Surly Five: an interview with Omar Ansari and Todd Haug of Surly Brewing Co.
Surly Brewing Company turned five this year. As in past years they have released a new beer to celebrate the anniversary. Five is a bit of a departure from the normal Surly lineup. Taking inspiration from the age-old Belgian tradition of wild and sour beers, head brewer Todd Haug has crafted a beer that is fermented with 100 percent Brettanomyces, a "wild" yeast strain that brings distinctive fruity, funky, and sour flavors that are not part of the profile of most beers. Extended aging in used wine barrels gives those flavors time to develop as well as imparting the intriguing character of oak. As Haug put it, "Five should be the most polarizing beer we've ever made."
Surly celebrates five years with release of Five.
I sat down with Haug and Surly owner Omar Ansari at the brewery last week to talk about this beer.
The brewery debuted a single-barrel version of the Five at Winterfest, which they called Pentagram. It won the people's choice Great Snowshoe Award at that event. The current release is a blend of beer from many barrels. Five's profile features evolving layers of oak, malt, and yeast character. It's well balanced; not too sour, but sour enough. The palate experiences a mélange of cherries, berries, coffee, chocolate, leather, and tobacco, all supported on a base of pleasant balsamic acidity.
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.
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 percent 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 10 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.
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.
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? 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 malt 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.
Any plans for more sour beers in the future?
Todd: We've got the Brett. It's sitting there ready to go when we 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.
Five hit store shelves on Monday. Good luck finding a bottle. Most stores sold out of their limited allotment within a couple of hours. If you missed out, the draft release party is happening at the Republic on Monday, August 29, from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m.
You can read an extended version of this interview here.
A Perfect Pint