There’s something from Tom Seefurth’s past he can’t escape: a big, crazy dream that he turned into a reality, which eventually got away from him. He still gets random emails and phone calls nearly every single day asking about it. When he visits his local supermarket, customers stop him; people invite him to meetings to discuss making it happen again. He certainly wants to, but he just hasn’t found the right opportunity. Though it’s been off the market since 2013, Mamma Mia! Pizza Beer’s legend continues to grow.
In 2005, Seefurth and his wife, Athena, were in real estate, selling houses and writing mortgages about an hour west of Chicago in Campton Township, Illinois. They were raising two daughters and flipping homes on the side. Tom, then in his early 40s, homebrewed in his garage and judged amateur beer competitions for fun. He noticed that the winners usually had one simple thing in common: “They tasted different than the rest of the crowd,” he says. “A real solid IPA back then wouldn’t ever win. The one that was different would.”
Seefurth decided to try and create a saison—a beer style that is sometimes spiced liberally with coriander and orange peel—that would nab him an award and get him a little attention. But he took things further and tossed in every single herb he had in the kitchen cabinet: “Rosemary, oregano, some mint, even sage. Whatever was growing in my backyard went into that beer.” Upon serving up the first batch, one person noted that it tasted like “pizza beer,” and Seefurth realized he’d stumbled upon the big idea he was looking for.
He approached Mike Rybinski, then the brewmaster at Walter Payton’s Roundhouse & America’s Brewpub in the Chicagoland suburb of Aurora, and suggested they brew an actual pizza beer to enter in the Great American Beer Festival’s Pro-Am Competition. “This was a guy who had made beer out of hot rocks,” explains Seefurth. “He attempted a cicada beer one time. He was not afraid to experiment.”
They tweaked Seefurth’s original recipe by adding fresh garlic, hand-chopped oregano, basil and two kegs of canned tomatoes. Their pizza saison pilot batch was put on the taps at the brewpub in May of 2007. The dozen or so kegs sold so briskly that by the end of summer they didn’t have any left over to send to the festival. Still, the local news caught wind of the oddity and came calling, from the Chicago Tribune to local television news shows.
With the sales and press, Seefurth was certain he had a million-dollar idea. He looked for a brewer to produce his beer year-round, again altering the recipe after a brewmaster friend suggested he should “dummy” down the beer. “He told me, ‘If you’re thinking of serving it in a pizzeria, at 9.9-percent ABV, not a lot of people will bring their family to order a pitcher of this and then drive everyone home.’” The rewritten recipe yielded a 4.7-percent ABV American ale: same grain bill, just less grain; American yeast instead of saison yeast; all fresh tomatoes (the calcium phosphate in canned tomatoes kept killing the yeast); and fresh herbs.
In early 2008, down to their last $10,000 with the housing bubble about the burst, the Seefurths flipped their final house. They decided to go all-in on Mamma Mia!, taking the new recipe to a friend from the Chicago Beer Society, Randy Sprecher, who agreed to contract-brew it for them, 80 barrels at a time.
Seefurth’s was a product practically designed to go viral by tickling the fancy of “dare” drinkers on YouTube, many of whom admitted it was way better than they expected. But it was likewise catnip for professional comedians, including Jay Leno who, in a 2010 episode of The Tonight Show, cracked, “It’s beer that tastes like pizza, which is pretty innovative. You know, usually to get those two flavors together, you have to wait until you vomit.”
Though that Late Night appearance gave Mamma Mia! Pizza Beer a national spotlight, it didn’t make Seefurth wealthy. The beer was better at getting notoriety than sales, especially since it was never available in large quantity. Claiming he only spent $100 on marketing (mainly for T-shirts), Seefurth instead devoted his time to going to grocery stores every single day with Athena (who started calling herself “Mamma Mia”) and hand-selling it to shoppers. “When you have no money to advertise, no money to pay for a spotting fee, no money for a preferential space,” says Seefurth, “the best you can do is get people to taste what you’ve got.”
Unfortunately, in December of 2013, Sprecher’s hard soda line started so well—thanks to Not Your Father’s Root Beer pulling up the entire category—that they had to free up tank space and quit brewing Mamma Mia!. Since then, Seefurth has been looking for a replacement brewery, annoyed by what he calls the “rich people” who have tried to fill the void since he left. Case in point: Evil Twin simply threw frozen pizzas into the mash; Stone Brewing brewed a Hawaiian pizza beer for the release of 2016’s Ninja Turtles movie and Pizza Hut offered a pepperoni pilsner as a April Fool’s gag. “I’m flattered,” he says, “but at the same time, when they do it just for the sake of grossing people out to get press, it burns my rear end.”
For now, Seefurth relies on his spin-off pizza beer-themed food products, like “Nuthin’ Hidden” Ranch Dip and Beer Taco mix, to earn income. He continues to look for a contract brewer and still dreams big: He wants to expand his beer line with a salsa beer and a curry ale, or maybe even open his own chain of Pizza Beer brew pubs. “We’ve been treading water for a decade,” he says. “We’re going to continue treading water until they finally let us swim.”