Dark(ness) Days at Surly Brewing?

Marketing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surly Brewing Company – Todd the Axe Man

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

Here’s my notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Brewer’s Table Kitchen at Surly

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

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

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

Beet Salad paired with Pentagram

Beet Salad paired with Pentagram

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

Tea Egg paired with Cynic

Tea Egg paired with Cynic

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

Pork Jowl  paired with Todd the Axeman

Pork Jowl paired with Todd the Axeman

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

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

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

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Octopus paired with Overrated IPA

Octopus paired with Overrated IPA

Surly Destination Brewery Grand Opening

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

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

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

Beer: Come on. It’s Surly.

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

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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, try help 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, medicine 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, treatment 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.