saracens alumni have followed the Wolfpack trail, also encouraged by the club's pioneering player development program. George Kruis and Dominic Day have started fourfivecbd - a natural cannabis supplement business, prop Josh Ibuanokpe has started WingTing - a catering business that includes takeaway and pop-up restaurant events, Sarries stalwart Jackson Wray has launched a premium cold brew coffee business Eighty20 Cold Brew and South African Schalk Burger is involved in his family owned wine estate Welbedacht. Beyond, Gloucester's Jake Polledri started Just Pressed Cider in the first lockdown. There may be a pattern emerging here.
We meet at Wolfpack West Hampstead on a warm Friday afternoon and the atmosphere is redolent of many post-lockdown pub scenes; a crowded, happy outside throng full of hope, possibility and lager. Inside is quiet, empty, with chairs stacked against the wall; a reminder of all the hospitality industry has lost in the last year. Wolfpack has weathered the storm better than others principally because they contract out their brewing leaving them asset and headache lighter.
The Wolfpack lager recipe however was not a delegation of responsibility but rather a carefully designed collection of ingredients by the co-founders, the culmination of a 2-year long apprenticeship in the fine art of beer making. This remains a work in progress. But after soaking their palettes in Stella Artois for the duration of their playing careers, this is definitely a step up.
Seizing the opportunity
In 2012, they saw lager as the poorer relation of the beer family and regular rugby matchdays were the ideal research grounds. Alistair explains: "We looked at our rugby stadium and the beers that were on offer there, and this is just at the beginning of the craft beer exposure. We just felt that everything tasted pretty bland, all the commercial stuff had no real point of difference. We put them all in a glass next to each other and they mainly taste the same. So we started exploring ways to make a lager that had a bit of bang."
And with a pleasingly simple brief to create something with "more character than a normal cold yellow fuzzy kind of drink," the Wolfpack was reincarnated from its original nomenclature representing the Saracens team mentality and work ethic - hunting in packs, a notion of brotherhood - to a craft lager business.
It’s all about the love
To bring Wolfpack epithets into the everyday, Alistair reminds himself of notes he wrote about the club he captained: "I use the word love a lot. It's quite rare for people to say I love these guys. There was that family feeling and we used to say we love each other, and that came through in the dressing room. You look at the guy opposite you who was putting his body and life on the line for the team." Chris and Alistair's business partnership and friendship is now a microcosm of this value system.
Chris talks of the culture of conditional love which South African coach Brendan Venter instilled at the club. He paraphrases: "We love you and we'll take care of you, but in return this is what we expect from you [a very high performance]. We're going to create amazing relationships, but in return you need to work unbelievably hard."
When Alistair joined Sarries in 2012 after his formative years with Durban Sharks, the contrast couldn't have been starker. Where South African club rugby was narrow, functional and formulaic (input work = output result), Saracens was a family. "Not focusing just on performance actually made for better players and better teams and made me an exponentially better player than I was actually in South Africa."
This is the elixir which is now fuelling Wolfpack's early success, absorbed and distilled into every facet of the business. If ever an example were needed of sport's transferable lessons to business, here it is. At Wolfpack, storytelling remains foundational to both brand and personal development. Al and Chris love each other and they love their team. "They feel like it's a changing room at your favourite rugby club" says Alistair. And the young faces fronting the bars pay this back in spades with their knowledge, warmth and commitment. The product is high quality and the brand exudes big-hearted, no frills sociability; lager for 'social animals'. Sounds like Saracens. They may not be the first alcohol brand to promote kinship and good times, but they are incredibly authentic.
"We're all in this together. It's about sociability, caring for people so the challenge is exactly that, how do you articulate that to somebody in a pub in Halifax."
Wolfpack launched in 2014 in a fully branded and kitted out double decker bus parked at the corner of the Saracens pitch in Barnet, Copthall with 15 taps selling beer. Despite the club's existing beer sponsors, Alistair and Chris convinced club owner Nigel Wray to allow the experiment, one of his many gestures of player support which later inadvertently became bundled into the wider salary cap scandal.
When Alistair was forced into early retirement in 2016, he took a Managing Director role in advertising; not where he ultimately wanted to be but it was a mini-Masters degree in the mechanics of authentic brand building, particularly by studying the clunky, remote excretions from large FMCG brands. If there were ever a blueprint of what Wolfpack would never be, this was it. When Chris retired two years later, the pair dived into the project full-time. As Chris modestly admits: "Without any business training, I came straight into Wolfpack when the best thing I could do is run at people, that was my skill set. It's an ongoing process [of learning]."
“How do you brew a beer? Google.”
It must indeed be strange to spend 15 years as one of the very best global exponents of your art to then slide off that treadmill with a jolt into ignorance. Alistair recalls the early conversations: "How do you brew a beer? Google." If there are skills which are transferable from high performance sport, it's determination to succeed at all costs. "While we were still playing, we rented an office not far from where we live in Queen's Park out of our rugby salaries. On our days off and afternoons after training, we would sit in the office; although we didn't need an office. We thought if we were going to do this properly, we've got to get an office. Although we didn't quite know what the end goal was, there was always an appetite to try and make a success of it."
Any big mistakes along the way? "Yeah, the office!"
Brewing beer is a far more complex process than either imagined; they make mistakes every day but don't dwell on the minutiae. Alistair's straightforward assessment is that "we still haven't made a mistake that's bad enough to sink us." Chris, forever glass half full figuratively but otherwise glass very empty literally, focuses on the other side of the argument. "I can tell you what's been easy. Drinking it!"
Sporting highs vs. entrepreneurship
I was curious if a start-up can ever match the rush that high level sport brings. Alistair: "It can't match the euphoria that we got through winning a Heineken Cup final, or just playing a game on Saturday where everything's on the line, particularly when you get broken bones but you win. But what it can do is create a more sustainable feeling of accomplishment, of empowerment, of fulfilment. When I reflect on rugby, it's massive highs, but also massive lows. You win a game on Saturday and you're over the moon, you're champions of the world; and then Monday comes and bang, back to square one, that doesn't count. So you start building again. So every week, you're going through this process - start low, build up, huge output and then back to the bottom again.
"We still have a huge amount of fun with it. It's amazing."
What I love about Wolfpack, the momentum keeps building week on week. You don't have to press reset every single Monday. Yeah, every now and again you get that moment of euphoria, when you've had ten beers and the tequila comes out..." Hangovers aside, the imbalance of emotional cadence between playing sport and running a business had not occurred to me and I find it a pleasing psychological insight.
Chris talks of a 'thawing out process' after retirement, an unusual metaphor for an all-action try scoring bomber, but the idea is clear. "I've been geared from such a young age, my entire being is quite an aggressive, competitive person." Chris and Alistair both present as humble, low ego individuals but Chris adds nuance to the layers of ego. "We are low ego, but then actually, personally, not at all. I'm not [Zlatan] Ibrahimović, but in our world you've got some massive alpha males and you're living in a non-stop competitive bubble. That was my whole being, that was who I wanted to become. Now, the civilian world is a bit more intricate, it's not so black and white. You've just got to chill out a bit." The slight contradictions highlight the abnormality and intensity of professional sport; close to high finance but with real relationships, camaraderie and fewer artificial highs.
Alistair synthesises the sentiment: "It's interesting to compare ego from an outward facing versus inward facing perspective. As a player, you put a lot of pressure on yourself and you back yourself. But from a business and life after rugby perspective, I hope and I pray with all my heart, I think we're humble people, we don't think we've done anything that is remarkable yet, we know we've still got a long way to go before we can be very proud of what we've done. The fact that we signed autographs and played in front of 1000s of people at the weekend was just part of the job. I never go to bed thinking I wish I could sign more autographs or have 20,000 people watch me lift this keg into the cellar."
Both co-founders are self-deprecating however as they already flex their new muscles beyond just lager. Chris is part of an angel investing syndicate and Alistair is starting a nutritional supplement brand.
"We haven't got a billion pound marketing budget so we have to lean on our influence through social media and find interesting ways of telling our stories through channels that are essentially free."
Wolfpack still has strong associations with sport and not only rugby. It sponsors local sports teams in proximity to the bars they supply. Cricket, hockey and rugby teams carry the Wolfpack logo and in return get some free beer and much needed cash. The values of the business are consistent in all its expressions. Alistair: "And that is the camaraderie and the community and the sense of we're all in this together."
This is small beer versus the market behemoths, but no doubt if Wolfpack did compete with Carlsberg and others head on, it would probably be the most determined lager in the world.
What's the kindest thing anyone's ever done for you?
Alistair: "When South Africa beat England at Twickenham in 2014, I was sitting high up in the stands, and after the game three of my old teammates noticed me, jumped into the crowd over the hoardings, ran up a million steps to give me a hug."
Chris: "My Mum passed away unfortunately when I was playing for Saracens, and the whole squad came to her funeral."
What's your most powerful memory?
A: "At Sarries, we had lost the European Cup Final on a Saturday and the Premiership final on the following Saturday. We were expected to win both tournaments; devastating. Me and Wylsie had made a pact before to meet the next day at 11am at a pub called The Elgin to celebrate the season. Before we knew it, Jamie George arrived, then Jackson Wray and Hayden Smith rolled up. And then the whole Saracens team were there at this little pub in Maida Vale celebrating what a great season it had been rather than crying into our pillows how sad we were about losing. That was the moment I knew this club was going to be successful. I always remember that as the highlight of my rugby career."
A: "I lit the candles on Nelson Mandela's 85th birthday at Ellis Park Stadium. I was captain of the South African U19 team and as part of the celebrations, the whole team was doing a lap of honour before playing the All Blacks. There was myself, Francois Pienaar and Lucas Radebe. Mr Mandela had a huge procession, he drove around the stadium in a car and then the three of us got to light the candles and it was great."
C: "Representing the US, going out and playing in Chicago against the All Blacks. Just to my left was Sonny Bill Williams in the tunnel. It was a full stadium, so I knew what we were up against. I was playing fullback so I knew I was going to miss about 10 tackles. But just seeing him, how big he was, was quite a compelling moment for me. It was sort of weird, it all came together in this powerful moment, Sonny Bill with his big stature, going out into an iconic stadium [Soldier Field]. [I was thinking] this is going to be a tough day at the office."
[Chris also met the queen, but did not light candles at her birthday celebrations.]
Tell us something interesting about yourself most people don’t know
A: "I can play every Jack Johnson song on guitar; which is not something I'm proud of. And sing them badly."
C: "I can do 100 keep me ups at will."
A: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
"It puts science into layman's terms, that's fascinating."
C: East of Eden, John Steinbeck
"We had a book club at Sarries, and it was a highlight of my life. It was one of the most compelling books I've read, I think it was chosen by Hugh Vyvyan. I read it in about two days. It's so interesting around religion, storytelling."
What's your desert island music?
A: The War on Drugs
"I just find it uplifting, brilliant. All day, every day, my Sunday barbecue music."
C: Dermot Kennedy, Irish singer-songwriter
"I like quite melancholic songs, and he just gets me."
Winding down away from Wolfpack
A: Golf, or a pint at the end of the day
C: 5-a-side football
Where can we find out more about you?
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