As it continues to be Hate Week all around the college football universe, with Ole Miss and Mississippi State taking their Hate Week to a new level with multiple on-field fights during the Egg Bowl, I thought we could use something a little less hateful. Something like beer! Now, I know we’ve been goofing on Minnesota around these parts all week/forever, but there is a lot of good stuff that happens in The Land of 10,000 Lakes!
Take, for instance, Surly Brewing Company! They make some kickass beer and they now ship it to Wisconsin (and many other places around the region). Surly is one of the first craft breweries I really got into back in 2007. My future mother-in-law, who must have really liked me, would send me cans of Surly Furious in Madison, since Surly only distributed in the Twin Cities at the time. It was one of the beers I was drinking when the Phillies won the World Series, if you’ll allow me a personal aside.
I think we should take a brief moment to thank Minnesota for all of the nice things they do for us before we get back to hating. OK, as soon as you’re done reading this, please go post something derogatory about P.J. Fleck’s stupid, bald head.
Name: Surly Brewing Company
Location: 520 Malcolm Ave SE, Minneapolis, MN, 55414
Key Beers: Furious IPA; Xtra-Citra Pale Ale; Darkness Russian Imperial Stout; Hell Lager; Todd the Axeman IPA
Awards Won: Surly has won myriad awards since their inception in 2007. They are a mainstay on RateBeer’s Top-100 Breweries in the World and are consistently rated as the top brewery in the state. They most recently won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for Barrel-Aged Darkness in 2016.
Here is my interview, conducted via email and lightly edited, with head brewer Ben Smith.
What got you started in the brewing industry?
I’ve been a fan of craft beer since I started drinking. In my 20s, my girlfriend bought me a home-brewing kit and I haven’t looked back. I immersed myself in the science of brewing and eventually found myself looking at professional brewing as a potential career move.
What did you go to school for?
I have a BA in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature from the University of Minnesota. I worked in marketing right out of college. Once I made the transition to professional brewing I enrolled in UC-Davis’s Master Brewers Program and eventually took the Institute of Brewing and Distilling’s Diploma in Brewing exam and passed, winning the coveted JS Ford prize.
When did you change your career path to brewing?
I worked at the Guthrie Theater, the largest regional theater in the USA, in the box office and then marketing for many years. In my late 20s, I had what I call an early-mid-life crisis and switched careers to professional brewing. I left behind a decent salary and benefits to a $10/hour entry-level job in brewing. I was lucky to land at Lone Peak Brewery, a small brewpub in Big Sky, Montana, under the tutelage of owner Steve Nordahl and head brewer Ian Hendry. I learned all practical aspects of brewing from cleaning kegs, wort producing, cellar work, and packaging on a Meheen bottling line. I worked at Lone Peak for about two years before attending UC-Davis, then came to Surly and I’ve been here for five-plus years.
What is your favorite beer that your brewery makes?
I love making Furious. It’s our workhorse and flagship beer and I’ve spent much of my career working on improving the brewing process as we transitioned from our original (and still active) 30-barrel brewhouse in Brooklyn Center to our 100-barrel Rolec brewhouse at our Minneapolis destination brewery. That being said, I also absolutely love working on new R&D brews as they provide an opportunity to trial new ingredients, new processes, and really push the envelope on what we are capable of.
What is your favorite beer that a brewery in Wisconsin makes and what is your favorite beer that another brewery in Minnesota makes?
WI: New Glarus’s Dancing Man: this is the beer that made me fall in love with hefeweizens. I don’t think anyone makes a better hefe domestically than Dancing Man.
MN: Steel Toe’s Size 7: Surly makes great IPAs, but Steel Toe has really dialed in exactly what I want in an IPA. It’s bitter, it’s got a great malt base, and it’s deliciously drinkable.
Do you follow college football?
Honestly, I’m not a huge college football fan. I definitely follow the Gophers, but I don’t pay a lot of attention to the rest of the country. I love that our brewery is within walking distance from TCF Bank where the Gophers play, though, and I love interacting with all of the fans that come down before the games to grab a pint or two.
If so, how do you think the Wisconsin vs. Minnesota game will turn out?
Gophers all the way, duh.
Is your beer distributed in Wisconsin?
Yes, Surly is available across the entire state of Wisconsin.
Do you offer tours of the brewery?
Yes, we offer free public tours at the Minneapolis Destination Brewery and once a month at the original brewery in Brooklyn Center. Destination Brewery tours are Tuesday–Sunday and include a tour of the brewhouse, fermentation cellar, and packaging hall, plus beer samples. Folks can sign up for tours here: https://surlybrewing.com/tours/
Which of your beers should Badgers fans drink before/after the game while tailgating?
While tailgating, I would stick with Xtra-Citra, our sessionable pale ale. It’s low-ABV but packs a huge hop bouquet. It’s not too bitter and very drinkable without having to worry about getting too tuned-up before the game. If you come to our Beer Hall, definitely try some of our R&D beers like Jelly Legs, a fruited kettle sour with raspberry and cherry, or Wake N Haze, a NE-style hazy IPA brewed with a lager yeast in collaboration with our friends at Champion Brewing in Charlottesville, Va.
What do you listen to while brewing?
I listen to metal, punk, or EDM, generally. All are high-energy and keep you amped up, especially when working late at night.
Why is beer important to you?
Brewing is one of the oldest trades in existence. I love the brewing process. The best brewers bring a lot of science and technological expertise to the process, but also something else that is closer to making a work of art. Some would also say that beer is one of the catalysts of civilization as we know it. Ultimately, I love beer because it brings people together. I can sit down with someone who may have very different opinions on anything, from politics to music to art, and have an engaging discussion over a pint or two. It brings people together. It’s also a lot fun. As we like to say, it’s never too early to get Surly!