Pizza and beer is considered by many consumers to be the ultimate combination. Brewer Tom Seefurth took it one step further. He made pizza beer — beer brewed with basil, oregano, tomato and garlic — and the combination not only worked as a beer, it worked so well it helped save his home.
A long-time home brewer Seefurth liked to try crazy combinations and made his first batch of pizza type beer on a lark, using herbs grown in his garden to make what he called a harvest ale. When his neighbor said it smelled like a pizza, inspiration was born.
After planting the necessary herbs the next spring, Seefurth made his first attempt at pizza beer in September 2006.
"We had no idea how the mix of ingredients would work, but they did," he said. "The beer was great!"
Seefurth began to enter pizza beer in local brewing contests,where the off-beat brew would take judges by surprise.
"Everything is called 'Mamma Mia' because the first time I won a contest, I overheard the judges beforehand and all they could talk about was how bad the beer was going to be and then they drank it and were blown away," Seefurth continued.
Mamma Mia Pizza Beer began to attract attention and the home brewer's budding business soon outgrew his home. Pizza Beer production would ultimately find a new home at Milwaukee-based Sprecher Brewing, which agreed to brew the beer on a per-batch basis.
"We're lucky," he said. "Most companies won't pick up contract brewers right now because the craft beer market is so hot and heavy they just don't have the capacity."
Through Sprecher, Seefurth said, he brewed 280 barrels the first year. He and his wife Athena would take the beer and hit the food and liquor store circuit in Illinois and Wisconsin to sell their unique brew at places like Whole Foods.
"Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we're in stores demoing," he said. "We've done that for five straight years."
Beer was just the beginning. From Mamma Mia Pizza Beer came a whole line of Mamma Mia Pizza Beer products: Pizza Beer pizza crust, a gluten-free beer batter fry mix and beer taco mix. In all, the Mamma Mia brand has grown to include more than 20 different food items, but all roads lead back to the beer.
"The food product has built up a demand for the beer," he said. "We're selling out faster than we can keep it in stock."
It's fitting that Seefurth's beer brand outgrew his home, as the Pizza Beer business is what has allowed him to keep it out of foreclosure.
Both Seefurth and his wife work in the real estate business. He is a real estate broker and she is a mortgage specialist. At the same time the Pizza Beer business began to pick up in 2007 and 2008, the home sales market was drying up.
"We were thinking things gotta' pick up, this is just a hiccup," he said. "We had just enough money to last six or seven months."
But the housing market wouldn't pick up and the family was falling behind on the mortgage payments and at risk of losing the home where they were raising their two daughters.
"The sheriffs were knocking on our door," he said. "We took the bull by the horns and went to work on building the Pizza Beer business. We work harder now than we ever have in our lives."
Seefurth said he and his wife now work 100 to 110 hours a week and the pair has been known to rent a van, load it up with beer and food products and hand deliver orders to clients.
One Pizza Beer client is Hunterdon Distributors, the largest craft beer distributor in New Jersey.
"When he called me, it sounded insane!" laughed Hunterdon co-owner Dave Masterson. "He said 'I don't use flavoring. It's the actual ingredients in the beer. It's not some flavoring from a lab.'"
Masterson gave it shot. "It tasted like pizza! It's really good, it's crazy. It's really a neat beer."
For Hunterdon, Pizza Beer wasn't just a novelty, it was a way to grow their own business.
"What we're doing is opening new pizzeria accounts with the beer," Masterson said."The (new clients) that I'm targeting will do very well with it. We'd be foolish not to embrace the opportunity with this."
As for Seefurth, he's thankful for the lifeline Mamma Mia Pizza Beer has given his family.
"We've done this with just two people and no budget. People say, 'hey why don't you go to this or that beer festival' and I say right now we have to pay the mortgage first."
Mamma Mia Pizza Beer and Mamma Mia food products are currently available in Illinois, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Michigan, and on the Mamma Mia website. But Seefurth said he thinks he's grown the brand as far as he can without outside help.
"We've maxed out how far we can take this on our own," he said. "I have more people asking for the Pizza Beer and the Pizza Beer products than I can deliver."
Seefurth plans to look for investors next year to take the brand to the next level.
"We're salespeople and promoters," he said. "Now, we really need a numbers person and investors to help us grow the brand."