Surly Xtra Citra Pale Ale

No fancy words. Just beer.

Here’s my notes:

Extra CitraXtra-Citra Pale Ale
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, 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, 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, “Yup. It’s another IPA.”

Oh, 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, 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, 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, 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, I have no stories to relate – no odd ramblings about styles or trends. My mind is preoccupied with other things, 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, 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, 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, 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), 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, 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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2012 GABF Interview with Surly’s Todd Haug

2012 has been big for Minnesota beer. It’s quite possible that as many as 17 new breweries will have opened their doors by the end of the year. That’s right, SEVENTEEN! Crazy!

It could be said that Surly Brewing Company was the start of the boom. When it rolled out the first kegs of Furious and Bender in 2006, Surly was the first new brewery in the state since 2002 when the Minnesota Brewing Company ceased operations in the old Schmidt building. Surly quickly gained an almost fanatical following as their outrageously-bitter Furious became an unlikely gateway beer that brought a whole new generation into the craft beer fold. Surly’s opening was followed quickly by Flat Earth, Lift Bridge, and an ever accelerating proliferation of budding beer-makers.

I pinned down Surly brewer Todd Haug for an interview during the opening minutes of the Great American Beer Festival in October. In the interview he talks a bit about site selection for the planned “destination brewery” and has some things to say about the current Minnesota brewery boom.