It’s a dilemma many professional sportsmen and women face after retirement – especially forced retirement – what to do next to earn a crust.
In spite of fierce competition in the industry, two former Saracens rugby players Alistair Hargreaves, 32 and Chris Wyles, 35, created a microbrewery business after identifying a gap in the market of craft lager.
It is now thriving – and This is Money visited Alistair at Wolfpack’s pub ‘headquarters’ in Lonsdale Road, London, where he told us how he threw caution to the wind after being coaxed out of full time employment by his former teammate and business co-founder.
From tackle to tap: Chris Wyles (left) and Alistair Hargreaves (right) found passion and purpose after retiring from rugby by launching their own craft lager business called Wolfpack
He says: ‘The goal was to have something to move to [after rugby] but when I went earlier into retirement I started working for an agency instead and got sucked into the whole corporate world.
‘Then Chris decided to retire and pulled me aside and said ‘you don’t want to live your life grinding for someone else – now’s the time’.’
The former Saracens captain was forced to retire on medical grounds at the end of 2016, aged just 30, after sustaining repeat concussions.
During his career at the top of the game, he won four international caps for South Africa and captained Sarries to the Premiership title in the 2014-15 season.
In 254 appearances for Saracens, American born Chris – Alistair’s Wolfpack co-founder – helped the London-based club win four Aviva Premiership titles and two European Rugby Champions Cups.
Wolfpack was named after the Saracens team nickname, but Alistair relays that it now means so much more than that.
‘Wolfpack Lager was created with passion, dedication, and a mild smattering of panic.’
The pair were at least able to draw on some experience when it came to launching their craft beer business.
After retiring from rugby, Alistair initially took a job in a top advertising agency promoting multiple beers from Budweiser to Stella Artois.
But Chris persuaded him out of it, stating that he was working hard selling someone else’s beer – and with pending retirement, coaxed him into setting up Wolfpack Lager with him.
The duo initially started the business using their own capital, but a year later they approached Saracens owner Nigel Wray, who is worth a £315million.
He agreed to back the business as a minority shareholder.
Wolfpack beer ranges in price between £4.75 and £5 across bars in London
Alistair refuses to divulge further details of the investment but added that the pair were put through their paces pitching the business to Wray and learned a thing or two about crunching the numbers to produce a compelling story.
Wolfpack is not the only business that Wray has backed from rugby players.
Last month, Sportsmail revealed that the multi-millionaire property entrepreneur also owns businesses with England captain Owen Farrell, Billy and Mako Vunipola and Richard Wigglesworth – and has also co-owned houses with former Saracens players.
Alistair says that crowdfunding was also considered but adds: ‘I think crowdfunding is great but some of the advice that we got was that it was probably worth crowdfunding at a later stage when we could get our business at a higher valuation.
‘For where we were in the journey when we needed to raise funds we wanted a partner we could trust and learn from.
‘We wanted an investor that we could leverage and use their experience. It was a long process and pretty tough but we’re glad we did it.’
Alistair stresses that much hard work went into creating the business and brand.
Wolfpack was founded in 2014 after the pro-athletes researched the craft beer industry, immersing themselves through microbrewery tours, reading literature on beer styles and theory and brewing techniques.
The pair tried beers from all around the world from IPAs to stouts and sours, Weissbier to porters, but realised the lack of lager – the traditional enemy of ale – offerings from microbrewers was slim.
From this Wolfpack was born and now their lager and pilsner are poured in 250 pubs around the country, boasting a £1million turnover with a team of 12 working for the business.
Alistair says: ‘We figured that if we were going to sell beer to rugby supporters, we needed to focus on what they were drinking at games – and although there were some pretty decent real ale options, we realised that most drinkers were still drinking lager and that their lager options were very limited.
‘It allowed us to narrow our focus and work really hard to produce and brew lager that would be a great craft alternative to the current mainstream offering.’
Wyles and Hargreaves launched Wolfpack lager which now boasts £1m turnover
He adds that they didn’t initially start by thinking of the bigger picture or developing a masterplan.
He says: ‘We literally said we’re rugby players and life after rugby is coming quickly and we need to invest in a business that can provide us with a purpose after the game and make us attractive to other businesses.
‘If we could order a pint of our own beer then its success.’
They’re also not precious about doing it all themselves. After perfecting the recipe, the pair outsourced the brewing to another company.
This enabled them to focus on quality and consistency of the beer, something which Alistair says smaller breweries struggle to maintain, and opened them up to market the brand and story.
Besides distributing the beers to various bars in London, the lager is delivered in a customized Land Rover Defender at festivals and events.
But when it comes to rugby matches the team go all out in a double decker Wolfpack bus, which was rescued from a scrapyard and now boasts 15 taps serving drinks at Allianz Park, home of Saracens Rugby.
Wyles and Hargreaves converted an old mechanics garage and turned it into their first pub to promote Wolfpack lager
Hargreaves says that the beers are targeted at all drinkers with women liking the product too – and that Wolfpack supports the Saracens’ women’s side who are the current champions of the Tyrells Premier 15s league.
‘We have values that we learnt from community and sport. Whoever you are -sportsman or woman you can be part of the Wolfpack.
‘Our values are the most important. Beers and bars are a great way to bring everyone together.’
The lager ranges in price costing £4.75 at the Wolfpack bar, but elsewhere drinkers pay between £4.85 and £5.
Alistair says: ‘Some of the beer prices are ridiculous and are expensive, costing up to £6.50 – but ours are quality products with a lot of thought and effort in it.’
He doesn’t foresee an increase in the price of his product but admits it could happen if Brexit goes ahead. ‘At the moment we make everything locally but we do get hops from the Czech Republic so that may be something we’d have to look into.
‘Regardless of what happens politically we can’t compromise on the quality of our product so even if it does drive prices up we have to find a way as the quality of the products we put into our beer is paramount. But who knows what will happen.’
This year, the pair plan to expand on their range of lagers and open more bars across the capital.
There are no plans yet to expand across from the UK’s borders to Hargreaves birthplace, South Africa, or to Wyles’ America.
Alistair says: ‘We’d love to take our beer to SA and the States but we want to get things right first here in the UK.
‘As tastes evolve and people appreciate beer more and as it evolves people are very selective on what they choose to drink.’
Alistair encourages other professional sports people to think more about life after the game. ‘There is so much pressure on sportspeople to live, eat, sleep and breathe that specific sport they are in.
‘And like rugby players your career comes to an end sometimes earlier than you thought.
‘It’s physically very demanding and mentally very tough. So people have to find time to invest in themselves for life after sport.
‘As a sporting community we don’t do enough of it and entrepreneurship is ripe for sportspeople as they have the networks which can open doors.’
Alistair adds that a number of other Saracens players have started their own businesses pointing out that former team mates Dom Day and George Kruis established the Fourfive CBD oil business and former Saracens captain Brad Barritt now runs coffee company Tiki Tonga Coffee, which is the official coffee supplier at Allianz Park.
He says: ‘We’ve now got about four to five players that have their own business so there are some really cool things that are happening in that space.
‘It’s a huge step because we hear how a lot of players are having a tough time after sport and those problems are real and affect all of us.
‘We need to encourage younger players to invest their energy and time to think outside of the game – I think that’s what we should all be doing.’