Interview with Tommie Sjef Koenen, Tommie Sjef Wild Ales

Dutch wunderkind, or not? Tommie Sjef Koenen speaks about his fast rise in the league of extraordinary sour beer producers, talks about blending and injured thumbs. Nana nanana, nanana Tommie Sjef!

Who are you? And what do you do?

[laughs] That’s kind of a broad question.
Well, I’m Tommie Sjef Koenen, of course. And I’m a blender. I make beer. I make music. [If you want to hear the music Tommie is playing with his Band Jeff, you can listen to it here – ed.]

Where are you right now?

The whole day I had nothing to do – kind of. So, I went to a forest, just for a walk, and now I’m heading back.

Are you familiar with the Japanese concept of “bathing in the forest”?

Not by name, but yes, I do it because it empties my mind. So, every once in a while, I go there.

You said you had nothing to do, but you are like one of the most popular breweries in the world. You don’t have too much to do?

[Laughs] Now I’m in Arnhem to study guitar and live. My barrel room is in Den Helder which is in another part of the Netherlands; two and a half hours away. I’ve been injured now for two and a half months; my thumb is bruised. While I’m here to take some lessons, I cannot play the guitar. So in between classes I have a lot of time – actually, not a lot of time: I only have some time today [laughs].
In Arnhem I do a lot of administration and arranging things in connection to beer.

How did you injure it?

I was fun fighting with a friend of mine. I hit him hard in the stomach, but he has really strong abs, which hurt my thumb.

First of all: Kudos to your friend. Second of all: Dude!

Well, it happened [laughs].

We start every interview with the same question: Which of your beers would you have served to legendary beer hunter Michael Jackson?

It depends on which beer would be ready. Especially with the fruit beers, sometimes they are really on spot, which is usually a few months after bottling.
If I’d have to pre-pick a beer, or one of my favorites, I would pick one with wine grapes, particularly Chardonnay, Riesling or Kekfrankos grapes.

What makes them your favorite?

I like wine a lot, like spontaneous or wild wines, wines without any Sulphur and yeast added.Their characteristics really appeal to me and I’m seeking out those flavors. I actually make a little bit of spontaneous wine.

Who is involved in your operation?

On paper it is a one-man business. But in practice I get a lot of help from my family, like my mother, a friend of my mother’s, some uncles and my sister are helping a lot with things like administration, bottling, labeling, going to festivals with me or logistical stuff, because I still don’t have my driver’s license.

Are they also investors?

No. I started with a little bit of money from myself and I borrowed some money from private people. You shouldn’t call them investors, because the only thing they get is interest for the money I borrowed.
My growth was not really slow, but steady and organically.

Are you in touch with other blenders, like Pierre at Tilquin or Raf at Bokkereyder?

Yeah, sometimes I have conversations with Raf. Mostly I have questions and he helps, like where he gets his pumps or hoses. I ask the same kind of questions to other brewers too. There’s now a few breweries in the Netherlands that are doing something similar to my stuff.

Who would one of those be?

Toon van den Broek. He’s like a Dutch producer of something between a spontaneous fermented, lambic inspired beer and a braggot. He makes quite good beers. He actually was my inspiration to start to do lambic blends five years ago: I bought lambic from different producers around Brussels to blend. We are still in touch with each other and learn from each other.

What is something you still would like to master?

Good question. There are different things on different levels, but for me the most important thing is my base beer. I only do one base beer, so one recipe, and I make different blends from it. It’s a wort for long term aging. I am now improving it a little bit. I also bought a lot of old hops to do the base beer with old hops – normally I do it with low alpha hops. So, there’s going to be some learning involved, in order to be improving my base beer.
In the future I would like to master different base beers. I think I can do it – after having done some small volume stuff, trying things out. I would it take through the same process of aging in barrels. For a second base beer I would also need more space. Since I need a proper amount of beer to make different blends.
I also want to master running a business. I already do this but it could always be better.There’s a lot more to it than just making beer: there’s a lot of stuff that you’ll need to manage, dealing with the business, solving problems, making things work out.
I have some ambitions in cooking as well: I am thinking of opening a tasting room, maybe not preparing food myself, but hiring a cook. But that’d allow me to learn from the cook. It’s just one of those ideas in my head and I don’t know if I ever….yeah, I will do it. It’s just a nice idea that I’ll create this one place where people can go and really experience the beer, that is open once or twice a week. And people could eat really simple food, focused on organic vegetables that are really fresh – and maybe fish as well, because we’re at the sea. This whole food and drinks thing is one of my ambitions.
And the biggest one is to master my work and my life [laughs]. That I don’t work too much, to have a good balance in life and trying to not bite off more than I can chew.

You’ve mentioned a few ideas that could be considered goals. Do you have other mid-term or long-term goals for your blendery?

I don’t really have any goals in terms of capacity or growth. Maybe the most important thing is that I don’t limit myself to beer making. It is really nice that my beer thing is going really well, that people like it. I get a lot of energy from that and get inspired to do more things with beer. But it is not my end goal to be a brewer.
For me it’s more like you have ideas in your head and you can bring them to life in different manifestations. Do you get what I mean?

Tommie’s mom at the bottling station.

You once said that you don’t want to be a slave to your own success.

I don’t know if I still make beers in ten years. I don’t want to limit myself; this restriction would be like forcing myself, even if I will always be interested in food and drinks related things. However, my main love is music. Now, a combination of those two is what I would like to do the most.
As I couldn’t just stick to either beer or music, I need these different disciplines to keep it fresh for me.
Maybe it has to do with choosing between two things, when I want my choice to be both.
Nevertheless, I am looking for a new space to expand my blendery – the new room is kind of full. I want to expand to about three times the size that I have now. That will be a lot of beer which needs a lot of time, but in comparison, it is not a lot of beer. The goal is to stick to the quality and not going for quick money. Now everyone wants my beer and I could put out beer that was only aged for six months. I thought a lot about that because it can still be a pretty good beer. But it would not be on the level that people are used to or expect. I think it’s important to always serve the same quality, not just for myself, but especially for people.

A friend of mine once called you a wunderkind. What do you think about that?

[laughs] I don’t know.

Do you feel like a wunderkind?

No. That’s kind of, well, not ridiculous, but it kind of sounds like he said it as a joke. At least that’s how it feels to me. For me it doesn’t feel like I am, of course.

How old are you now?

24. But even if there’s a lot of attention and a lot of positive feedback, I shouldn’t take it to serious. Otherwise…
It’s like the same thing with being famous, and I’m not calling myself famous…. Maybe I’m a little bit. But if people are really famous, people want everything from that person, they think they know that person, because they see her or him on television or somewhere else. If that famous person is reacting to all those things in an exasperated way, at some point you will build a shield. That might sound a bit dramatic, but at some point you will have gotten so many reactions from people, the impact will recede, because you’re used to it. That may be natural. But I actually still appreciate the good feedback I get. At the same time, I take everything with a grain of salt, because I’m not a wunderkind [laughs].

What’s the most exciting thing that ever happened to or for you because of beer?

[pauses and thinks]

Apart from talking to me.

Definitely the highlight of 2018 [laughs].

Well, the year is still young, so there’s the small but realistic chance this will be topped.

But I’m certain it will rank in the top five.
For me the nice things that happen with beer are more the things that I do with beer. To me the whole process of making it, from being in the barrel room to the end, how it turns out, that is the exciting part. Because you never know how exactly a beer will turn out. Obviously, there’s also the travelling to countries that I’ve never visited before. That and the opportunity to talk about my beer are also things that I really like.

photo by Valentino Vondenhoff

Is it a secret who produces your wort?

Different breweries. I brew a lot at Ramses and at Jopen. I would like to have more breweries in the future, but it’s a lot of work to set up those relationships with breweries.
In the beginning I contacted a lot of breweries and Ramses found it a very interesting thing to start. He also works with a lot of organic ingredients and I only work with organic ingredients, so that was a good match. I really like him as a person too; he’s a really chill and honest guy. Now if I say I would like to have a few more breweries then not because these two are not great places to brew at, but more to be less dependent on just one or two breweries.

Are you on site when your wort is being produced?

Sometimes I’m not there, if they know the recipe and I have school. But I tend to be there when the wort is being cooled down and is being transported to my barrel room, because that’s when the work starts for me. Also, the day or a few days before the brewday I have to prepare the barrels.

How much volume do you produce per beer?

Normally 1000 liters but recently I started with bottling 2000 liter batches. In the future I want to do fewer different beers and focus on a few core beers and then trying to make them really good. Then I would do bigger batches. To have more of each beer would be good. Nowadays, I’m sold out too quick.

In your name it says “wild ales”. Wild could suggest spontaneously fermented, which they are not. In what regard are your beers wild?

I’m a very wild person! [laughs] That’s the whole reason behind my broken thumb: I’ve had to prove it once and for all.
Actually, the definition for wild ales is beers that are not only using brewer’s yeast, but also brettanomyces as well as other yeast and bacteria. So, in that sense my beers are wild. I am however not working with cultured wild yeast that you can buy. I started my culture partly with my lambic blends and partly with my homebrewed wild and sour ales. Those cultures I got from spontaneous fermentations: I made some starters, put them outside and then picked the right starter; basically, if it tasted nice, I would use it. I still live by that: If it tastes or smells nice, I’m going to use it. So, my beers are formed by taste and intuition – which is similar to what I do with music, in a sense.

Like a wunderkind would do.

Those are your words. [laughs]
While I do a lot by feeling, there are still things that you need to know, though.
Now if I start a new beer, I just pull out a few good barrels and pour a few liters of beer, plus a few bottles and also a little bit of spontaneously fermented beer that spent some time outside. Each of these is only a part of the whole. And this spontaneously fermented beer keeps the culture fresh – at least in my mind.

When I was at Cantillon I asked Jean how he would teach how to blend. Let me ask you the same question.

One thing is your palate, your taste; that’s the key. It’s a kind of a cliché, but it’s the same as with cooking. You can develop and train your palate, train how to name what you are tasting. And then you have your technique, just like in cooking. For me, however, the technique is the less important of the two. However, that depends on a personal approach, like there’s cooks that are very scientific and so are some brewers.
For me it’s a lot about intuition. There’s a lot of trying and the main thing is taste combined with experience. For blending there’s not a lot of learning in regards of practical things you have to know. There are things like you shouldn’t overcarbonate your beer, how a blend develops or shows itself in a bottle; those things I just learned by doing and sometimes by talking to people. But most of the time it’s about experiencing it and I started my experiencing it back when I was blending the lambics.
But I don’t want to say that it’s magical. There are a lot of mysteries about it, like it’s something really special. At the end of the day, it’s mainly about taste, experience and feeling and talent.

The shed where it all began.

How do you plan a beer?

I’m not really a planner, but I want to be. That’d be another goal, for me to implement a strict schedule for every month, including getting a certain amount of beer out. At the same time, it’s difficult with the kind of beers that I’m doing; you never know when they are ready.

Another aspect to planning is creating a beer. Is that happening when you get the wort or when things start to develop in the barrel?

Never when I get the wort, because a wort is just a wort: it’s kind of a base, a raw product. It’s more like if I get a nice fruit, then the idea starts with the fruit. If I have a nice finished base beer, then it’s mainly about that base beer. Sometimes things come together really fast, because I’m a blender that blends really in the moment.

Even if the creation is in the moment, do you write down what you’ve done so you could replicate it?

I should do, yeah.
It’s what my mom always says. [laughs]
But I don’t feel the need to write everything down, because for me the biggest thing is the taste and if I write everything down then I don’t train the taste over and over again.
Well, I should write down some things and I need to for the excise, as the government needs to know stuff. So, what I write down is information that I need to write down; information like which barrels I emptied, but not “this was fruity” or “this was oaky”.
One thing is the average of the beers that I’m using, like to never use too young beers. The base of the blend should be at least one year old.

How were you welcomed in the Dutch scene?

With flowers [laughs]

Must have been tulips.

Yes, to be more specific.
Well, actually I don’t know. It all happened fast. I did my lambic blends and around the time I did my homebrews, so about five years ago. People liked what I was doing, the attention I got just grew, with people hearing about my project. Eventually I had my first commercial release.
The number of people that drink my style of beer is still growing in the Netherlands, even if there were some people that appreciated them from the beginning. It’s great to see that many people that ordered beer in the very early days are still ordering my beers today.

And how were you welcomed by the brewers?

With them it was kind of the same: they like what I am doing. But most of them don’t do the same kind of beer. Back then – that sounds like it was twenty years ago – but back then, there were even less people that did beers in the style that I’m doing. Now people are more open to them than before – even if there’s still not that many that are doing these kind of beer. Theirs and mine are still a bit like two different worlds. They are not totally different, but you are coping with different issues. Plus, I am not a brewer. Which is also a thing.
I have a good connection with brewers nevertheless and there’s a few brewers that I have a really good connection with and we talk, not only when we meet at festivals. With many of them also producing wild ales or spontaneously fermented beers; those are the ones I talk to the most.

Where do you export to?

I don’t have that much beer, so it’s difficult to saving some beers for export. I’ve only shipped some beer to the US once, but that was little to nothing. I’ve shipped some to Italy, Denmark and Sweden.

What is the best way to get your beer?

Most of my beers go to restaurants and cafés [which are kinda like a Dutch or Belgian version of a grown-up-bar, but not exactly – ed.]. There are only two bottle shops in the Netherlands that have my beer, Bierkoning in Amsterdam and De Bierbrigadier in Eindhoven. I don’t plan to take on any new customers when it comes to stores, as I want to focus on restaurants and cafés. I like to do restaurants, because my beers really pair well with food.
But to answer your question: the best chance is always in Amsterdam; the In de Wildeman, Arendsnest and Foeders almost always have my beer – they always get it, but sometimes they are sold out. And then there’s always my webshop.

Which five beers do you recommend to others to drink before they die?

In general, try all the straight lambics.
I don’t drink too many sour beers. Partly, because they are rare and partly because sour is just one aspect of these beers. I actually try to keep the sourness low in my beers, because it’s not something I want to entirely focus on. These beers can offer so much more than just sourness. I also feel that wild ales is more of a new beer style that is still in development – even though it is really old – and some of the new beers I don’t enjoy.
Brewing a beer like an IPA can be more difficult, because there’s this risk of off-flavors – not saying that’s not a risk in wild beers. But other beers need to be really clean. Which is one thing I like about them: they are clean and in some way predictable and easy to drink.
So if I’d have to pick my favorite IPA, then it’s a fresh one. I really like the Cloudwater ones. If they are fresh, they are really nicely balanced. Which is something I search for in my beer.
I do get a lot of inspiration from other beers, maybe even more so than sour beers, because there’s a broader spectrum of aromas in other beers. It’s the same with music: I make instrumental, jazz, fusion music, but I don’t listen to that kind of music all the time.

Your answer leads me to my final questions that I ask you, being a musician: Which five albums should we have listened to before we die?

Brad Mehldau – Highway Rider
Elliott Smith – Either/Or
Pat Metheny – The Way Up
Helios – Eingya
Bill Frisell – Gone, Just Like a Train

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