Monday 3 October 2016 11:59 am

Wolfpack Lager owners and rugby union players Alistair Hargreaves and Chris Wyles talk about the transition from pitch to entrepreneurship

"You can feel yourself getting older, tireder and sorer. The question inevitably becomes, ‘what next?’, says Saracens player Alistair Hargreaves.

“It’s a position most sportspeople find themselves in: you’ve been doing something you love your whole life, then you’re faced with the prospect of not doing it. Playing engulfs your life, so it’s actually pretty tough,” says Hargreaves. “It’s a young game. You’re an ex-rugby player for a lot longer than you’re a rugby player. That means you need a plan for when you’re finished.”

So two years ago, he and teammate Chris Wyles, aged 30 and 33 respectively, launched Wolfpack Lager. “For us, being involved in a business that we’d built was really important. We wanted each day to be a new experience,” says Wyles.

“We knew we needed something where there was a market to tap into, and it sounds cliched, but we both wanted something that was all about people – about being among people, bringing them together through our brand and its story. And that’s what creating our own beer is enabling us to achieve.”

(Un)familiar territory

The pair bought a double-decker bus, kitted it out with 15 taps and parked it at their stadium. “We have a captive market at the stadium – it made sense for us to start there,” says Hargreaves. “The bus gave us the confidence to really start growing it into a business,” he adds. Now, the pair are in 30 pubs, have a customised Land Rover Defender (it has six taps coming out the back), are transforming a car mechanics’ workshop into a taproom, bar and shop, and are in the process of building their own microbrewery. It’s impressive progress, considering that, during the season, they train Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and play Saturday – and both founders have just started families.

Wolfpack is named after the Saracens’ nickname – an old coach use to refer to them as a pack of wolves. “It stuck and our fans started calling us that,” says Wyles. “But the aim is to use our story to create a brand that can appeal to anyone. After all, 70 per cent of people who go into a bar are looking for a beer,” points out Hargreaves. Besides, for those of us unfamiliar with the Wolfpack moniker, it can easily be just another lager behind the bar.

The drink itself is the culmination of months of research. “We consulted a lot of people in the industry. We learnt about hops, tested flavours. We both brew as a hobby, but we went out and spoke to people who really knew what they were talking about – people with PhDs in brewing and distilling,” says Hargreaves. “It was really important to us to create something that was drinkable. It needed to tell a story, but it wasn’t about creating the most unusual, niche craft beer out there.”

“Every day we’re asking questions, learning about business, learning about the industry,” adds Wyles. “No two days look the same – which is exactly what we want for when we’re doing this full-time.”

Away from the desk

At the end of their careers, many rugby players go into the City. As Hargreaves and Wyles are telling me about friends who’ve taken this route, a voice behind me says hello, and they’ve bumped into Rugby Sevens star Tom Powell. I consider whether many of the well-proportioned men going about their business in the Square Mile are actually highly successful former sportsmen.

“I did an internship at Deloitte and it was amazing,” says Wyles. “But each of us is wired differently; both of us have the same view that you have to go out and do things in order to learn. We’re hugely passionate about this industry, and love that what matters is the here and now. I may not be the best rugby player in the world, but every time I play I put my absolute all into it. It’s the same if you’ve got a business.”

The pair explain that they’ve watched others leave rugby and “end up almost broke” because of the change in personal circumstances and a lack of direction. But “things have shifted recently in the rugby world – there’s a lot more focus on making sure people are set up for when their career ends,” says Hargreaves.

“And Saracens has been at the forefront of that. We went to our chief executive and said we wanted to start a brewery, and he’s been incredibly supportive – the mindset is that being a more well-rounded individual can make you focus more on the pitch; make you a better player.”

Having bootstrapped their company to date, the pair will soon start looking for investment. “We’re at the stage where we’ve got a business that we could run full-time,” says Wyles. “That’s fantastic, but we’ve spent the last two years getting a local following, understanding our clients and their expectations. Now, we need to start thinking about our sales strategy, and plans for growth.”

“Naivety actually got us a long way,” adds Hargreaves. “When we started out, we didn’t know what we were doing – we just thought, ‘just seeing one person drinking our beer will be enough – even if we don’t make a financial success of it’. But now, we’re thinking about more pubs, the brewery, more beers… each time something works, you move the goalposts.”