In the shadow of United Crushers, and connected to the same groundwater supply as the production brewery in Brooklyn Center, Surly’s beer hall on the border of Minneapolis and Saint Paul continues to serve some of the best beer in the upper Midwest. Expanding their distribution area has done nothing to diminish the quality of their existing beers or, as the release calendar shows, slow the rate at which they’re adding new offerings.
Expanding their footprint isn’t the only major change Surly has undergone recently, as the former head of brewing operations, Todd (the Axe-Man) Haug left the company last fall to join the already-estimable crew at Three Floyds. Given his influence, concerns about Surly’s future were warranted, but they also appear to be unnecessary. The brewery is still making the big, aggressive beers they’re known for, and that’s great news.
The biggest changes on the year-round front is the addition of three beers that had previously only been limited releases: Todd the Axe Man (no points for guessing who this one is named after) and Xtra-Citra. Add these to Furious, and Surly now offers three hop bombs year-round.
While I might give some pushback to the idea that Todd the Axe Man is the best beer brewed in Minnesota – it’s not even Surly’s best beer in my opinion – there’s no question that it boasts a legion of fans who will be elated they don’t have to worry about missing the beer’s window anymore.
Given the departure of Xtra-Citra, the seasonal list is pared down a bit from last year, but still boasts what I’d argue is among the best beers in the country: Abrasive. It’s an oatmeal double IPA with a massive dose of Citra hops to give the beer its characteristic fruitiness. The beer is neither overly sweet nor unpleasantly hoppy, but it is sweeter than most IPAs and it is definitely hoppy. Sadly, Abrasive is winding down its time atop the seasonal pedestal, which won’t be occupied until #MERICA comes out in May.
The appearance of fish on fast food restaurant menus is one clue that it’s Lent, which also means it’s the perfect time of year for dopplebocks. I’d love to see Surly bridge this gap in their seasonal release schedule by adding one to their lineup, but that doesn’t seem to be likely. They’ve brewed one in the past, but it hasn’t reemerged in nearly a decade, which is a shame.
Of the new beers Surly is bottling this year, I’m most excited by Inherent Weiss, an imperial hefeweizen coming out in the summer. Imperial hefes are one of my favorite styles because they’re such a big, blank canvas on which brewers can do a lot of different things. This one sounds fairly hoppy as opposed to being fruited, which is an interesting play on the style, but in truth, I’m less interested in exactly what the beer tastes like and far more interested to see how the current brewing team approaches it. It isn’t the first new beer they’ll be bottling this year, an honor that goes to an intriguing Brett IPA called Unbridled, but it is the most ambitious, and that gives me high hopes.
It’s a mercy that Misanthrope is available in bottles outside of Minnesota, because it would be a shame for so many folks to miss out on this beer.”
While there’s no bad time to hit up the beer hall – particularly to check out the small batch beers they often have on tap – October is the time to find yourself at Surly. In addition to their Oktoberfest offering, Surly is trotting out three limited releases: Furious Black, Damien, and Darkness.
Darkness is the star of Surly’s show these days, a truly fantastic imperial stout when you can get it and conspicuous in its absence when you can’t. The barrel-aged version they put out earlier this year was among the most flavorful stouts I’ve ever had, with notes of toffee and dark fruits coming through the chocolate, with a spice finish imparted by the rye barrels. The barrel-aged version isn’t typically released at the same time as the base Darkness, but that just makes for a great excuse for a second trip after the October blowout.
Only one of these beers is currently slated for release outside the beer hall, but something to keep in mind for next year’s calendar is the experimentation Surly is doing with different yeasts. The first set of beers use an existing beer as their base. CynicAle, the brewery’s year-round release saison, is good but perhaps not as great as some of Surly’s other offerings. It’s 4% better than the average saison according to BeerGraphs data, which is eminently drinkable, but nothing to make a trip for.
The two beers that spring from it, on the other hand, absolutely are. The addition of Brettanomyces and another stint in the fermenter turns CynicAle into Sardonic, which is a touch sweeter, and even a bit tarter, than a traditional saison. Were it not for the evolution to come, this would be a far more notable beer, but it ends up being a bit lost between CynicAle and Misanthrope, which is Sardonic, but aged in used white wine barrels.
It’s a mercy that Misanthrope is available in bottles outside of Minnesota, because it would be a shame for so many folks to miss out on this beer. It has the hazy, rustic taste that comes with most Brett beers, but the sweetness of the white wine gives the beer a rounder, more complex finish. The result is not just a cleaner flavor at the end, but also a chance to taste more of the Brett flavors that can become lost in its tartness. This is not a beer that tastes like a wine, but like Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch, it’s a beer that wine-drinkers will be able to connect with.
The second set of experimental beers is still largely in development. The first beer in the series was Frisson, a lager made with champagne yeast and black currants. The beer was so well received by both staff and guests that more beers using the champagne yeast are likely to show up in the beer hall.
I’m frankly surprised this is technically a lager; it’s heavily carbonated, has a drier-than-normal finish, but comes alive with flavor from the currants. It’s a bit more like a lambic or gueuze, but doesn’t quite fit squarely into either category due to its sturdier malt backbone. However you categorize Frisson, it’s a very promising start to the champagne beer trial.
There’s little doubt that Haug’s absence is still being felt around Surly and likely will be for quite a while, but as far as what they’re presenting to the public – top-class beer in a wide range of styles – things seem to be humming along quite well.
The brewing scene in Minnesota has gotten quite a bit more competitive since Surly first started, but they remain the benchmark by which all newcomers are judged and that isn’t likely to change any time soon.
AB InBev is an investor in October through its venture capital arm, Zx Ventures