A wild revelation

Struan Logan meets the unexpected star of Budapest Beer Week


During most good beer festivals, there will emerge a wild card; a brewery that flies in out of nowhere with that “oh-my-god-have-you-tried…” beer. At Budapest Beer Week this year, that brewery is undoubtedly Tommie Sjef Wild Ales. Tommie Sjef (pronounced like chef) is from the Netherlands and a one-person brewing machine, creating complicated wild ales using wooden barrels to ferment and age the beers. With no kegs or injections of CO2 to carbonate the beers – these are bottle conditioned only – this is where beer, wine and cider overlap for a fruity sour start, dry finish and a symphony of subtle flavours.

It’s not just the technically challenging nature of these beers that has people queueing for Tommie’s brews, but also his personal story. Tommie started brewing at the age of 19 and is now only 25 years old. As you’ll see from his photos, he looks far younger and is a million miles from the archetypal craft brewer with a big bushy beard and face haggard by years of late-night drinking.

What makes Tommie’s story even more tantalisingly sweet (much like his Wild Ale with Blaufränkisch wine grapes – 7.8% and as appealing as it sounds) is the fact that the person joining him to pour bottles to drinkers from around the world is not a sales rep, but his own mother. She apparently had been looking forward to a trip to Hungary for sightseeing around Budapest, but had somehow been pressganged into the hospitality industry. Fortunately though, despite not initially being a fan of wild ales, Tommie’s mum has now drunk so many samples that she is a complete convert.

The hard work has clearly been paying off, with live Untappd rankings at the festival putting Tommie’s beers fourth out of the 65 brewers involved, only behind masters of the art like Weldwerks, Wizard and Finback.

When I ask him how he felt about this triumph over such fierce competition, he shrugs it off, focusing on the next customer to serve and saying the recognition feels good, especially since these are the beers he likes to drink. On the question of age, he feels nothing about it; making beer is what all the brewers are here to do, so age shouldn't be a factor.

Inspired by a family trip around several Lambic breweries and blenders, Tommie decided he would try making Lambic-style beers with a homebrew kit of his own, starting out with different geuze blends and experimenting with various concoctions of fruits and herbs. This is tricky enough, and when he found he was not getting the quality he wanted, he instead started making wild ales on the stove by cultivating the yeast cultures from spontaneous fermentation and previous lambic blends he had made. The barrels he used became like his colours on a palette to experiment with for different results.

Like birds leaving the nest, all good homebrewers have to move onto to bigger premises when their product becomes in-demand. While Tommie clearly has a very supportive family, there is only so much wort that can be kept in your mum’s shed before it outstays its welcome. So Tommie spread his wings and moved to a bigger facility to store even more barrels. He’s still a gypsy brewer, taking spare capacity at friendly breweries across the Netherlands to create beer that he then ferments, ages and blends in his own barrel room.

Tommie approaches the brewing process with more intuitive experimentation than most. When I ask if he’s thinking of doing beers outside of wild ales (cheekily suggesting he might consider a smashable pale ale) he talks about saisons as a possible foray into more accessible styles. He has started experimenting with this already, and at the Ca festival presented a blend of a wild two-year-old ale – dry hopped for a year in the barrel with a good portion of organic Cascade – with a six-month-old saison. While this makes the beer sound very complicated, the result is actually a really easy-going beer that you could honestly drink on a hot summer’s day without a second thought.

Clearly a chap of prodigious talents, Tommie has become the centre of his own brand, deliberately or not. When I email after the festival to ask him if he would like to create a company as big as Brewdog or have bars around the world like Mikkeller, his only reply is, “as you would expect I want to stay small ;)”. As long as he keeps producing beers of this quality, we’re just fine with that.

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