I first encountered Surly in the Mall of America of all places. Stella and I had driven up to Minneapolis for a long anniversary weekend. We did some shopping at Ikea and went across the street to get a feel for the Mall of America. After checking out the roller coasters and a couple of stores Stella couldn't wait to go to, we found a happy hour in the mall, at a place called Crave*. It wasn't a particularly good happy hour, pints were still $4, but we thought it was the best we could get from the Mall (our hotel was a couple of blocks away so the Mall was very convenient for us).
*We went to Crave 3 times while we were there. We went for the happy hour on Friday, for brunch on Sunday and for reverse happy hour Sunday night. The brunch was really great, I had eggs Benedict and Stella had some French toast with a really great strawberry syrup. Everything was freshly made and local. For the reverse happy hour we ate $50 worth of sushi that was really great. If you're going to spend a day at the Mall of America, eat at Crave at least once.
As I looked through the menu for the draft beer I noticed 2 beers I hadn't yet drank, a Summit Extra Pale Ale (we were touring Summit the next day) and Surly Cynic. I was quite taken with the name Surly Cynic as I would hope that is how I would be described by people. I asked the bartender what style of beer it was and he said, "I'll just give you a sample, that's probably the best way to describe it". I'm sure that he just didn't know how to answer such a question but this conversation was a little bit of Dickensian foreshadowing. I tried it and told Stella that it was a great version of a Belgian Wit, like a Blue Moon. I really liked it, but I made the mistake of ordering the Summit Extra Pale Ale* anyway.
*I decided for the Summit because I didn't want to go to the brewery in the morning without having tasted their beer. Summit is Minnesota's largest brewer and they have a pretty wide distribution network. But the dirty little secret is, it's not that great. They have a very nice porter but even that is not enough to make me ever drink a Summit beer voluntarily again. There's nothing wrong with it really, I just expect to always have a better option available.
We went to a liquor store the next day to pick up some beer for the hotel room. I noticed a couple of Surly 4 pack cans in the refrigerator case. They were somewhat expensive $9.99 and $11.99 for a 4 pack of 16 oz. cans so I opted for a 12 pack variety pack of Schell's (which I was very happy with) because it contained some beers for Stella as well as for me. This would mark the last time I purchased a beer other than Surly in Minnesota.
The next day we spent in the Mall of America. We ate brunch at Crave, Stella shopped and I rode roller coasters (and bought a bunch of shirts at Nordstrom Rack where I made a lot of conversation with the saleslady simply because she was a member of the tribe and spoke with the Minnesota accent which was absolutely hilarious to me). When we were done with the shopping/riding we went back to the hotel to change and went back to Crave for their reverse happy hour, 8 - close. We gorged ourselves on sushi and I drank 3 Surly Cynics and fell in love with them.
The next day we went to another liquor store in search of beers to bring home with us. I got a 4 pack of Surly Furious and a sixer of Lagunitas IPA. We also noticed that they still had half a case of Boulevard Imperial Stout for sale, so if you want some head to Minnesota. Later that night we were going to a Twins game and went to a bar near the Metrodome for dinner, Grumpy's. I ordered a Surly Bender with my dinner (a truly horrible Cuban sandwich) and absolutely loved it. The waitress described Bender as "their dark beer", again with the Dickensian foreshadowing.
When we got home I cracked open one of my Surly Furious and now I find myself having trouble rationing them. I got it because the cans mentioned hoppiness, of which I count myself a fan. They certainly have that, but so much more.
This is why Surly is the future. Bartenders and waitresses don't know how to describe them because Surly doesn't categorize them in familiar categories; IPA, Pale Ale, Porter, etc. They just slap a name on them and let you decide what they are. If pressed I would say the Cynic is a Belgian Wit, Bender is some kind of brown ale and Furious is an IPA. But that's not the point, the point is, Surly doesn't care. They just brew what tastes good and don't stick to a style.
It's always a pet peeve of mine for breweries to brew an IPA or a porter or a barley wine and I've never understood why they wanted to follow rules. Why wouldn't you always be aiming to create something new rather than stick to predetermined styles? I know that the Beer Advocate people have categorized the Surly beers, but I don't think they're right. I would never categorized the Cynic as a saison like they do, but more importantly it doesn't really matter. What it is is a fabulous beer with some fruity flavors like a saison or Belgian wit but doesn't adhere to the standards of either. I like that they're rule breakers and employee #2 is shown on the website giving people the bird.
Surly has decided to brew beer, no style, just flavors. They're breaking the rules just like Fritz Maytag did when he turned Anchor around, just like Jim Koch did when he invented Boston Brewing and introduced America to beers full of flavor and just like Sam Calagione did when he started throwing ingredients not usually associated with beer into his brews. Someday the name Omar Ansari is going to join that list of innovative brewers. Surly is only 3 years old and they're starting to make their mark. They have distribution in Minnesota and Chicago today. In the next couple of years I would expect them to be very popular in the upper Midwest.
Do yourself a favor and beg, borrow and steal to get yourself some Surly, it's going to be worth it. Currently only Bender and Furious are being canned so those are your best shot unless you're going to Minnesota. I'm going to go looking for some Minnesota friends to keep me supplied with Surly.