Surly Brewing Company opened the doors of its Brooklyn Center Brewery in 2006. At the time there wasn’t much of a craft beer scene in the Twin Cities. The big craft-beer boil-over of the last few years was just reaching a simmer. There certainly was nothing – or at least very little – in the market with the heavy lupulin load of Furious. But the desire for such beers must have been there. In its first year, Surly took off like a rocket.
It’s been a busy five years for Owner Omar Ansari and Head Brewer Todd Haug. Rapid growth in demand has spurred constant expansion of capacity in the brewery. This year they spearheaded a successful legislative effort that won Minnesota brewers the ability to sell pints at the brewery. The next five years promise to be even busier with the construction of a planned 100,000-barrel “destination brewery.”
I sat down with Omar and Todd at the brewery last week to talk about the past, the present and the future of Surly. And of course we talked about Five, a beer fermented with “wild” Brettanomyces yeast brewed to celebrate the anniversary. Five had its bottle release this week. It sold out in most stores in just a few hours. If you missed out getting a bottle, a draft release party is happening on Monday the 29th at the Republic in 7-corners from 6:30 to 10:30 PM.
Surly turned five. Five years is one of those milestones. If you think back to 2006, where did you think you would be right now?
Todd: You know, hindsight and experience always seems to change that idea of what you thought it would be, but certainly we didn’t expect things to grow as fast as they did, especially with beers like Furious in our market. We always knew that there were holes in the market in terms of beer styles, especially styles that weren’t represented by Minnesota breweries. Knowing that, we thought, “Well how big are these holes? A really hop-forward beer; how is that going to carry through all the state of Minnesota?” So that’s the kind of stuff we didn’t know. And at the time we didn’t really need to know. It was more like, “let’s just make these beers and make them the best we can and see what happens.” What we really didn’t see coming was the timing with the craft beer swell. We knew it was happening around the country, but it was a little slow getting to Minnesota. There was a lot of fortuitous timing.
Omar: I was really hoping that we would have a few employees and maybe be making six or seven thousand, eight thousand barrels. That was really what we hoped for, to make enough beer to pay the bills. Just get the beer out and hope that we’d find some people that want to drink it. The plan wasn’t to get the Coors drinkers to start drinking the beer. We always said that our beers don’t come with training wheels. They’re not starter beers. We’ll let Fat Tire be the gateway beer. We weren’t looking to bring people into the world of craft beer. We wanted to brew something a little bit bigger; some of the more aggressive beers that this market didn’t have. We were both a little surprised after the ball got rolling by how much people embraced it. It was pretty unbelievable the amount of progress in that first year. It’s still amazing some of the places where we have accounts. It’s shocking given the price point of the beer and the flavor profile of the beers. It’s just not the type of beer you expect to see all over the place.
I find that Furious has become a gateway beer.
Omar: You mean a gateway from BMC? Yeah, a couple years ago when sales were kind of doing their normal spring ramp-up I called up “Fitty” (beer manager Joe Fitzpatrick) at Thomas Liquor and asked, “What the hell’s going on? Your sales are up like 30%.” He’s like, “Well, more people are drinking it. A good example, we’ve got a guy who was a Coors drinker, and he’s started drinking Furious.” That makes no sense on every level; economic-wise, flavor-wise, Just the whole brand. Who would think that someone would go from Coors to Furious?
I think it has something to do with Surly’s reputation. People hear about Surly and how good the beers are so they try it. You might think they wouldn’t like it, but they do.
Todd: I’ve done that before. I don’t necessarily like the word hype, but I understand it. Whether it’s a movie or a new TV show or whatever it is that people have heard about, they hear that it’s supposed to be good so they have this expectation. I think we still have some of that, but I think in general people are going to it with an open mind. Instead of saying, “Oh, it’s going to be similar to this beer.” They sort of have a completely clean slate as far as what they’re palate memory thinks it’s supposed to taste like. I think that’s good for us because people are a little bit more open to it.
Talk a little bit about Surly’s reputation. You’ve got this reputation for these big extreme beers. But in my view that’s not really what you do.
Todd: No. And that’s kind of been our argument for a number of years now. You know, at first we wanted to grab peoples’ tongues with the beers and grab their attention. But all we ever said was that we wanted to make the best beers we could in whatever style we wanted to make; the kind of beers we wanted to drink. That’s what every brewer says. Hopefully no brewers are out there making beers they hate.
Omar: Beers the marketing team comes up with.
Todd: But, with that in mind those first beers… I mean Furious maybe, but Bender? It’s not really an extreme beer. But for some reason, and I don’t know if it’s because of this market or because of the beers that people talk about on the internet, that’s the perception. But Hell, Bitter Brewer, Mild, we make a lot more sessionable beers than we do extreme beers.
Omar: I don’t think if we were in southern California, Oregon, Washington, or Colorado, I don’t think there are many of the beers that would be in any sort of extreme category. I mean even Darkness isn’t huge. We talk about this all the time. Everybody’s brewing these great beers, but how many 14% beers do you want to drink? I guess it again all kind of comes from what we want to drink. Neither Todd nor I are into these really massive beers because you can only have one. And I think we both like drinking more than that. We’ve gotten into more sessionable beers as time has gone on. I don’t know if it’s the marketing or the design or just that how we do it stuff kind of comes together, but folks think of it as this really crazy extreme thing. Furious is a big beer, but there are a lot of them out there like it. Go out west and they’re all over the place. Imperial Red Ale, it’s not a crazy style.
Todd: I was a big fan of Hop Rod Rye from Bear Republic.
That’s a great beer.
Todd: That’s kind of what inspired Furious. That hoppy amber that didn’t exist in this market. It wasn’t that we felt we needed to make something extreme. It was because there was already stuff out there that we were into; you just couldn’t get it here. That’s the biggest thing that people don’t understand is just how behind Minnesota craft beer was. It certainly caught up fast now that ever brewery in the country is available here almost. But five or six years ago, unless you wanted to road trip or were actively involved in traveling and visiting breweries, there was a lot of stuff going on in small little regions that nobody knew about here. Obviously Beer Advocate and Rate Beer have shrunk a lot of that. But we’ve quickly realized that as great as the BA community has been to us and really helped us get rolling, that’s a tiny percentage of the people that actually buy our beer. That’s another reason we don’t just make extreme beers.
That’s an even tinier percentage.
Omar: We also think of the fatigue of those beers. You can drink them for a while and then you’re just like “ugh.” I mean, I never thought we were going to brew a lager when we started. I remember people asking us, “You going to brew any lagers?” I was like, “Hell no we’re not going to brew any lagers. Schell is already doing a great job of that.” But three years into it…
Todd: Let’s brew a lager.
Omar: Why wouldn’t I want to brew a lager? To me that’s part of the Surly extreme thing. Maybe other people think that’s not what we should be doing, but that’s what we want to do. So that’s why we’re going to do it.
So let’s talk about Five. At Winterfest you took the Great Snowshoe award with Pentagram. That was a single barrel version of Five?
Omar: Yeah, Pentagram is what we called the single barrel version.
Todd: Yes, the blend is a little different. I think it’s better.
I’ve got to say, even given that Winterfest is a beer-nerd audience and that Pentagram was really good, I was frankly surprised that it won. I wouldn’t have expected a sour beer to win.
Todd: Me too. I was like, “really?” I thought one of the super hoppy beers like Abrasive Ale, or Furious, or somebody else’s. I thought Fitger’s bottle-conditioned beers or something. And that’s kind of what we were talking about too, about how accepting the market was for Furious five years ago. I didn’t think that they would ever embrace a beer that was that hop-forward in this market.
Omar: I don’t think they were that accepting five years ago. It kind of took a while.
Todd: Well, you know what I mean. It started pretty fast after that first eight months. But Five should be the most polarizing beer we’ve ever made. I think it’s fairly balanced for being as tart as it is. I don’t think it’s straight up vinegar.
What made you decide to make a sour beer?
Todd: Well we’ve been talking about it for a little while. It’s always one of those things that we wanted to do it but we weren’t sure how. Obviously there’s the risk of bringing that stuff (Brettanomyces) into the brewery, which I’m still worried about. But it made sense to do something extra different for a bigger number on the anniversary. So we pulled the trigger a little over a year ago with the blind faith of we’ll see what happens. I think we knew we would be able to make something that was really good, but we weren’t sure. Even all the research I do and talking to other brewers, they were like, “You’re kind of on your own on this one.” Okay, great. Thanks for the help. But it’s true. I can call Chris White from White Labs (a yeast bank). I can call other people I know that have worked with Brett. But they all do it differently than I wanted to do it. Most of the guys I know that are using Brett are using it just to finish the beer. We wanted to do 100% Brett-fermented and then condition in barrels. There are a handful of those out there. Not a lot of them, but I think that’s going to change. People are learning more about how Brett works fermentation-wise.
Omar: It’s definitely going into the unknown. The anniversary beers always are. Todd usually tells me after he’s put it together. It’s always, “we’ll see how this works out if we use ten pounds of cranberries per barrel.” We’re going to go down that road and see where it takes us. With the other beers we know where it’s going. But this is like, we’ll find out.
With Brettanomyces and any of the bacterial fermentations it’s kind of a crap shoot what you end up with. How did you deal with that uncertainty?
Todd: By just trying to understand how Brett works as a yeast. Not flavor profile, not raw material, not anything but what does it do and how does it do it? Chris White at White Labs really helped me establish pitching rates, which allowed us to get primary fermentation into a normal window. Most people are under the impression that it takes months and months and months for Brett to actually ferment. I guess we proved that it doesn’t if you pitch right. The souring takes months, but the actually primary fermentation doesn’t, which is kind of cool. So with that in mind, we did primary fermentation in stainless. We had it contained. We really didn’t want it blowing all over the brewery. We had a couple old 15-barrel tanks that we used for that. Once we got the Brett established we were able to brew it every ten to fourteen days. As soon as it was done fermenting we’d rack it into the wine barrels. But I think the important things are how we handled it in terms of the flavor profile. I wanted a really rich malt. I didn’t want a pale sour beer. I wanted something with caramel flavors, which would with time turn into a cherry and tobacco, plum and raisin kind of thing. So there’s some Special B in there and some de-bittered black malt for color. At first it tasted kind of smoky and was kind of gross actually. But after two months it was like, “Whoa. This tastes totally different.” You could convince somebody that there are cherries in it.
What strain of Brettanomyces did you use?
Todd: We used Brett strains A and C, Anomalus and Claussenii. Bruxellensis is what a lot of people are using. That’s pretty standard. I wanted to try something a little different.
Did you have any inspirations for making a Brettanomyces fermented beer?
Todd: The first all-Brett beer I had was from my big hero Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey. It was Cuvee de Tomme at the time. I thought it was amazing. That was probably the first and last all-Brett beer I’ve ever had. I think the sour character was nice, to where it was like, “wow.” It was pale. It was kind of more of a gueuze kind of profile from what I remember. I just remember thinking it was a lot like some of the Belgian sours that I had had. I was just amazed that it wasn’t Belgian.
How did you get the fermentation to happen so quickly? I made an all Brett beer a couple years ago and had trouble getting it to start.
Todd: When I talked to Chris White about it, that’s what my original concern was. He gave me some advice about pitching rates. I don’t remember what the cell count was, but it’s literally like ten times the normal amount. But once you get to that point you’ll see normal fermentation times. So the first generation was kind of slow and it attenuated high. The second one went a lot faster and attenuated lower. The third one took right off and went all the way down to 2-degrees Plato, which was what we wanted. Oxygenation is a huge thing too. The tricky thing is that when using Brett, leaving it in the tank is the safest thing to do. Rack your beer off it and then just put fresh wort in there. Every time you oxygenate it there’s more acetic acid, so it gets more sour every time. They don’t recommend trying to quicken the fermentation by oxygenation because you’re going to have a lot of weird stuff happen with a lot of acetic acid produced. We tried not to do that. So every time we’d run fresh wort in there we’d try to make sure it was well oxygenated. Once we had the right amount of cells per milliliter it would take off. Now that it’s been sitting again when we want to reuse it, it will probably be slow again. But I’m shocked at how durable it is. It’s indestructible and it’s sitting there ready to go when you need it. We’re going to mess around with it some more, just because we have it. We’ll see what happens with it as we continue to use it.
We can’t talk about the five-year anniversary without talking about the next five years. Given plans for the “destination brewery” obviously big things are coming.
Todd: Yeah, there are big things coming down the road. It’s going to be a couple of years. Meanwhile for me, my job is to make sure everything is running and we’re able to grow, stay staffed, and still make clean, solid beers while we’re working on the new project. As exciting as it is, the normal day-to-day stuff here isn’t going to go away. So I think for me the main challenge will be to not get distracted by the thing down the road and worry about what’s going on here and now.
You still have to run the brewery.
Todd: I just don’t want people to think that in two years everything is going to be great. It’s going to be different, but we still need to get there. I don’t want to forget what we’ve built and how we’ve built it. We’ve still got equipment to install and maintain and new staff to hire and train. When the new facility does open that will probably be immediately in charge of the flagship beers and probably all the canning operations. And the current brewery we’re hoping will become a bottling facility only. That’s kind of what we’re thinking now.
So more the small batch type of stuff?
Todd: Yes. I think it will be a great training ground for new guys or for a place for guys who want a break from the bigger brewery and want to get hands on. We could do a lot of sour stuff here. We could do a lot of different things, which is pretty exciting because we could go into it with the ball rolling. That will be a nice luxury. As this brewery fades out of the regular beer production and the new one takes over we’ll be able to immediately start making different cool beers here.
How far along is the new brewery?
Todd: We’re just now trying to finalize sight selection and stuff. It sounds like that could be done in September. So that’s a huge factor in how we’re going to build it out. How we’re going to size the equipment. When we get a site selection that’s when we need to order a brewhouse and start looking at the big pieces. There’s really nothing here that would scale up to the new facility. We’re limited by our ceiling height here. Our fermenters are the size and geometry they are as dictated by our brewhouse and the ceiling. But in the new place that won’t be an issue. There’s really nothing here we’d want to bring over there. Maybe a couple small tanks for a yeast bank or something like that, but generally everything here is sized for a 30-barrel brewhouse. The new brewhouse will hopefully be around 80 barrels.
That will make things easier.
Todd: It will. It’s going to be rough getting everything going. Everything is going to change. We just want to keep it simple. We don’t need a five-vessel brewhouse. We aren’t going to start decoction mashing. We aren’t going to change things just because we can. I’d like to keep things as similar as possible with the brewhouse. For the regular beers, that’s what established the flavor profile. We want it to be efficient. Actually that’s going to be a huge benefit of a bigger brewhouse is waste energy recovery. It’s going to be in the high 90s for efficiency which will be great. The canning line will be high speed. We’ll probably have to look at used machines just to see what we can get into. New machines aren’t cheap. But again, all that stuff has come so far in ten or fifteen years. If we buy a ten, fifteen, twenty year old machine, it’s going to need a lot more maintenance than a new machine that’s a little bit more high tech. A new machine might be a smaller footprint even. So there are some trade-offs. We’re not going to know. We might run into some problems. Rolling beer into new markets takes time too. We’re probably going to have to be patient and wait for some of those markets to develop before we can just go, go, go.
Although there is certainly going to be no shortage of demand in new markets.
Todd: No, true. But it still takes time. Stone is a good example of it. They’ve tried to roll out in some other states that aren’t as close to their home market where people don’t know as much about them. They went into Wisconsin and weren’t happy with the way beers were selling and weren’t happy with the distributor setup, so they left. Stuff like that. I’m not saying they can’t sell everything they make, but they had to kind of re-figure it. We could see that happening to any brewery.
What does Surly Five taste like? Here’s my notes:
Surly Brewing Co., Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
Style: Brettanomyces Fermented Beer
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
Aroma: Loads of cherries with complementary leathery aromas. Hints of wood and roast.
Appearance: Black. Moderate off-white head with fine bubbles that did not persist.
Flavor: A complex mélange that changes with each sip and evolves through to the bottom of the glass. Flavors come in stages. Starts with hit of sour cherry. That subsides mid-palate to let rich, mouth-filling caramel malts and balsamic vinegar take over. Cherries are still there, but darker. Leather. On the way out it’s husky, woody, and lightly astringent. Finishes very dry. Throughout there are ever revolving chocolate, roast, wood, and fruit flavors. Fruits range from unripe apricot to pineapple to berries and even some hints of dark, dried fruit. As it warms it takes on the character of cold-coffee. Complex but easy to drink. The sour wasn’t too intense. Should be good even to the uninitiated.
Mouthfeel: Light but mouth-filling. Well attenuated, but still thick in parts. Light and not unpleasant astringency. Medium-high carbonation.
Overall Impression: Good “wild” beers can be tricky. Brettanomyces yeast is a crapshoot. You never really know what you will get. Todd Haug has pulled off a nice one. Evolving layers of oak, malt, and yeast character. Not too sour, but sour enough. Pentagram was good at Winterfest. Five is better. This one should get even better with age.