“Why on Earth would you drive to Den Helder?”, an unimpressed Amsterdam local asked, when I told her of our Sunday plans. “To go and drink beers from Tommie Sjef’s shed, of course!”, I replied. To most people, my new friend included, this means nothing. To beer geeks – sour fans in particular – it means a whole lot. For, an hour or so north of Amsterdam, a young Dutch guitarist named Tommie (currently studying at Arnhem Conservatory) has been making waves in the beer scene with his outstanding blended sours, better known as Tommie Sjef’s Wild Ales. And we were off to see where it all began – his back garden.
His Mum answered the door and welcomed us in, guiding us past boxes of beer and musical instruments, before Tommie took over and whisked us out back. Demand for his beer was already high, but being named one of the “Best New Brewers in the World 2017” by RateBeer probably didn’t hurt either. As a result, it’s all hands on deck for Tommie and his family, with everyone chipping in to sort out paperwork, orders, labelling and the like. It’s not all glamour. But then again, they do have a shed filled with glorious sour beer in the garden.
Tommie’s love affair with wild ales started when he tasted an oude geueze whilst visiting Antwerp a few years ago. Wasting no time, he subsequently made several runs to Belgium to get hold of lambic to blend at home. [Aside – If you want to know more about the traditional lambic process, read my piece on Cantillon Brewery here]. Tommie soon decided that it would be simpler for him to brew his own “lambic-inspired” wort, which he now does in various Dutch breweries. He brews a single pale to golden wort, which is then fermented in oak barrels. He uses his own yeast and bacteria culture, made of spontaneous starters from the local area and from his lambic blending period. The resulting wild beer is then aged in the same barrels that it was fermenting in, with fruit often added towards the end of the ageing process.
The reason why I only [currently] brew one type of base beer is so that I first can really understand how this beer develops in the barrel, and eventually as a blend in the bottles. For me it is a question of intuition and feeling, rather than analysing the process scientifically. Tommie Sjef
With a few tools and a glass (ignore the Gueuze Lambic label!), Tommie set about showing us some rudimentary blending, throwing together a few samples of a new blueberry beer from various barrels in his shed. He seemed happy with the result – we were in love. Coincidentally, I ran into Tommie a couple of months later at Arrogant Sour festival in Italy, and the finished blueberry blend, or “Blauw“, was in bottled format, tasting better than ever. For the final blend, Tommie fruited one barrel for 4 months, and another for a shorter period of time to bring out different aspects of the organic blueberries. Time to get me a barrel or two of my own methinks. Balcony Blending? Matt The Wild? Blend The List?
In order to meet the huge demand, Tommie raised funds to open a new 150m2 facility where most of his barrels are now stored. You can still buy the special Backslash magnums which he released, and if you listen carefully to his YouTube clips regarding the expansion, you might just hear him playing guitar with his Brian Blade-inspired Goldfish Two duo. We drove over to see the impressive space, and we were greeted by a warehouse full of 400-500 litre red wine barrels from France (Bourgogne) and Italy (Sangiovese & Cabernet Sauvignon) that’s currently home to 240 hl (or 24,000 l) of beer. His prized posession, however, is a 3,000 litre foudre that was previously filled with Amarone in Verona, a particularly rich and boozy style of Valpolicella wine that we came to know and love whilst staying on Lake Garda. I’ll definitely be seeking out the resulting liquid from that monster barrel when it’s ready. As I write this, it’s been filled for two months, so there’s still a way to go yet.
Back at his house, it was time to crack open some beers in the sunshine before Tommie had to get back to business, or guitar practice. His bottles are tough to track down outside of Amsterdam’s best beer bars and shops (e.g. Arendsnest, In De Wildeman, Bierkoning), so your best bet is to sign up to his mailing list and order directly through the TS Wild Ales website as soon as anything appears, or catch him at a festival. Fingers crossed he opens a Tommie’s Taps ™ tasting room one day, featuring jam sessions with Tommie Sjef’s Wild Band.
We were blown away by the complexity of his beers, many of which will appeal to wine fans – N.B. anyone that’s looking to convert someone to sour beer. Tommie even describes the Lieve, which is refermented with chardonnay grapes, as a “hybrid of farmhouse cider, natural white wine and beer”. Everybody wins. Whilst fruit is often used – e.g. Hungarian Kekfrankos grapes in Druif 2015; organic plums in Opal; raspberries and blackberries in Framboos – it doesn’t overpower, allowing the character from the barrel to come through. At this stage, you will rarely have much choice over which of his beers you drink, but do yourself a favour and buy a bottle when you have the chance. You won’t regret it.
Many thanks to Tommie and his family for their hospitality. It was one of those special #MattTheTrips excursions that will stay long in the memory. I look forward to following his progress in the world of beer, and no doubt music too. Proost!
Tommie Sjef Wild Ales – www.tswildales.com