I recently did an email interview with Tom Seefurth, who along with his wife Atheena created Mamma Mia Pizza Beer, a novelty brew that’s actually pretty damn good. I used a few snippets of what follows for a Today Show post about the beer, but thought that some of you would like to read the full interview, as Tom shares the trials and tribulations of someone trying to break into the beer industry.
Tell me about the brewing history of the beer. It looks like it started as a homebrew and now are is being contract brewed by Sprecher. Can you tell me about how you started brewing the beer and how it scaled up for a large scale brew?
We were experimenting with Belgian style beers around 2005, it seemed anything goes in their beers and many were very interesting. We had quite a few herbs growing & one of the beers that we planned in the spring would included one of every herb growing plus home grown hops. The herbs were oregano, basil, rosemary, sage and mint. it was brewed as a Saison & we scored well in homebrew competitions and one of my neighbors, & brew partner for many beers, (Warren) wife Darcy said it smelled and tasted like Pizza Beer. Being that she does not drink beer & finished the whole bottle spoke volumes for the quality. The beer paired so well with a wide variety of foods especially pizza & pasta.
Fast forward to Labor Day weekend 2006. It was a cool rainy lousy weekend for barbecues & picnics so we brewed on Saturday & Sunday. Monday rolled around & we had an extra fermenter, a bag of Saison Yeast that had “expired” and all these tomatoes and garlic on the counter. My neighbor Warren really wanted to make a garlic beer. My wife and I had discussed the night before that if the weather was still lousy that we would make the Pizza Beer again, but this time with the basic ingredients that spice up pizza. Being a homebrewer means there are no rules & writing recipes down was not really my style but searching for a recipe that included Basil, Oregano, Tomato & Garlic was impossible so we traced my hand for the sizes of the bunches of herbs & wrote every detail. It smelled so good like a pizzeria when we brewed it, we figured the only thing it would be good for is beer brats, beer bread & as a basic marinade. I made the mistake of racking the beer a week too soon, I forgot that the yeast although old is a very slow fermenting & should have been a tad warmer. As I was racking, I read the gravity, stopped everything & dumped the small amount racked back into the fermenter, boiled candy sugar & added Champagne yeast to prevent unwanted bacteria. What we tasted that day was over the top good and the beer was eventually put into bottles and carbonated.
We ordered a big fat stuffed pizza one night & the local store just had a big wine event so we figured one of the three reds we had surely would go with the pizza. We were wrong, went down & pulle a couple bottles of warm, undercarbonated pizza beer, poured it into glasses & it went so well with the pizzas that we sat & giggled the entire meal. We entered that version in amateur competitions & fared well enough to earn a few ribbons including a third place best of show. The awards qualified us to enter the GABF Pro-Am so we approached Mike Rybinski our friend and head brewer at Walter Payton’s place. Mike has a knack for making some very fun beers and is one of the most creative brewers and marketers we know. The beer was a hit and the attention from the media including a joke in Jay Leno’s monologue were tell tale signs that this is what we would be doing for the remainder of our time on this planet. If you have seen the Julia Childs movie where she begins scheduling radio & television interviews and is so excited about things, that was us. The beer sold out at the brewpub, we were searching for a partner to brew the beer and hoped to license the concept and market the beer as Chef Tom & Mamma Mia. My Uncle was spending 40 hours a week pro bono developing the web site and creating labels and packaging. We could barely pay the mortgage as we had not seen a paycheck for months. We scraped up enough money to visit Bill Keeler in Utica, NY where he had promised to introduce us to the folks at FX Matt. We packed the kids, drove straight through, went on the show, they loved the beer. We pulled out a raw chicken from the cooler & told him that not only the beer is good to drink, but it was the first inject-able beer marinade. We proceeded to inject the birds, he called a local pizzeria & we cooked two pizza beer chickens in a revolving wood fired pizza oven!
We came home tired and anxious. We had been not only to Matt, but visited Genesee as well, we figured someone would want to have fun with this crazy brew. In the meantime, we had to figure out for ourselves HOW to make ourselves a legitimate, licensed seller of malt beverages. Cannot say enough good things about the TTB. They were there all the way with support and were very accessible. We traveled back to Genesee in November, shook hands & began what we thought would be a partnership. in December 2007 they broke the news that another brewing company would be contracting them and our plans were shot out of the water. By this time, we were out of money, extremely disappointed but determined to make it happen. We had to find someone to make this beer, we had a distributor here in Chicago that committed to 1,000 cases. Randy Sprecher is a man we had met at several Chicago Beer Society dinners and events and has a brewery just north of Milwaukee. We called the brewery, met with Craig Burge the brewmaster and had an agreement to brew 40bbl. We had just enough money to buy labels and boxes provided we put the bills on hold for a couple months. We had no money for six pack carriers and figured with such an odd beer that Sprecher’s 16 oz proprietary bottles would be perfect for single sales. Craig told us that he could upscale the malt and hop profile but it would be our decision regarding the spices. You have no idea how long I stared at the ceiling at 3AM thinking about how to do this. Athena and I talked about it, made the calculations & went for it. The formula was perfect, however the first batch really clogged the system when they tried to drain the beer into the fermenter. Future brews would have to be spent finely chopping & smashing garlic by hand. It takes two people about 4 hours for one 40bbl batch. We have since tweaked the recipe (this is trade secret) so that the final product is less harsh & super easy, yet complex to drink.
We got into Whole Foods with the beer and would spend time in their in store kitchen preparing pizzas and beer bread to serve with this “Culinary Beer”. Customers suggested that we bag the recipe and sell them as kits alongside the beer. About this time, October 2008, we had made enough beer to stock IL, WI and IN. A bad deal with an out of state distributor left us with a lot of stock and just about put us out of business. We began putting these kits together & bringing them to liquor stores along with a portable pizza oven to make Pizza Beer Pizzas. We sold so many kits that we hired a local food packaging company that was FDA approved, stocked a few local grocers and stood in stores 3-4 days a week selling pizza & bread kits along with the pizza beer. Whole Foods has a buy local program and we very quickly filed the necessary paperwork and were back in their stores. Unfortunately, we broke our ties with the Illinois distributor and the beer quickly sold out. We hired another guy with the promise that for sure he’d get approved and sell to Whole Foods. Never happened. People had to go elsewhere for the beer. Meantime we pulled the plug on Wisconsin and Indiana, but sold three of the pallets we were sitting on to a friend in California who has a pizzeria and subsequently won a 1st place prize at the Pizza Today International show with his version of Pizza Beer Crust Pizza. Eventually, we found another distributor in Illinois that was authorized to do business at Whole Foods. About two weeks before he picked up the beer, he let us know that he had entered into an agreement with a very large microbrew and would not have the time to market our product but would be happy to deliver what he had ordered. Along with his order, more beer went to California and we entered the Michigan market (Spring 2011). Michigan quickly sold out and placed a purchase order that we could not fulfill as the brewery has a minimum of 40bbls.
Spring 2012, Urban Daddy wrote an article followed by yet another monologue joke by Leno, a UK publication and one from Hong Kong. We very quickly had demand, the emails were virtually coming in by the minute and we had to begin compiling folders by State & Country so that when the beer is available we could notify. Anyway, New York & Michigan were ready & we got a promise from Indiana as well to complete the 40bbl minimum. Indiana was a disappointment as the distributor pretty much disappeared but SKI Beer in NY and Imperial in MI both stepped up and purchased the entire batch. In the meantime we had been working with the State of Illinois to help address the Hong Kong brew. We really thought that the buyer was pulling our leg and then saw the beer appear in a Hong Kong Food Show in August and a purchase order and check paid in full in advance for an entire 40bbl batch! This beer is scheduled to be bottled on October 11, 2012 & will take approx 30-60 days to get to the stores in Hong Kong. Additionally, Imperial, our Michigan distributor hosted a trade show for their customers & purchased a 40bbl batch AND Hunterdon in NJ also ordered a 40bbl batch. Athena and I cannot thank them enough for their generosity and understanding that we are just a two person company keeping our heads above water by bootstrapping. The beer is being released today in NewJersey.
I am sure that question one could have been answered more simple, there is a lot more to that story if you are interested, like the time the sheriff knocked on the door to serve us with foreclosure papers & we were out but had two teenage girls scared to death. We did manage to avoid the process and are currently still here~!
What’s next for Pizza Beer?
To expand our dry goods into grocery stores that sell our beer in MI, NY & NJ. Procure a good distributor here in IL, continue to self distribute in WI, capture the attention of someone who sees us as a “concept” rather than a novelty and either invest or license the brand. Our customers in Chicago are extremely anxious to get the beer back in the city. We have a distributor downstate that has been able to get the beer in Woodman’s Rockford, Hy-Vee in Sycamore and keep our On- Line source, Malloy’s stocked. Unfortunately he is not linked up with Whole Foods. Our food line includes an extensive “naturally” gluten free mix and gives customers that can have wheat the option of using Pizza Beer or other beers of choice to make the food. We will also be expanding our food service line of Pizza Beer Crust mix to Sports Bars, restaurants & other venues that do not currently make pizzas
Outside of Mama Mia, What kind of beers do you enjoy yourself?
There are not many styles I do not like, Mamma is partial to Hefewizen and Mexican Beers (yes with lime and sometimes hot sauce) I really love Porter. We are also known for putting our homegrown hops into PBR in the fall. We both love a clean malty Oktoberfest this time of year and a good well aged Barley Wine in front of the fireplace in the winter.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you’d like to add?
This is not a “Pizza Flavored” beer. It is a beer designed for pairing and to be used as an ingredient, something no one else has done, therefore we declared our beer “Culinary Beer.” We hope home cooks and professional chefs will enjoy our creation as much as we have. In the 5 years we have developed a loyal following of customers who understand our concept and show that by purchasing and re-purchasing at the grocery and specialty stores that carry our brand. We hope that Leno will finally invite us on the show, for cryin’ out loud, we are the smallest beer company and the most talked about on the net. Two people with a vision, no money but the desire to survive starting a new life at the beginning of a horrible economic crash! Not only are we still standing, we are growing slow and strong. Many savvy retailers have picked up on our suggestion to put a bottle or two on the counter & use our beer as a “hook.” Pizza Beer Pizzas & Pizza Beer.. Tell me that combo doesn’t get your taste buds revved up.
What pairings do you recommend?
Pizza, Pasta, Sushi, Gyros, Hot Dogs & Sausage, Hot Wings, Turkey dinner, Tamales & Tacos, Burgers.
Where is the beer available?
We currently sell the beer in : IL ( Specialty Import, very select until new distributor), WI (Self distribute to select stores in Milwaukee and Madison area) MI (Imperial), NY (SKI) NJ (Hunterdon) Alberta (Spider Beverage) CA (Western Beverage), Hong Kong (Hauschild) We have permits for IN & FL but have no one there to distribute.
Thanks again to Tom for taking the time to write (and write and write) these answers for me. It’s always interesting to get an inside glimpse of the long and winding road someone has to take to turn a passion into a paycheck.
Update: You can read the final Today how article here.