Surly Turns Five: An Interview with Omar Ansari and Todd Haug

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.

Todd: Scary.

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.

Todd: Exactly.

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.

Surly Five

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.

Some Calm Reflection on Surly’s Big Brewery Announcement: Part 3

In the comment thread to yesterday’s post, Surly Brewer Todd Haug offered some clarification about Surly’s intentions saying, “We are asking to sell pints of our beer. No back door sales, no full liquor, no packaged beer sales.” This more specific explanation is extremely helpful. Specificity is important, especially when dealing with legislation where every word counts and what is not said is often as important as what is said. Earlier statements by Surly (here and here) that were picked-up and repeated by the media said, “We can’t be licensed as a brewpub because we brew too much beer so Minnesota law currently says we can’t sell beer in the new brewery.” These statements suggested, to me at least, a much bigger goal that would have necessitated either a redefinition of “brewpub” in the statutes or a significant expansion of what is allowable as a large brewery. Either way it would have been a tricky legislative debate.

The less ambitious aim means that the law could conceivably be changed with a simple, narrowly worded statement allowing breweries to sell their own draft beer for on-site consumption at a restaurant or beer garden attached to the place of manufacture; something akin to the subsection that now allows growler sales at small breweries, except that it provides for on-sale instead of off. It would not require a change to the existing brewpub license. Because it would not require a retail license, it gets around the statute forbidding manufacturers from having an ownership stake in any entity holding such a license. Depending on how it is worded, it could still be interpreted to allow limited on-sale by other breweries in tasting rooms. It’s still a tricky legislative debate, but perhaps not quite as tricky.

My thanks to Todd for the clarification.

The Opposition

Todd’s clarification is also helpful in examining the arguments against Surly’s plan.

The only organization that has thus far made public statements in opposition to the plan is the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA). The MLBA is a business association representing the retail tier of the three-tier system; bars, restaurants, and package stores. Their website states that since 1952 they’ve “been helping licensed beverage retailers in Minnesota with educational programs and government affairs services designed to promote and protect their business.” The organization offers retailers a range of services including discounted alcohol liability insurance, alcohol server training, business development counseling, as well as tracking, information, and lobbying on legislative issues.

The MLBA was quick to oppose Surly’s plan. In a statement made to Tom Scheck of MPR News the day after Surly’s announcement, organization representative Frank Ball said:

It’s pretty simple within the parameters of the three-tier structure we have in Minnesota. The manufactures make the product, the wholesalers distribute the product and we, the retailers, sell the product to the consumer. It’s even more simple if you say it the way my retailers say it: “you make it, we’ll sell it”…you make it ‘and’ sell it, we won’t buy from you”.

The reason for the three-tier structure was to keep the integrity of the distribution of a controlled, highly regulated, commodity. Alcohol — like prescription drugs or firearms — is no ordinary commodity. In fact, alcoholic beverages are the only commercial products specifically named in the United States Constitution. Because our society recognizes the importance of controlling alcohol use and access, alcohol has always been treated differently under the law than most other products.

The manufacturers (breweries, vineyards and distilleries) supply distributors. Under the laws which created the three-tier system, each level of the system is independent of the others, ensuring accountability to the public as well as the benefits of healthy competition. By preventing tied houses (i.e. Retailers that sell the products of only one supplier), the three-tier system limits the number of retail outlets and therefore promotes moderate consumption, hence our position with the Surly matter. We want the Surly product to sell in our stores, we don’t want the manufacturer of a great beer to sell to the public, we’ll do that enthusiastically as possible.

While it is true that the current law is rooted in the manufacturer/retailer separation mandated by the three-tier system, Ball’s opening argument amounts to “this is how it is.” In a more recent statement he reiterated that argument even more explicitly saying, “This is Minnesota. These are the rules.” Simply stating that something is one way or another doesn’t amount to a convincing argument for why it should remain that way. He claims no specific benefit from maintaining the status quo, nor does he cite any possible harm that would come from changing it. He also fails to account for exceptions to the system that already exist, such as the farm winery license that allows wineries to sell product at the manufacturing facility for on or off-sale, something that goes further than what Surly is proposing.

At the end of his opening statement Ball resorts to blackmail saying, “you make it ‘and’ sell it, we won’t buy from you.” This seems to me a difficult claim to substantiate. While I admit that my intelligence is hardly comprehensive, the retailers that I have heard from all support Surly’s plan and would happily continue to sell the brewery’s products. Aside from this, blackmail is never pretty. It’s thuggish. It is not an effective way to win friends and influence people.

He next makes a historical argument that alcohol has always been treated differently. There is some truth in this statement. Alcoholic beverages have been a tightly regulated commodity going all the way back to colonial times. However, they have not always been regulated in the same way. The three-tier system wasn’t put into place until 1933. Saying that regulation has always existed isn’t a sound argument for any particular form of regulation.

In the third paragraph he makes the statement that, “Under the laws which created the three-tier system, each level of the system is independent of the others, ensuring accountability to the public as well as the benefits of healthy competition.” While this may be true of the intention of the underlying laws, many would argue that the reality of their implementation does exactly the opposite (see Arguments against the three-tier system in yesterdays post). They contend that large breweries are able to game the system to their own anti-competitive advantage and that distributors have become the ultimate decision makers on what gets to market, giving them the ability to make or break a small producer.

He further states that the three-tier system “promotes moderate consumption.” There is little evidence to support this claim. During prohibition, the time of greatest regulation of alcohol in the nation’s history, alcohol use actually rose. The Schaffer Library of Drug Policy states on their website, “National alcohol prohibition began in 1920. Apparent alcohol use fell from 1914 to 1922. It rose thereafter. By 1925, arrests for public drunkenness and similar alcohol-related offenses were already above the pre-prohibition records. Consumption by women and children increased dramatically.”

The Proponents

I already discussed many of Surly’s arguments in favor of the brewery plan in part one. I won’t discuss them again here. However there is one argument being made by supporters that needs to be examined; the “they do it in other states” argument.

I can already hear my mother saying, “If they were jumping off cliffs in Colorado (or Oregon, Wisconsin, etc.) would you jump off a cliff?” The fact that something can be done elsewhere is not by itself a compelling argument that it should be done here. As stated in part two, every state has the ability under the federal law to regulate how the three-tier system is implemented. Some states have an even more restrictive approach than Minnesota, such as those in which the state monopolizes both the distribution and retail tiers. The case could just as easily be made that Minnesota should adopt one of these more restrictive models. If the “other state” argument is to be used, concrete reasons must be given, be they economic, cultural, or otherwise, as to why another model is better for Minnesota than the one we currently have.


I think that some people might have taken my last two posts to be an attack on Surly or the brewery proposal. I assure you that this is not the case. I called this “calm reflection” because that’s what is. It is my attempt to think through situation and make sense of it without the hype and hyperbole that was coming from all sides. Some of my conclusions have been challenged. Great! I love a good debate. I’m willing to listen and be convinced. Where I was convinced I have made the effort to correct previous statements.

In the end, I am fully behind Surly’s cause. I find the idea exciting. I applaud their success. I think the facility will be good for craft beer not just in the state, but in the whole upper-Midwest region. I wish them luck and will do what I can to support them.

In any event, it’s going to be an interesting fight. I look forward to watching it play out.

Read Part One
Read Part Two

Some Calm Reflection on Surly’s Big Brewery Announcement: Part 2

As has been reported, the only thing preventing Surly from moving ahead with their brewery plan are the Minnesota statutes regarding licensure for liquor manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers. The real significance of this story lies in the proposals to change those laws. Reading the articles and the attached comment threads reveals a good bit of misinformation and misunderstanding about what the laws actually say and where they originate, so let’s take a look at that.

The Three Tier System

What is it and why do we have it?

The laws in question stem from the state’s interpretation of the three-tier system of alcohol manufacture, distribution, and sale. The three-tier system is a set of federal statutes put in place after prohibition that are intended to separate the manufacturers of alcoholic beverages from those that sell them to consumers. The statutes basically require that manufacturers and importers sell to wholesalers, who in turn sell to retailers. The system was devised to correct coercive and anti-competitive practices that existed prior to prohibition.

In those days, breweries owned saloons, which of course sold only their products. They also entered into exclusivity agreements with saloon owners, often through coercion or bribery with loans and equipment, creating so-called “tied houses.” The brewery that held the most saloons could essentially prevent competing breweries from entering certain markets, creating an anti-competitive situation. Breweries also exerted a good deal of pressure on tied-house owners to increase sales, leading to public drunkenness and ultimately aiding the cause of the prohibitionists.

Arguments in favor of the three-tier system

Proponents of the system say that it simplifies revenue collection, provides retailers with easier access to a greater range of products, and creates a more level playing field for small brewers to enter markets.

Distributors maintain centralized warehouses through which product is moved. They are better able to track the comings and goings of those products for payment of taxes and can efficiently generate a paper-trail for reporting of those taxes. This centralization also means that retailers can go to a single location to access several breweries’ products rather than having to manage contacts and transactions with a multitude of different producers. It also saves brewers the difficult task of selling to many individual retailers.

Requiring manufacturers to go through distributors theoretically prevents larger breweries from flooding markets with underpriced goods or bribing/coercing retailer to carry only their products. Because wholesalers make money from many producers, they have an incentive to promote the large and the small brands, thus creating a level playing field.

Arguments against the three-tier system

Critics argue that the three-tier system has simply shifted the corruption and coercion. They say that large manufacturers now incentivize distributors to drop competing brand, in essence creating tied-house relationships with wholesalers rather than retailers. Distributors then offer perks to retailers, such as installing draft lines at bars that agree to carry their products. Although such practices are for the most part illegal, critics say they are often overlooked. In this way, both small producers and small distributors can be denied access to markets. According to critics the same anti-competitive situation still exists that existed before prohibition.

The Laws in Minnesota

States interpret the statutes

While federal law mandates the manufacturer/ distributor/ retailer model, it gives the states a great deal of leeway in how to interpret and implement it. The model varies significantly in structure and strictness from state to state. In some cases, state government takes on the role of wholesaler and/or retailer, operating state liquor stores or buying from manufacturers and selling to retailers. Some states allow breweries to self-distribute product, some do not. Some allow manufacturers to participate in retail sales at the brewery, others prohibit this practice. I have read instances where state officials come to inspect a brewpub’s tax determination tanks, buy the beer in the tank from the brewery, and then immediately sell it back to them.

What does Minnesota law say?

Here’s where we get technical.

Minnesota statute allows four types of brewer’s licenses:

1.       Brewers who manufacture less than 2000 barrels in a year

2.       Brewers who manufacture between 2000 and 3500 barrels in a year

3.       Brewers who manufacture over 3500 barrels in a year

4.       Brewers who also hold one or more retail on-sale licenses and who manufacture fewer than 3,500 barrels of malt liquor in a year, at any one licensed premises, the entire production of which is solely for consumption on tap on any licensed premises owned by the brewer, or for off-sale in growlers as permitted in another section of the statute.

Brewers in the first and second category may not hold a retail “off-sale” license, but are permitted to sell beer from the brewery for off-premise consumption in 64-ounce growlers or 750 ml bottles. Brewers in the category three may not hold a retail license or sell beer for off-premise consumption from the brewery. None of these three license categories allow the sale of beer for on-premise consumption. In other words, breweries cannot sell beer directly to consumers in their tasting rooms, nor can they sell beer directly to consumers in an attached restaurant. No brewery in any of these three categories is allowed to have any ownership stake in any business holding a retail license. Brewers with these licenses are allowed to self-distribute their product if they obtain a separate wholesalers license and produce no more than 25,000 barrels of beer annually. Surly along with a number of the state’s other small breweries self-distribute their beer to retailers.

Category four is the so-called “brewpub” license. It allows a brewery to hold a retail license for on-premise consumption at a restaurant located in the place of manufacture. Brewpubs are allowed to sell growlers and 750 ml bottles for off-premise consumption, but are prohibited from distributing their product to the off-sale retail market. They can also sell their product at other separately-licensed locations for on-site consumption if those locations are owned by the same entity. For instance, Town Hall is able to sell its beer at the Town Hall Tap because both are owned by the same entity. Town Hall would not be allowed sell its beer across the street at Preston’s.

Confused yet?

So what does this all mean?

In order to move forward with the brewery project, Surly needs to change the law to allow breweries that manufacture over 3500 barrels annually to also hold a retail license for on-site consumption at a restaurant located in the place of manufacture. In other words, they need the rules that apply to brewpubs to also apply to large breweries. As I understand it, however, beyond raising the barrel limit for brewpubs, they would also need to change the brewpub license to allow for distribution into the retail market. Otherwise the change in classification would allow Surly to sell beer in their proposed restaurant, but would prohibit them from selling beer in stores. The change to the law requires more than has been suggested in the current discussion.

This change to the law has broader implications than just allowing Surly to build its brewery. If successful, the change would presumably allow brewpubs like Town Hall and Fitger’s to package and sell their beer in bars and liquor stores, something they have long wanted to do. It could also be interpreted to allow breweries to sell beer in their tasting rooms, essentially operating them as bars, as they do in Colorado.

A lot of competing interests have already begun building their cases both for and against the change. I’ll address that tomorrow.

Read part one.
Read part three

Some Calm Reflection on Surly’s Big Brewery Announcement: Part One

On Monday night the Twittersphere lit up after Surly’s announcement of a planned 20-million dollar brewery. Tweets and re-tweets proliferated at a blistering pace, causing even my lowly @aperfectpint handle to “trend” locally. (Who’d of thought?) Anxious Surly fans hung on every message, waiting for additional details. The next day comment threads on internet news stories and Facebook posts called the announcement “the most exciting brewing news & brewery in Minnesota since the end of prohibition.” They declared that the new brewery was something that Surly “deserved” and decried groups that might oppose the project as bullies who are only “out to line their own pockets” (as if Surly isn’t looking to make money from this).  The comments suggest that to some Surly fans, the project has become like the second coming of Ninkasi. A few of Surly’s own pronouncements have made it sound like a magnanimous act of civic engagement; a boon to the community. To opponents of the plan, from the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association to the Minnesota Beer Wholesalers Association, it almost amounts to restriction of trade.

Let’s take a moment to cut through the hyperbole look at what’s really going on.

Surly’s Proposal

The Basic Plan

Surly wants to build a two-story, 60,000 sq ft facility. It would house a new brewery that would give them an annual brewing capacity of 100,000 barrels. The building would also house a 250-seat restaurant, a 30-foot bar, a roof-deck beer garden, and an “event center” for weddings, concerts, business conferences, and other types of events. The project is expected to cost $20 million.

Surly’s Claims About the Plan

Surly calls the new brewery a “destination brewery.” In an online article in Twin Cities Business Magazine, Surly Founder Omar Ansari says that the facility will be a “hub for beer tourism”, tapping into a growing phenomenon of beer drinkers planning travel around brewery visits. In the same article he claims it will be “’a complete beer experience’ and will become a part of the metro area’s ‘cultural fabric.’ ‘[The facility] would be another great amenity for the Twin Cities,’ much like other attractions such as the Mall of America and Target Field”.

The economic impact of the project, according to an announcement on the Surly Brewers Blog, includes the creation of 150 permanent jobs and 85 temporary construction jobs. Additional revenue would be generated by the operation of the event center. Although, in a Star Tribune piece Ansari admitted that those numbers may be “a bit pie-in-the-sky at the moment.”

My Take

There is no doubt that the project would have an economic impact for the state. Increased production means increased tax revenue from the brewery. A number of jobs will be created, including increased brewery staff, restaurant staff such as managers, kitchen workers, and front-of-house.  The event center may require event planners. And of course there will be construction jobs.

Beer tourism is definitely on the rise, and given Surly’s almost cult-like popularity there is no doubt that the new brewery will become a popular destination. However, the comparison to the Mall of America and Target field seems to me to be a grandiose stretch. It certainly won’t compare to those landmarks in terms of economic impact from tourism.

When you get right down to it, all Surly is really proposing is a great big brewery with a restaurant.

The real significance of Surly’s plan lies not with the thing itself, but with the implications of the proposed changes to the laws governing the three-tier system in Minnesota. More on that in tomorrow’s installment.

Read part two
Read part three

Local Brewers’ Beers of Spring

Spring arrived early this year. We lived through the first snowless March since records have been kept and April has been even better. Warmer weather and longer days call for a shift away from the heavy, dark beers of winter. Spring means lighter beers, but beers with enough body to tackle the lingering night time chill. Spring is when I begin to crave the bitter American Pale Ales, their citrusy hops flavor giving a bracing wake-up call to the senses. The traditional old-world beers of spring, German maibock and French biére de garde, have sturdy malt backbones supporting spicy hops and yeast character, contrasting flavors to match the seasonal temperature swings. Several of these springtime beer styles are crafted here in the metro by our great local brewers.

Minnesotans love hops, the source of bitterness in beer, and there are plenty of locally produced bitter brews to satisfy these springtime cravings. The most balanced of these is Sweet Child of Vine, the debut India pale ale (IPA) from newcomers Fulton Beer. Only available on draft, the floral hops flavor, moderate bitterness, and balancing caramel malt make this one of the easier drinking versions of the style. More bitter but still balanced, Lift Bridge Brewery’s Crosscut Pale Ale features subtle citrus notes from abundant Cascade hops and grapefruit zest added to the brew. St. Paul’s Flat Earth Brewing calls its Northwest Passage IPA the “bitterest beer in Minnesota.” A step up the ladder in bitterness, body, and alcohol content, Northwest Passage is bracing enough to snap one out of winter hibernation, but has enough warmth and comforting caramel to take the bite out of those sudden springtime temperature drops. Topping the list for hops intensity is Abrasive Ale (formerly 16 Grit), the double IPA from Surly Brewing Company. This nearly 9% alcohol bruiser of a beer is aptly named. The aggressive bitterness gives way to massive citrusy hops flavor that is supported by full-bodied sweet, grainy malt. This is one for hops lovers. Surly is making Abrasive Ale available in cans this year for the first time. The release date was April 12th, but don’t tarry, this one won’t last long.

For the traditional spring beers look no further than St. Paul for Summit Maibock and Flat Earth Ovni Ale biére de garde. Bavarians still celebrate the annual May release of maibock, a hoppier, lighter-colored version of the malty-rich bock style. Summit’s version is appropriately malt forward with grainy sweetness and a quiet toasty background. The sweetness is balanced by moderate bitterness and floral hops flavor.  Biére de garde, a traditional farmhouse ale from Northern France, was originally brewed in early spring and cold-cellared for consumption by farmhands as the weather warmed. Ovni Ale is another beer for malt lovers. On the sweet side for the style, it features rich caramel malt and hints of chocolate with low bitterness and only the lightest touch of spicy hops flavor.

The long-term forecast looks good, so grab one of these great local beers and celebrate spring’s return before summer creeps in.

Winterfest 2010 Recap

Friday night saw seven hundred Minnesota beer fans assemble at the Minnesota History Center for Winterfest 2010. The annual winter beer festival presented by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild is a showcase of all things beer in the land of lakes. Seventeen Minnesota breweries and brewpubs were on hand pouring over seventy-five beers. The arrangement of the History Center was much better this year than last, spreading out the brewery tables to prevent crowding of the narrow hallways and allow easier movement and more comfortable imbibing. The only downside to the arrangement was that it was sometimes a challenge to find the particular breweries that I was looking for. Another plus this year was the plentiful food. In past years the food was usually picked over and nearly gone by the time I felt the need to refuel. This year there was still food to be had at multiple feeding stations right up to the end of the event. One of the greatest things about Winterfest is the presence of the brewers behind the serving tables. The only missing faces this year were Jeff and Cathie Williamson from Flat Earth who just welcomed their new daughter Heather into the world a couple of days ago. I guess they can be excused for missing. Beer was flowing, kilts were on display (though fewer than in previous years), and it seemed all festival goers were having a great time.

So what about the beers? In general I found the beer selection to be wanting in comparison to past Winterfests that I have attended. The variety of styles was a bit limited, lots of heavy stouts and big IPAs. It seemed like the brewers brought fewer special beers this year and there were fewer that stood out in the crowd. That said, there were some real winners and a few that were not so great as well.

For my money, Town Hall Brewery had the most interesting and consistently tasty selection of beers at the event. If the lines at their table are any indication, I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Nearly everything that I tasted from Town Hall was wonderful. Especially noteworthy for me was LSD, an ale brewed with lavender, honey and dates. It has a wonderful floral aroma and a flavor that starts out dry and hoppy only to explode with honey and raisin sweetness mid-palate. I loved it at Autumn Brew Review and still love it now. Also impressive were Twisted Jim, an American barleywine aged in Jim Beam barrels, and Russian Roulette, a huge, rich, chocolaty imperial stout served on cask.

Recounting my top-five of the fest, starting at number five is Smoked Porter from Rock Bottom Brewery. This smoked porter is made with 25% cherry wood smoked malt for a char-pit kind of smoke flavor that is totally different than the familiar meaty smoke of the classic Rauchbiers of Germany. A year ago I had a cherry wood smoked bock at Goose Island in Chicago that blew my mind. Ever since, I have been searching for another cherry wood smoked beer that works as well as that one did. I have tried many, including a couple others at Winterfest. Most have failed. While it didn’t blow my mind, the Rock Bottom Porter really worked.

Number four goes to Flat Earth’s Winter Warlock Barleywine. I have always loved Winter Warlock. Lacking the intense caramel and dark specialty malts of most English barleywines, this golden barleywine finds layered depth in simplicity, just English base malt and sugar. The 2009 batch is good now, but will be even better next year. While I am talking about Flat Earth, let me move on to my number three pick, the Grand Design S’more infused porter. This was the Great Snowshoe best beer of the festival winner this year as chosen by the attendees. I hate s’mores, but I really do like this beer. Built on the base of one of my favorite local beers, Cygnus X-1 porter, it explodes with vanilla, cocoa, and graham cracker sweetness that really does remind one of flaming marshmallows on a stick by the fireside.

My number two beer is the above mentioned LSD from Town Hall. I described it briefly up top, so suffice it to say here that it is a floral and fruity delight. A truly unique beer.

For my personal best beer of the festival I chose Unoaked Rosie’s Reserve from Barley John’s. This is a huge and hugely complex beer. While others opined that they preferred the oaked version, I am somewhat tired of bourbon barrel aged beers. I’m not that fond of bourbon to begin with and I think they have been overdone. The lack of bourbon and vanilla flavors in this 15.5% beer allowed for the discovery of delicious caramel and dark fruit without a trace of hot alcohols. Another beer that coaxes complexity from simplicity.

A few other beers deserve mention. I enjoyed the Winterye Mix and Blackwatch Oat Stout from Great Waters Brewing Co. Surly Mild was delightful as always and Four was tasty, but I want to reserve judgment until I can actually taste more than a couple ounces. It took on a kind of chalky, charred flavor that annoyed me slightly the more of it I drank. Winter Wheat from Rock Bottom was a great palate cleanser to end the evening.

A couple of beers for me missed the mark. Fitger’s Undertow Pilsner seemed a bit thin and flavorless. It could be because I had been sampling the endless number of imperial stouts and barleywines before I arrived there, but normally I like to seek out a pilsner as refuge from the huge. This one did not provide it. Great Waters’ Vulcanus Rex cherrywood smoked beer took the char pit smoke to an unpleasant level. The Smoked Doppelbock from the Herkimer Pub & Brewery, another cherrywood smoked beer, promised greatness with the aroma and then failed to deliver. The worst disaster of the evening in my view was the Chipotle Wee Heavy from Town Hall. All I can say is what a waste of their great Wee Heavy.

Surly Darkness 2009

For those who don’t know, Darkness is the limited release Imperial Stout from Surly Brewing Company in the Twin Cities. It is one of those beers that has acquired cult status in the beer geek world, inspiring people to line up more than 800 deep at the brewery on the day of its release, an event known as Darkness Day, in the hopes of being one of the lucky ones who get to purchase a six-pack of 22 oz. bottles. It’s a beer world phenomenon that I have never understood, but whatever.

I have tried Darkness every year that it has been released and have never really been a fan, a heresy around these parts. Imperial stouts are not my favorite beer style to begin with, and Darkness has tended to be bigger and thicker than most, in other words more of what I don’t like about the style. But every year I get myself into a bar where this cult-ish elixir is on tap to give it a try. You really can’t be a beer connoisseur in Minnesota and not do so. This year I was pleasantly surprised. While in the past I have either not been overly fond or needed the entire pour for the beer to start grow on me, this year’s iteration was delightful from the first sip. Here’s my notes:

Surly Darkness 2009Darkness 2009
Surly Brewing Company, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Serving Style: Draft

Aroma: Rich roasted malt and sweetness with assertive pine resin hops. Dried fruits underneath.

Appearance: Pitch black with a creamy and persistent tan head.

Flavor: Huge chocolaty roasted malt, but smooth, not a bit of the acrid, burnt, or bitter flavors that can come with this much roast. Nice dark fruits. The beer has ample sweetness but is well balanced by assertive bitterness and minty/piney hop flavors. A high level of attenuation dries the beer out, leaving it remarkably drinkable. Alcohol is apparent, but not excessive.

Mouthfeel: Thick, velvety, and creamy, but not heavy. Very drinkable. Save for the alcohol, one could drink a few of these. Carbonation medium-low. Nice warming alcohol.

Overall Impression: This was a lovely beer. Not as viscous and heavy as previous years. Rich malt is well balanced by the bitterness. Resinous and minty hop flavors are a nice complement to the chocolate. Well attenuated. I have had my annual taste of darkness. I may just need to have another one this year.

Autumnal Ales Recap

Continuing on the fall beer kick, the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club met on Friday night to enjoy some of the best beers that autumn has to offer. Eleven of us gathered at the home of club member Loren to sit by the fireplace and sample nine great brews, including a good number of local and regional selections.

Furthermore Fallen AppleThe night began with Fallen Apple, the quintessential autumn offering from Furthermore Beer in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Light and refreshing, but surprisingly high in alcohol, this tasty, tart, cider/beer blend was loved by all in attendance. One member reported that while she didn’t like cider, Fallen Apple tasted enough like beer to overcome that. It was one of her favorites for the night.

Next up was Wisconsin Amber from Capital Brewery, another regional brew from Wisconsin. Capital specializes in German style lager beers. Wisconsin Amber is a smooth, balanced Vienna style lager. The sweet, toasty malt is dominant, but is well balanced by spicy German hops and a crisp lager finish. A couple of the more beer-knowledgeable members commented that they had always passed this beer up with the thought, “Wisconsin Amber…how interesting could that be?” They won’t be passing it up any more. Wisconsin Amber was the second favorite beer of the night overall.

From there we went for another essential autumn beer, pumpkin ale. We had two examples to sample and compare, Ichabod from Michigan’sDogfish Head Punkin Ale New Holland Brewing Company and Punkin’ from Dogfish Head in Delaware (thanks Stephanie). Ichabod is a session pumpkin beer, more beery than pumpkin, with rich caramel malt and nutty butterscotch flavors supporting subdued pumpkin and pumpkin pie spice. The offering from Dogfish Head is more intense. Higher alcohol, full-bodied caramel malt, and an explosion of pumpkin and spice make this a more interesting beer overall, but one that you may not want to drink more than one. Both were tasty. In the end it comes down to whether you want a nice session beer or a high-intensity pumpkin experience.

The KaiserFor Oktoberfest, we dispensed with the traditional and went for the tweaked. The first of these was Surlyfest from Surly Brewing. Surlyfest has the toasty, caramel heart of a traditional Oktoberfest cranked up with spicy rye malt and higher levels of hopping for a sharply bitter/spicy bite. This was another crowd favorite, which was a surprise to some who did not expect to enjoy a bitter Surly brew. The other Oktoberfest was The Kaiser Imperial Oktoberfest from Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colorado. This 9.3% ABV bruiser of a beer received a mixed reception. While some liked the intensely sweet malt, others found it offensively boozy and perhaps a bit overly sweet.

You can’t talk about fall beers without a wet-hop IPA. For this, I selected Harvest Ale from Founders Brewing. Unfortunately I selected and purchased this beer for the event before trying it. You can read my review below. While a couple members enjoyed it, most did not. The general consensus was that “this was not so much a hoppy beer as straight-up unsweetened grapefruit juice.” Even the usual hopheads among us had difficulty with this one. It was the only beer to remain untouched during the “free-for-all” following the formal tasting.

The remaining two beers were Autumnal Fire from Capital Brewery and Chestnut Hill from the local Lift Bridge Brewing. Capital calls Autumnal FireAutumnal Fire a “doppelbock based on an Oktoberfest personality.” I have no idea what they mean by this, but the beer makes a mighty fine doppelbock in my view. It’s a smooth and malty brew with a bit of alcohol warmth and loads of raisiny dark fruit flavors. Some felt the raisin was a bit too intense. Others liked it precisely because of the intense raisin flavors. Lift Bridge’s Chestnut Hill was the nearly unanimous favorite of the night. One of my Autumn Brew Review top five picks, Chestnut Hill is brown ale for those who think that brown ale is synonymous with boring. Packed with toasty, nutty, caramel malt, balancing spicy/herbal hop flavor and bitterness, and just a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon spice, this is one delicious brew. It’s only available on tap and the supply is running out. You will need to get it soon if you want to get it at all…unless the Lift Bridge guys can be convinced to make more.

If you want more information about the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club go here and request to become a member.

Autumn Beers Part II

Although the temperature lingers in the twenties this morning, the sun is shining and the weather report says it should be more autumn-like by the weekend. With that assurance I continue my review of fall beers.

Furthermore Fallen AppleBefore moving away from specialty beers I should mention one other that exists in a place of its own. Fallen Apple from Furthermore Beer in Spring Green, Wisconsin is a limited batch fall beer brewed at the height of the apple harvest. For this beer brewer Aran Madden makes a specially formulated recipe reminiscent of a cream ale. This is combined in the fermenter with fresh pressed apple cider delivered to the brewery from an orchard nearby. The two are fermented together to create a beverage that I have compared to Apple Jolly Rancher™ infused champagne. Light and effervescent, Fallen Apple’s flavor begins as a lightly corny and moderately bitter ale. Somewhere mid-palate it explodes into a bright, tart cider/beer blend that is perfect for those warm, early fall days. It is so light and refreshing that you completely forget about the nearly 7% ABV until you feel the buzz from your first glass.

Although not a fall specialty, American Amber Ale is another beer style that is perfectly suited to autumn. American Amber is basically an Ruch River Unforgiven AmberAmerican pale ale with amped up caramel malt character. While still assertively bitter and with plenty of hop flavor and aroma, the increased maltiness makes for a richer, sweeter beer. West Coast versions, like Rocket Red from Bear Republic, can be intensely bitter while those from the Midwest and East are generally more subdued. There are a couple of very nice local and regional examples of Amber Ale available in the Twin Cities. Rush River Unforgiven Amber is a pub standby for me. Slightly cloudy from dry-hopping, Unforgiven Amber has a smooth, rich caramel malt profile balanced by abundant citrus and pine hops. Another good local choice is Mesabi Red from Duluth’s Lake Superior Brewing Company. Mesabi Red is a bit more intense than Unforgiven, with a bigger malt profile that includes biscuit notes with hints of roast, and bitterness that is correspondingly higher. A couple of great examples from further away are Bell’s Amber and Anderson Valley Boont Amber. You can find the Bell’s in Minnesota. For the Anderson Valley you will have to travel to Wisconsin. I believe you can also find the afore mentioned Bear Republic Rocket Red in Wisconsin.

Bell's Best Brown AleOne step further down the beer color wheel and no less brilliant for fall is Brown Ale. A darker and more toasty/roasty cousin of the American Amber, American Brown ales tend to balance toward the malt with rich caramel flavors and light notes of roast and chocolate. The slant toward malt does not, however, mean that hops aren’t prominent. Most American Browns still feature assertive bitterness and ample hop flavors, favoring earthy and resinous varieties over bright citrusy. These are smooth, easy-drinking beers with enough toastiness to take the edge off the chill air. The best local example is Chestnut Hill from Lift Bridge Brewery. One of my Autumn Brew Review top five, Chestnut Hill has a complex malt profile with nutty notes of toast, roast, and caramel. The malt is balanced by spicy hops, and a wisp of cinnamon in the background adds character. At 7% ABV it provides nice fall warmth but is still light enough to have a couple. Also in this category is Surly Bender. More assertive and bitter, it retains the smooth Brown Ale character with notes of toast, cocoa, coffee and caramel. The addition of oats gives it a rich, velvety mouthfeel. It is my favorite beer from Surly. A regional favorite of mine is Bell’s Best Brown. A slightly sweeter and less complex session brown, Best Brown still has plenty of roasty, toasty malt goodness for an autumn night around the fire pit. The English browns tend to be sweeter and subtler in character than their American cousins. Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale is an example that should not be forgotten.

You can’t talk about the beers of fall without mentioning Oktoberfest/Märzen. Originally brewed in March at the end of the legal brewing season in Germany, these rich caramel lagers were stored cold in caves over the hot summer, to be consumed in the fall to celebrate the harvest. Full flavored caramel malt dominates, but is balanced by spicy German hops and a crisp, dry lager finish. My favorite here is Ayinger Oktoberfest/Märzen, but there are several authentic German examples available. Closer to home try the examples from Bell’s or Schell’s. Surly‘s Surlyfest is an interesting and tasty Americanized fest beer. The Oktoberfest caramel base is recognizable, but the addition of spicy rye malt and ample American hops make it a thing all its own. It is definitely worth seeking out. Other contenders for fall lagers include the amber Vienna Lager style and the full bodied Doppelbock. To sample great Vienna Lagers look for Schell’s Firebrick or Capital Wisconsin Amber. For Doppelbock you can’t go wrong with Paulaner Salvator or Celebrator Doppelbock from Ayinger. For a regional fall Doppelbock pick up a sixpack of Capital Brewery’s Autumnal Fire. Full bodied and warming, this beer is chock full of luscious caramel malt and raisiny goodness.

Autumn Beers Part I

View from my office on October 12th.It seems strange to be writing about autumn beers when the temperature is in the twenties and there are two inches of wet, heavy snow on the ground. At this very moment the snow continues to fall. But autumn it is! It’s only mid October, and while the trees on the west bank of the Mississippi River near my home have turned bright hues of orange and red, most of the trees are still sporting green leaves. We haven’t yet set the clocks back for the fall, an act that dooms those of us in the North Country to early afternoon darkness until spring. “It’s autumn, damn it!” I keep repeating to myself. “I didn’t miss my window. It isn’t too late to enjoy the great beers of fall.”

Autumn is an in-between time. There is a chill in the air, but it hasn’t yet turned brutally cold.Fall Color on the Mississippi The days are getting shorter, but it is still light at 4:00 PM. The leaves are turning colors and beginning to fall, but the trees are not yet the gray skeletons that they become in the winter. Most of the time fall is a beautiful season, the season of harvest. So what makes a beer appropriate for fall? Well, slightly higher alcohol for one thing, just enough to take the edge off the chill air. A little color would be welcome, amber, red, orange, and brown to match the colors of the season. A bit of spice is always nice and perhaps a wink and a nod to the fall harvest, be it of hops or pumpkins.

Fall is a great time for special seasonal releases including wet hop beers and pumpkin ales. Hops are harvested in the fall. The bulk of the hops harvested in the world are dried and pressed onto bales or processed even further into pellets that resemble rabbit food. The majority of beers produced in the world use these dried and processed hops. However, during the harvest season many craft brewers take advantage of the opportunity to brew with fresh, unprocessed hops. For these beers, huge quantities of “wet” hop cones are added to the beer often within hours or even minutes of picking. Now I have to say that I am not a huge fan of the wet hop beers. In most cases I don’t feel that the use of fresh hops adds any significantly different character to the already hoppy American pale ales. What it does sometimes add is vegetal or grassy notes that I don’t find altogether pleasant. That said, these beers are immensely popular at this time of year so you should try a few examples and make up your own mind.

Fresh HopsThere are several locally brewed examples of wet hop beers to choose from. Surly Wet is available on tap right now in several locations. I found this to be a one-dimensional beer with a muddy hop character and excessive bitterness. While you are greeted with a beautiful, bright, citrusy hop punch at the beginning, the bitterness just hangs on in a way that is oddly mouth-coating and throat-burning. The somewhat sticky malt in the background is not quite enough to balance. One of the things that I love about Surly beers is the articulation of flavors. Each flavor seems to stand apart while working together with the others to make a delightful whole. I missed this articulation of flavors in Wet. The boys at Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater are releasing their Harvestör Ale at the Happy Gnome on October 25th. Harvestör is brewed with hops grown in Lift Bridge’s own hop garden. I haven’t tried this year’s batch, but my notes from last year indicate a big American IPA with somewhat sweet caramel malt, bright citrus hop flavor, and assertive bitterness. Brau Brothers Brewing from down in Lucan, MN also brews fresh-hop beers using their own hops, this year including a Fresh-hop Lager. Town Hall Brewpub in Minneapolis will be releasing their Fresh-hop 2009 tonight (October 12th).

If you want to try some non-local fresh hop beers there are many to choose from. Founders Brewing from Michigan recently released their Harvest Ale, available in four-packs at better liquor stores. Another regional example is the Heavy Handed IPA from Two Brothers Brewery outside of Chicago. Sierra Nevada releases a line of fresh hop beers every year including the Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ale with hops from South America and this year’s Estate Ale, brewed with hops and barley grown on the brewery’s own land.

The other big fall seasonal beer is pumpkin ale. While I may not be a fan of the wet hop beers, I do love the pumpkin ales. Not some extreme invention of American craft brewers, pumpkin ale has been around at least since the early days of colonial America when thirsty colonists, lacking barley which is not native to the eastern US, needed an alternative source of sugar for making beer. Pumpkin beers are usually amber-colored ales with generous amounts of caramel malt, relatively low levels of hop bitterness and flavor, and aromatic pumpkin pie spices like cinnamon, clove, allspice, and nutmeg. The best of them will display at least some character from the squash, although some are more pumpkin pie spice beers than actual pumpkin beers.

I have made it a mission to discover the essential pumpkin ale. My favorite is Pumking from Southern Tier Brewing in New York. This 9% Southern Tier PumkingABV desert-in-a-bottle is rich and smooth with notes of buttered rum and cloves. The pumpkin fruit comes through loud and clear, complemented by overtones of hazelnut. If you can find this one, snatch it up. But good luck, it arrived on store shelves in mid September and sold out within days. There may still be a few bottles lurking around out there if you make some calls. My two other favorites are both Midwestern offerings that are not available in Minnesota. O’Fallon Brewing located outside of St. Louis and the St. Louis Brewing Company, who’s beer sells under the brand name Schlafly both make outstanding pumpkin beers. The O’Fallon offering is a low alcohol pumpkin session beer with surprising levels of great pumpkin and spice character. The Schlafly beer is bigger and richer with more caramel sweetness and alcohol warmth. For a locally brewed example look for Mummy Train from St. Paul’s Flat Earth Brewing. While I found this beer to be a bit over spiced, it does have nice pumpkin flavor and caramel malt. Mummy Train is only available on draft or in growlers purchased from the brewery.