Dark(ness) Days at Surly Brewing?

Marketing.

As the “craft” beer movement – industry, ask let’s call it what it is – continues to blossom, illness marketing is more and more the name of the game. In 2009 I toured the Lagunitas brewery in Petaluma, California. Someone asked the tour guide how large their marketing budget was. The response was a chuckled, “We don’t have a marketing budget.”

Fast forward to today and every brewery – new, old, large, small – had better have a solid marketing and sales plan in place if they want to thrive. As competition intensifies, I suspect they will need them to merely survive.

Many breweries now hire PR firms. At some it is next to impossible, even (or maybe especially) for media, to communicate directly with someone from the brewery. All communications go through the PR representatives.

Surly Brewing is a case in point. Once upon a time it was relatively easy to get a question answered by owner Omar Ansari or former head brewer Todd Haug. Nowadays, even simple questions directed to personal emails receive responses from representatives at One Simple Plan, followed up by second emails inquiring if the needed information had been received. Typically the answer is no.

I don’t fault them for this. As frustrating as it might be for me, it is as it needs to be for them. As Surly grows, their time becomes increasingly valuable. As I already mentioned, marketing is now the name of the game and PR firms are part of it.

It could be argued that much of Surly’s success has come from marketing. I’m not knocking the beer. The beer is great. If it weren’t, the marketing would not have worked as well as it did. But Surly’s cantankerous image and “do it our way” persona appealed to drinkers at the beginning of the current “craft” revolution. Drinking Surly made one a rebel. The image captured the zeitgeist in a way that I think surprised even the folks at Surly. But they recognized it early, manipulated it, and were able to capitalize on that oeuvre. It was savvy marketing that built their brand.

In a piece for Mspmag.com about Haug’s resignation from Surly and subsequent hook-up with Three Floyds, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl opined that many of Surly’s more recent beers are decidedly un-surly. I would counter that this has always been the case and that it was marketing that made them seem so over the top. Hell is one of the brewery’s top-selling brands. It’s a simple, golden lager. The now-retired Bitter Brewer was a slightly Americanized English Bitter – hardly an extreme style. Bender is a brown ale. And Cynic is nothing more than a traditional Saison – and a comparatively uninteresting one at that. Surly’s lineup has always consisted largely of beers that did not go to extremes. The “extremes” were mostly minor tweaks and an aggressive public image.

Even the more extreme brews aren’t so extreme when viewed in a larger context. Furious was fierce for the region at the time of its release. But according to Haug, it was modeled on West Coast-style red ales – now called American Strong Ales by the BJCP – that already existed in abundance elsewhere. Think Bear Republic Rocket Red or Stone Arrogant Bastard. Abrasive is one of many double IPAs. Even Darkness has its antecedents – notably Three Floyd’s Dark Lord, which Haug will presumably now have a hand in brewing. But image and branding made the Surly beers feel bigger, bolder, and badder than they perhaps really were.

Todd Haug’s departure presents Surly with a dilemma. In her piece, Moskowitz Grumdahl quotes Haug as saying, “They marketed the shit out of me.” Indeed, Haug was the public face of Surly. I’m sure many Surly fans couldn’t identify Omar Ansari if they saw him. But everybody knows Todd Haug. Although he is one of the kindest and gentlest men in brewing, his outward demeanor – tat covered, goat bearded, heavy metal axe man – personified the Surly image. He looked the part of the devil’s spawn. He exuded an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Todd Haug put a personal face on Surly’s marketing.

So what is Surly to do now? I have no concern for the future of the beer. There are plenty of passionate and talented brewers there to keep the taps flowing. But what will become of the image? As the brewery gets bigger, it will be difficult to maintain the bearing of rebellious upstart. As people and entities mature that stance starts to look curmudgeonly. Even Stone Brewing’s arrogant attitude has softened of late. And who will be the public face that makes the marketing a tangible, touchable thing?

The Surly crew is smart. They clearly know how to market. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.

As a last tip of the hat to Todd, I’ll take a look at his last batches of Damien, Darkness, and Anniversary beer.

Here’s my notes:

Surly Damien 2016Damien
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: American Black Ale
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
6.5% ABV

Appearance: Opaque black. Faint ruby highlights. Appears clear. Full, creamy, tan head with excellent retention.

Aroma: Toasted bread. Coffee. Light Oreo cookie chocolate. Medium-high Melon and tangerine hop notes provide bright contrast to deep, rich roast malt character. Moderate impression of sweetness. Low alcohol. Low dark fruit esters. Pine.

Flavor: Malt forward with ample supporting hops. Chocolate – semi-sweet. Low coffee. Smooth café mocha. Low caramel and bread crust. Vanilla. Melon and tangerine hops bring bright contrast to the roasted malt. Lifting. Bitterness is medium to medium low. Low alcohol. Low fruity esters. Something vaguely vinous. Finish is dry with lingering chocolate and melon/citrus/pine hops.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Creamy. Velvety. Medium carbonation. Not warming. Not astringent.

Overall Impression: Like a lightweight, less-intense black IPA. Smooth, velvety chocolate countered by bright tangerine/pine hops. Easy to drink and drink a few.

Surly Darkness 2016Darkness 2016
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
13% ABV

Aroma: Malt forward with moderate hop accompaniment. Coffee. Dry chocolate cookie. Licorice and dark fruits – raisins or dates. Alcohol is apparent – isopropyl. Moderate pine resin hops. Very low impression of sweetness.

Appearance: Voluminous, creamy, tan foam. Cascades in glass. Excellent retention. Black and completely opaque. Appears clear. Faint ruby highlights.

Flavor: Roast malt driven with subtler, malty sub-flavors and moderate hop support. Chocolate dominates – dark chocolate syrup with dry chocolate cookie at the end. Low coffee grounds. Caramel. Similar date/raisin dark fruits from the aroma. Licorice. Burnt black malt character in the finish, but not the primary roast note. Subtle undercurrents of vanilla and maple. Maybe even a hint of blackberries? Medium-high sweetness. Hop bitterness is medium-low. Tar. Medium-low, pine resin hop flavor. Alcohol is apparent – helps cut the sweetness without crossing the line to solvent. Finish is semi-sweet to sweet with lingering cookie-like, dry roast, dark fruit, and caramel.

Mouthfeel: Full body. Smooth and silky. Medium-high alcohol warming. Low carbonation. Not astringent.

Overall Impression: Okay, I’ll be that guy that I often deride. It’s not as good as last year. My notes from last year are much the same as this year. But last year the pine felt more intense, the overall feeling was less sweet, less heavy. At least in my memory. But I’m probably wrong. Still, this is good. Alcohol is high, but not quite intrusive. Love the chocolate syrup. And the satin texture is to die for. As always, whacks you in the head at first and then comes back to deliver lots of subtle complexity.

Surly TenTen
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Old ale aged on toasted sassafras
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
10.5% ABV
63 IBU

Aroma: Floral alcohol. Bread. Chocolate. Toffee and brown sugar. Dark fruits. Vaporous alcohol is the dominant note. Camphor. High caramel with background vanilla. Very light earthy/herbal hops. Dark fruit esters – date and cherry.

Appearance: Full, creamy, beige head with good retention. Reddish brown/mahogany with red highlights. Clear.

Flavor: Malt forward with low hop accompaniment and alcohol. Malt is the dominant flavor – caramel and vanilla prominent. Background notes of milk chocolate and dark fruits. Alcohol is definitely a component – floral and verging on solvent/hot. Hop bitterness is medium, but still remains subservient to the massive malt. Low herbal/earthy hop flavors. Dark fruit esters – dates and maybe candied cherry. Sweetness is medium-high. Finish is off-dry to semi-sweet with lingering bitterness, alcohol, caramel and cherry fruit. Chocolate covered cherry or Brach’s chocolate covered cherries. Wood impression is missing. Or is that maybe a little root-beer character in there?

Mouthfeel: Full body. Low carbonation. Medium-high alcohol warming, but not quite hot. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: Let it warm up for a long while. Complexity doesn’t come through until its temperature is up there. Alcohol is a bit of a distraction, would do well with some age perhaps. Try it again in two years. Where’s the toasted sassafras? Am I missing something? I admit that I don’t know what toasted sassafras tastes like, so maybe I am. But my Boy Scout experience with sassafras leads me to expect root beer flavors. A generally pleasant sipper, but think it’s one of those rare beers that could be better in a couple years.

Surly Brewing Co. #Merica!

Two things.

American lager wasn’t always bland and insipid.

The use of corn and rice in beer is not inherently bad.

In the mid-1800s, pills political upheaval in Germany caused a massive burst of German immigration to this country. Among the thinkers, stuff craftsmen, and businessmen were brewers – lots of them. Of course they started breweries to supply their compatriots with beer – the full-flavored, lager beer to which they were accustomed in the old country.

But there was a problem. American barley was not the same as that grown in Germany. American 6-row barley had a much higher protein content than the 2-row barley back home. Excessive protein makes for cloudy beer with a thick mouthfeel that is inappropriate for the refreshing lagers they were making. It had to be cut with something.

These resourceful brewers turned to another local and abundantly available commodity – corn and rice. Low in protein, these adjuncts supplied fermentable sugar while lightening the body. Their use wasn’t an attempt to cheapen the beer. It was a solution to a problem, one that improved the beer.

Through prohibition American brewers produced the full gamut of traditional, German lager styles. They made pilsner, helles, bock and doppelbock, as well as all the others. These beers were true to the style of the day, but with an American twist.

Then came prohibition. Spirits became the drink of choice, with mixers added to cover the harsh taste of bathtub booze. The new mixed drinks were light and spritzy. After thirteen years, that profile changed the American palate. The people wanted a lighter quaff.

When beer became legal again in 1933, brewers obliged with lighter brews. It didn’t happen all at once. Some surviving breweries continued in the old ways. But many reduced the alcohol, body and bitterness to satisfy the prevailing taste.

World War II furthered the trend. Faced with ingredient rationing, brewers cut their products even more. Beer in cans was shipped to troops overseas, who took a liking to the lighter brews. By the end of the war when the soldiers came home, another palate shift had occurred. Lighter adjunct lagers were now the norm.

The shift went even further in the 1970s with the mass introduction of “lite” lagers. “Tastes great! Less filling!” became the battle cry of calorie conscious beer drinkers. Thanks in part to heavy marketing, light beer picked up steam. It was lighter and it didn’t tax the taste buds. You could drink a lot of it. And you had to drink a lot of it if you wanted to catch any kind of buzz.

And so we arrived at the blasé beer landscape of the last decades of the 20th-century.

But there was a bubbling undercurrent. Emboldened by the legalization of homebrewing in 1976, regular people were pursuing bigger flavor in their basements, kitchens, and garages. Among their output was the resurrection of pre-prohibition style American lagers.

Once exclusively the realm of homebrewers, the style has recently gained popularity among commercial brewers. A few good examples have cropped up. Anchor California Lager and Coors Batch 19 are both available in the Twin Cities.

Now Surly Brewing Company has tossed its hat into the ring with #Merica! Their version is brewed with North American pilsner malt from Country Malt Group, flaked corn, and all-American Warrior and Willamette hops. It clocks in at 5% ABV. Surly doesn’t say what the IBU rating is. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 10 to 50. 50 is certainly too high. I think 10 is likely way too low. Call it somewhere in between.

Here’s my notes:

Surly #Merica!#Merica!
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Pre-Prohibition American Lager
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
5% ABV

Aroma: Bright lemon/lime citrus hops lead, followed by mellow, grainy malt and low corn. White bread. Spicy/floral hops come in later – licorice and mint.

Appearance: Pale yellow and mostly clear. Full, fluffy white foam with good to excellent retention.

Flavor: Malt and hops in balance. Malt is white bread with very light toasted grain flavor. Low corn. Bitterness is low to medium-low, but is enhanced by the high attenuation. It is balanced by a soft touch of sweetness. Spicy/floral hop flavors are medium-low with a high note of lemon zest. The finish is very dry with lingering bitterness, spice, and grain.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. High carbonation. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: A slightly more gutsy summer lager. Bitterness feels a bit higher than some others. Body is a bit fatter than others. But it still has the refreshing character that makes pale lagers so delightful.

Surly Xtra Citra Pale Ale

No fancy words. Just beer.

Here’s my notes:

Extra CitraXtra-Citra Pale Ale
Surly Brewing Company, no rx Minneapolis, look Minnesota
Style: American Pale Ale
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
4.5% ABV

Aroma: Hops lead with a fruity ester backing and low, grainy malt. Bright hop aroma – lemon/lime, tropical fruit. Moderate impression of sweetness. Low note of neutral grain. Medium-low fruity esters – stone fruits or cotton candy.

Appearance: Low stand of soda-like, white foam with poor retention. Medium-gold and clear.

Flavor: Hops lead with low backing malt that comes in stronger near the finish. Hop bitterness is high and the dominant note in the beer. Carries from start to finish. Hop flavor is also high – lemon/lime, lemon peel, almost acidic brightness. Very low sweetness and malt character that just barely offers support to the hops – neutral cereal grain character. Low esters. Finish is very dry with lingering bitterness and lime juice.

Mouthfeel: Light body. High carbonation. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: Super-light and refreshing, but I wish that there were a little bit more malt to back up the bitterness. This one is too focused on bitterness for my palate. Citra is a very sharp character hop with lime flavors that almost come off as tart. This serves to further emphasize the dry bitterness. A bit thin. Needs a touch more body and sweetness to balance the bitter and bright. Not my cup of tea.

Surly Brewing Company – Todd the Axe Man 2016

Everyone gets excited about the next new IPA. But let’s be honest. One IPA is pretty much like the other. That’s true of beers of any style, cure but there is such a glut of IPA that this truth shines especially brightly. My own initial response upon tasting a new one is typically, pills “Yup. It’s another IPA.”

Oh, see I know there are differences. There are better ones and worse ones. There are those that focus on bitterness and those that emphasize hop flavor. And of course the plethora of hop varieties available lends each one a different character from fruity to spicy to “dank.” But with so many, they all tend to blend together in my mind. But maybe that’s just me.

I hate the descriptor “dank.” It’s completely inappropriate for the thing being described. It is neither a flavor nor an aroma. The definition of dank is, “unpleasantly moist or humid; damp and, often, chilly: a dank cellar.” I don’t want to drink that.

I believe the term was borrowed from weed culture. Hops are in the family Cannabaceae. They are related to marijuana. Some of them have a strongly resinous flavor and aroma. It is that, which is frequently described as “dank.” Why don’t we instead just say, “It smells like weed.” That would be more accurate.

But I digress.

Todd the Axe Man from Surly Brewing Company is not dank. Its emphasis is not the resinous essential oil myrcene. Todd the Axe Man is firmly focused on the fruity side of hops – compounds like limonene and citral. You can almost feel the juice running down your chin.

With limited release, Todd the Axe Man is in demand. But is it really that different from all the other IPAs? Only you can decide.

Here’s MY notes:

Todd the Axe ManTodd the Axe Man
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
7.2% ABV
65 IBU

Aroma: Big fruit hops – berries, tropical fruit lifesavers, tangerine, pineapple and lemon/lime. No malt. Medium fruity esters bolster hop fruitiness. Juicy. Medium-low floral alcohol.

Appearance: Moderate, off-white, creamy foam with poor retention. Dark gold/orange and very hazy.

Flavor: Hop flavor dominates – loads of fruit. Juicy and overripe. Tropical fruit, pineapple, blueberry, oranges and tangerines. Bright lemon/lime highlights. Low coconut. Low garlic notes. Bitterness is high, but balanced by medium malt sweetness. Not aggressive. Malt flavor is almost non-existent, neutral, 2-row grain. Medium esters bolster hop fruitiness. Finish is dry with lingering tropical fruit and low bitterness.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light to medium body. Medium-high carbonation. Very low alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: A super-fruity, American IPA that really pushes hop flavor over bitterness. A bright, juicy, fruit basket. Wet tropical fruits provide a darker base while bright citrus notes give a shining highlight. Tasty and light, despite 7.2% alcohol. An IPA that won’t destroy your palate after just one.

You can compare these 2016 notes with those from 2015 by checking out this earlier post.

Surly Brett Mikkel’s IPA

I have a backlog of beer to write about.

I know that one’s palate is at its best first thing in the morning, but I don’t like to do my tasting during the day. Call me a bad Cicerone (registered trademark). I’ll accept the criticism.

It’s just that I don’t like to dump good beer. I don’t want to drink a whole beer early because it makes me sleepy. I have work to do all day and it’s hard enough to stay awake in the afternoon without that. That means dumping. I already dump a lot of beer just because I open so many bottles when I do a big tasting. I’d like to keep that to a minimum.

The problem is that I’m busy at night. I’m not home to drink it then. There are gigs, events, and relationships to try and maintain. Oh, and roller derby practice. I never drink before I skate. If I take a hit and break a leg, that’s one thing. If I break a leg because I skated drunk, that’s another thing entirely. And shameless plug, the Rollergirls’ championship bout is this Saturday!

And so, I have a backlog of beer to write about.

I’m going to try and make a dent in it.

Todd Haug at Surly Brewing Company has been doing a lot of collaborating of late – mostly it seems with brewers of Scandinavian persuasion. The latest is Brett Mikkel’s IPA, brewed in collaboration with Danish, gypsy brewer Mikkel Bjergsø of Mikkeller fame. We used to get Mikkeller beers in Minnesota. Now we don’t. This collaboration with Surly gives us a chance to get another taste.

Brett Mikkel is an American IPA fermented with that “wild” yeast strain Brettanomyces. Anathema to winemakers – it makes wine taste like poop – Brettanomyces has been embraced by brewers. In beer it does magical things – pineapple, cherries, leather, and barnyard (that’s kind of like poop…but in a good way).

Brett, as it is fondly called, was first isolated in the porters of London. Aged for long periods in large, wooden vats, they came by it naturally. Brett and other critters lived in the wood. Fresh beer was called “mild.” The aged stuff that had seen time in wood was called “stale.” Stale beer was the good stuff. You paid top dollar – or maybe shilling – for it. It’s no wonder brewers of today have brought it back.

Here’s my notes:

Brett Mikkel's IPABrett Mikkel’s IPA
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, MN
Style: American IPA Fermented with Brettanomyces
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
7.5% ABV

Aroma: Brettanomyces character dominates. Pineapple and barnyard. High phenolic. Medium overtones of citrus and horse urine (but in a good way). Low alcohol. Very low impression of sweetness. Low, neutral-grainy malt.

Appearance: Full, creamy, off-white foam with excellent retention. Deep gold and clear.

Flavor: Medium sweetness with high Brettanomyces character and bitterness. Brett brings pineapple esters and barnyard phenols. Very low electrical fire. Faint impression of acid tartness. Medium-high bitterness, enhanced by phenolic character. Citrus hops give high notes – tangerine, grapefruit slice, and tomato vine. Malt is faint, neutral grain. Finish is dry with lingering bitterness, barnyard phenol, and citrus. As it warms the fruit continues to bloom – juicy pineapple and citrus.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: Brett character comes on strong in this. I love Brett beers, but the phenolic flavors in this bottle are verging on too much. More Brett ester is needed to balance the barnyard. And that comes as it warms, so don’t drink it too cold. I recall the draft pint I had being fruitier. I wonder if the keg and bottle versions have developed differently. I have seen that happen. I do like it though. I’m happily drinking this and would have more.

Surly Darkness 2015

“Last year’s was better.”

I’ve written on a few occasions about the unreliability of flavor recognition memory. Without lots of practice and a well-developed flavor vocabulary, cialis sale studies have shown that humans just aren’t that good at it. We don’t retain an accurate picture of how a thing tastes for any significant length of time. At best we remember generalities. It was sweeter. It was bitterer. It had a fuller mouthfeel. I liked it or I didn’t.

Context also effects our recollection. What we were doing, advice who we were with, and where we were while tasting a thing can spell the difference between a good and a bad experience of it. What we eat or drink before or after alters how it is received by our taste and olfactory receptors. The whole experience of flavor is a thing of the moment.

If we’re really being honest with ourselves, most of us don’t remember last year’s version.

And that brings me to Surly Darkness. It might be blasphemy to the beer-nerd few who actually read my posts, but I have never been a fan. I’m not that fond of imperial stouts in general, but this one in particular has never caught my fancy. Each year I satisfy myself with one glass in a bar somewhere, just to say I had it. And that is all I need.

Of course, I can’t say exactly what it is that misses the mark on my palate. I remember the first one feeling like a milkshake in my mouth. Sticky sweetness reigned another year. Maybe it was too hoppy once. I really can’t recall.

No, I’ve never been a fan of Surly Darkness…until this year.

Here’s my notes:

Darkness labelDarkness 2015
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
11.5% ABV

Aroma: Malt driven but with ample hop complement. Coffee. Bitter dark chocolate. A good deal of fruit – raisins and dark cherries. Licorice. Black strap molasses. Pine resin hops. Vaporous alcohol.

Appearance: Full, creamy, brown head with excellent retention. Extremely dark brown with ruby highlights. Appears black and opaque unless held to light. Appears brilliantly clear.

Flavor: Full-on dark-chocolate syrup. Licorice and low coffee grounds. Black malt roastiness is moderate, adding a dry-cookie quality to the chocolate. Some brown sugar or molasses sweetness. Sweetness is moderately high. Bitterness is also high, but the full-on malt keeps it in check. Still, it’s balanced. Not too sweet nor too bitter. Hop flavor is high – pine resin with hints of orange citrus. Fruitiness carries over from aroma – raisins and cherries. Alcohol is apparent – spirituous and at times overpowering. Finish is off-dry to semi-sweet with long-lingering chocolate, cherry and pine.

Mouthfeel: Full body. Medium carbonation. Warming.

Overall Impression: Definitely a sipper – a beer to carry you through the night. Big, but balanced. The pine and chocolate roast play off of each other nicely. Alcohol is a bit too much. Not a subtle beer, but full of subtle complexities. I have never been a fan of Darkness, but I’m really digging this. Has the beer changed significantly, or have I? That is the question.

 

Surly Nein

Sometimes you get a beer that you really want to pay attention to. You want to dig into its nooks and crannies to seek out whatever might be lurking there. But that sort of attention takes time and often that time isn’t available. With most bottles that’s okay. I’ll open one in the morning, cure taste my sample, and then dump most of it down the drain. It’s just beer, right? But the kind of bottle I’m talking about is one that you anticipate wanting to finish. I’m not going to pop a 750ml of 10-percent alcohol beer in the morning. I have work to get done through the day. It won’t happen if I do that. And so, these bottles often sit in my refrigerator longer than I might like, waiting for that rarest occurrences, a free evening.

Such was the case with Surly Nein. The ninth anniversary ale from Surly Brewing Company is said to have been inspired by a trip to Bamberg, Germany, home of smoked beer. It’s described as an imperial smoked dunkelweizen. I love smoke. I love dunkelweizen. Imperial is often, but not always good. And did I mention wood-aging? I was at the very least intrigued. I wanted to give it the attention that I hoped it deserved. And so it waited several days until I had the opportunity. That day finally came.

Here’s my notes:

Surly NeinNein
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Smoked Beer
Serving Style: 750ml bottle
ABV: ~10%

Aroma: Smoke and dark fruits. Belgian-like. Low caramel and toast. Cherries, plums, low high note of lemon. Floral alcohol.

Appearance: Full, creamy, tan head with excellent retention. Dark mahogany, nearly black. Appears clear.

Flavor: Malt and yeast driven. Caramel that lingers into the finish. Dark cherries, plums, raisins, dates. Background of smoke that seems to get stronger through the glass. Low note of chocolate. Very low bitterness. Alcohol is apparent. Vanilla. Finish is semi-sweet with lingering caramel, vanilla, and dark fruits.

Mouthfeel: Full body. Creamy and smooth. Medium-high carbonation. Warming.

Overall Impression: So much fruit. The rich, dark malts and the strength of the beer coaxes a Belgian flair from the German hefeweizen yeast – lots of dark fruits and less banana and clove. The alcohol is a touch high, but that should smooth out with a little bit of time. It’s not a deal breaker. I love the lingering caramel. This is what I might expect from blending a smoky scotch ale with a Belgian dark ale. Yummy.

Surly Brewing Company – Todd the Axe Man

I find myself at a rare loss for words. At this moment, seek I have no stories to relate – no odd ramblings about styles or trends. My mind is preoccupied with other things, find so I’ll cut to the chase.

Here’s my notes:

todd-the-axe-man-present-465-x-622Todd the Axe Man
Surly Brewing Company, rx Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
7.2% ABV
65 IBU

Aroma: Hits your nose from a distance as soon as you pour. Hops dominate with little backup – citrus pith and geraniums. Pink grapefruit slices. Low pineapple background notes. Light and airy.

Appearance: Medium gold/orange. Hazy. Moderate, creamy, white head with excellent retention.

Flavor: All about the hops. Bitterness is high and lingers long into the finish with a citrus pith quality. Hop flavor is the main event – citrus, grapefruit, and floral. Low pineapple and tropical fruits come in midway. Lemony highlights. Low garlic note, but not distracting. Low alcohol that gets stronger as the beer warms. Low malt sweetness and background, neutral grainy flavor. Very dry finish with lingering citrus.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. High carbonation. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: Those who know me know that I’m not all about the IPAs. I can’t say that I will drink a ton of this, but if I want an IPA, I could do far worse than this one. It’s light, refreshing, and smooth. Although malt plays a very minor role, the bright hop flavors make up for it. Those flavors are expressed in delicate and clearly articulated layers. It’s really quite well done. If you are a fan of the hops, drink this.

 

The Brewer’s Table Kitchen at Surly

20150519_151107There are a lot of restaurants that do beer and food. Some of them do it very well. Most of them though, click are working with an ever rotating set of taps from an ever changing array of breweries. The beers change faster than the menu, meaning that the food is curated for beer generally, without a focus on particular flavor parings. Brewpubs have the luxury of working with a set list of beers made on premises, but in my experience, most of them don’t seem to put much thought into how the menu and the brews might work together. Pub grub is generally the rule.

But what happens when you give a talented and adventurous chef the opportunity to create an entire restaurant from scratch that is centered on the flavors of a single brewery’s lineup. The Brewer’s Table Kitchen at Surly is what. Opening this Friday, May 22nd, the second-floor, fine-dining venue at Surly is a foodie-friendly laboratory for beer and food pairing.

Given the sophistication of the beer hall menu I had lofty expectations for the Brewer’s Table. Chef Jorge Guzman had set the bar high. Judging from the samples offered at a recent media preview, he has deftly met the challenge. The menu is loaded with items, the descriptions of which make me say, “Oh, I want to try that.” Tantalizing treats like a Reuben made with beef heart, octopus with romesco sauce and chorizo, or lamb sweet breads immediately set my salivary glands atwitter. The dishes we were served not only offered layers of flavor to explore, they were pretty to look at as well. Like colorful paintings on a plate, they were almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

Beet Salad paired with Pentagram

Beet Salad paired with Pentagram

I love beets, so one of my favorites was the beet salad. Guzman likes to use ingredients in multiple ways in each dish. This one has beets roasted, charred, pickled, and pureed. On top is fois gras that has been cured, passed through a tamis, fortified with beet gel, frozen and then shaved. It looks almost like wood chips or pencil shavings on the dish, but eats with a luscious, creamy richness. The pairing with Surly’s sour, wild ale Pentagram was surprisingly good. The interaction of acids in the dish and the beer toned down the sour, but still let the beer cut the richness of the fois. Earthy notes from the Brettanomyces fermentation bridged nicely to the earthy beets.

Tea Egg paired with Cynic

Tea Egg paired with Cynic

The Tea Egg was another favorite. A five-minute egg is cracked and then poached in tea and truffle powder to give it a tie-die appearance. It’s served on a bed of sheep’s milk cheese, puffed quinoa, and black garlic puree, with marinated asparagus. There is a lot going on in this dish, which makes it a particular pairing challenge. Which flavor element do you aim for when selecting a beer? Guzman went with Cynic, which he called the “easy” route. Easy or not, it worked. The soft sweetness and spicy/fruity yeast notes of the beer at least touched on nearly every layer of the dish.

Pork Jowl  paired with Todd the Axeman

Pork Jowl paired with Todd the Axeman

If you are looking for something rich, the Pork Jowl is the way to go. Guzman envisions this dish as a taco. This gorgeous hunk of meat is cured, sous vided, and roasted to fatty, pink perfection. It’s layered on puffed amaranth and a black bean puree made with Mole’ Smoke beer, and topped with a hazelnut vinaigrette. A picadillo sauce of the type used for empanadas completes it. This one was paired with Todd the Axeman, a West Coast-style IPA brewed in collaboration with a Danish brewery. It’s the hoppiest beer Surly makes, but the focus is on flavor and aroma instead of overly-aggressive bitterness. It cut through the richness of the jowl without taking out your tastebuds or preventing the subtler flavors from coming through.

Guzman and crew encourage diners to explore their own pairings, but they are happy to make recommendations if desired. For those who want to turn it over entirely to the whim of the chef, a Chef & Brewer pairing menu will take you through a five-course meal with a pairing for each course.

20150519_150435The décor of Brewer’s Table is in keeping with the rest of the building – sleek and elegant, yet not too stuffy. The long, kitchen bar would be my choice for seating, but I love to watch chefs at work. In the summer the outdoor patio overlooking the beer garden would also be very nice. Reservations are available and recommended. Bar seating is first-come, first-served. The Brewer’s Table is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5-11 p.m.

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Octopus paired with Overrated IPA

Octopus paired with Overrated IPA

Surly Destination Brewery Grand Opening

Surly Brewing Company officially opens their new digs this morning at 11am. So many words are being written/broadcast/Facebooked about this today that the news is hard to avoid. So many others have already given the basic information and said most of what needs to be said. I see no need to repeat what has already been oft repeated. I’ll keep my statement here brief.

Space: The building is beautiful. It combines a stark, sildenafil concrete- and-steel modern sensibility with warming touches of wood and light. The communal seating in the beer hall encourages socializing (which is what beer is really all about), look but there are a few smaller tables for those hard-core Minnesotans who may not want to sit with strangers. The most impressive thing about the space is that the brewery is the focal point. Every vantage in the building – both upstairs and down – looks onto the brewery through two story walls of glass. Beer is at the center of this place.

Food: Chef Jorge Guzman has taken the concept of beer hall food and stepped it up several notches. There is barbeque, help meat, shellfish, salads and snacks. They even have pizza and a burger. But the snacks include things like Foie Gras French Toast and Bone Marrow. My don’t-miss menu items (there are so many): Smoked Brisket, Bone Marrow, Charcuterie Board (especially the pheasant rillette and the smoked ham), Bitter Greens Salad. This is food for grazing. It’s not the kind of thing where you order yourself an entrée and go. Order a couple things and share among your group. When those are done order a couple more. Repeat until full.

Beer: Come on. It’s Surly.

I’ve been known on occasion to make statements critical of Surly. But this place is freaking amazing.

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