Topher Boehm is a Texan-born, Sydney-based beer brewer who makes his liquid amber not from hops, but from wild yeasts gathered from Australian native flowers. And instead of loading up on hoppy flavour in the initial brewing process, Topher’s stuff gains a lot of its character through slow horizontal fermentation in oak barrels that used to contain wine.
So how does it taste? Well – not like your average beer, says Topher. “It is a fermented drink. It has elements of a dry Riesling, it has elements of a dry cider, there’s an acid kick that’s not sour but it’s really refreshing, like a dry lemonade. It’s mildly carbonated. It’s fizzy, but it’s quite creamy. It’s a whole palate experience.”
Topher is featured in our latest publication, Look What We Made, an eclectic collection of stories about makers from across Australia. And like many creators profiled in the book, Topher came to his current venture through a circuitous route, specifically via a very un-beery-sounding degree in astrophysics. “Physics is like a problem-solving degree,” he explains.
“When I finally fell into beer it was great, because there’s an analytical side to it, then there’s this artistic side to it, which was exactly the same as the physics degree.”
When his partner Bernadette undertook a 10-month study exchange in northern Spain, Topher tagged along and ended up spending his free time visiting old-school breweries. “I got interested in people who were using barrels to age their beer and the flavours people were getting from wild fermentations,” he recalls. The techniques the Spanish brewers used were centuries old, but Topher thought they could work on the other side of the world. Upon his return, he began experimenting with miniature fermentations.
He would use two-to five-litre batches of unfermented beer, sticking all sorts of fruit and flower cuttings in, and wait for the results. “Because the flora and fauna in Australia is so unique, I figured that the microflora – the yeast and bacteria – might also be quite different to what is cultured around the world. If a flower is covered in bees, then there’s going to be a sugar substance there, and sugar is what yeast uses to live, so there’s also going to be yeast there,” Topher explains.
Using a process of elimination – and him and his friends as guinea pigs – Topher started to hone in on some interesting flavours: “About one in seven, maybe one in six captures was good. The other five turned into vinegar, they might have tasted like Band-Aids, they might’ve gotten me sick. There was a lot of smelling things and going, ‘No, we’re not going to taste that!’”
A year into running the business, Topher feels Wildflower has found a sweet spot in terms of production. “Right now we have 80 barrels; we’ll probably grow until we have 150 in the cellar. The reason we won’t break into the next level is because the products are so personal. Once you’re blending 20 barrels together, there’s just so much nuance that’s lost.”
As well as the perfect vocation for a born tinkerer, Topher sees his beer-making as part of a fresh approach to drinking in Australia that doesn’t lean so heavily on, well, getting pissed. “I wasn’t totally OK at first with spending the rest of my life getting people drunk – that’s so shallow. I’ve had to reframe that into ‘bringing people together’. Hopefully this product we make is elegant and nuanced and interesting… but at the end of the day, it’s still just beer and it’s for people to gather around.”
Read more of Topher’s story in Look What We Made, available here.
Photography: Saskia Wilson