Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Whale A Week: Surly Five

It is time again for my continuing series titled A Whale A Week!  Last week I shared our tasting of Surly Four.  This week we take another trip to the sour side with Surly Brewing.  Those who are following this series will soon realize that my collection of rare beers are mostly sours, Russian Imperial stouts, or barleywines.  These styles tend to be the most cellar friendly, as well as being more difficult to brew resulting in smaller production runs.

Surly Five

This week we discuss the Quasi-Whale that is Surly Five.  I know I'm going to get some comments (and I welcome them) that the Surly anniversary beers are not rare enough to count as Whales.  If you are in that camp, think about this: each year Surly releases their anniversary beers to much fanfare and excitement from us Minnesotans.  Local liquor stores usually get one to two cases each of these wax-dipped bomber bottles.  They sell out in about a day, with a few exceptions.  One can find the beer on tap occasionally over the next month if you frequent the right places. And then it is gone.  Some of us will race around the Twin Cities buying our one or two allowed bottles per place until we have enough to add to our dragon's hoard.  Others scoff at the marketing and high cost of these beers, labeling us "Surly Fan-Boys".  Think about the limited availability here for those who stalk these beers.  Now think about someone in California or NYC lusting after these rare beers.  I think we tend to undervalue what is available to us...for instance craving Russian River's Pliny the Elder when we can get the equally tasty Surly Abrasive (available now) fairly easily here in Minnesota.

The Surly Anniversary beers have been quite a mixed bag over the years, but I appreciate the Todd Haug stretching his brewing chops to try new things.  One was a Quad/Doppelbock concoction that I never got to try.  I assume it was good.  Two was a cranberry milk stout that I first tried at a charity benefit--very tasty and tart.  That one made it to a small bottling run, but I've never actually seen one in person.  Three was a braggot, made with half honey and half grain.  I didn't like that one fresh, but a year later it was much more balanced and mellow.  I'd love to try this again now!  Four was the first of these that I loved from the get-go.  That one was a thick and creamy Imperial porter/stout with espresso and you can check out last week's review of it HERE.  If any of my friends and readers have a Two they want to share for this series please contact me!

9 out of 10 Chaos wolf soldiers love Surly Five!

Which brings us to Five.  Five was the first Surly sour ale to be bottled.  The beer is a fairly strong 7.5% ABV, dark-colored ale fermented with 100% brettanomyces yeast.  The beer was aged in red wine barrels to add wine and oak character.  Prior to the official release in 2011, I was able to try some of the unblended single barrel offerings of the beer at a Happy Gnome beer dinner and at Winterfest and really liked them.  When I first tried Five from the bottle I was actually a bit underwhelmed, as I was expecting a bit more sourness and funk from the beer.  It was more mellow than the unblended batches I had tried previously.  I had one bottle of Five last year and was impressed by how much the beer had changed since that initial tasting.  The beer currently has a Beer Advocate Rating of 91 out of 100, and a 99 on RateBeer.  Since the release of Five, Surly has now expanded and fine tuned the production methods to make the yearly release of Pentagram.  But this is how it all started!

The bottle cap is dipped in green wax with a very Metal (insert obligatory Dio hand gesture or air guitar here) goat head, pentagram and mash-paddle motif in green and white ink.  The art was from a collaboration between brewer and metal guitarist Todd Haug and local Aesthetic Apparatus.  I poured this into my Surly Darkness snifter glass to get as appropriate as could get.  Too many trips to Belgium with matching glassware has ruined me!

This week I was happy to have fellow Jack Of All Brews members Mike Lebben and Steven Mathistad over to help me out with the tasting.  Since organizing beer tastings is like herding cats (and with three of those I know all about that) we tasted ahead and did our Surly Syx entry for next week as well.  So sue me!  My wife Sj had to work late that day, but we saved her some of each so she could put in her two cents.  And let's be honest, most of these bottles were ones she ventured off in search of when they first released. We spent some time discussing the beer together and here are the highlights!

Eric: Very tart with hint of vinegar sourness.  Earthy notes.  I a get a little roast to this, but not acrid.  There is distinct dark cherry or possible red grape skin.  As it warms I actually pick up a little pineapple.
Mike: Musty.  Also rose-like floral aroma.
Steven: Mustiness, and almost a metallic note.

Deep mahogany to garnet color.  Excellent clarity with a bit of red sparkle at edge of glass.  Fine tan head that fades quickly from view.

Eric: Strong acetic tartness up front but complex musty barnyard brettanomyces effect noted as well.  Roast malt seems to add some astringency to this beer, especially as it warms up.  Some tannin from the wood accentuates the astringency, but also adds complexity of flavor.  Some ripe plum and mild red wine flavors as I keep going back for more.  Very sour overall.  Body a bit thin.  Carbonation is medium.  Not surprisingly, no hop flavors.
Mike: Like a sour patch kid!  Makes the salivary glands go to town.  Vinegar flavors.
Steven: Sweet at first, but disappears quickly to a sourness.

Overall Impression: 
Eric: This is much more sour than I remember it being originally, but hasn't changed much since last year's try.  I'm thinking this is pretty much at its peak.  Despite being 100% brett fermented, there is distinct acetic acid (vinegar) character to this.  It strikes me more as a dark Flanders Red, somewhat like The Bruery's Tart of Darkness.  As it warms it seems more thin in body.  I like this beer a lot, as it is distinctly different from anything I've tried.  I have two bottles left and plan on cracking one every year until they are gone.  I initially gave it a 5, but after discussing with my cohorts, and letting it warm up, I dropped to a 4.5
Mike: Very sour.  4 (Prior to this year Mike didn't really like sours, but we've been working on him!)
Steven: Strong 4
Sj: "It's Sour!"  4.5

As luck would have it I ran across Surly Pentagram on tap at 3 Squares in Maple Grove while having lunch with my mom a few days after this tasting.  In comparison, the Pentagram had much more red wine character, as well as being less acetic and sour.  The color in Pentagram was much lighter and it lacked the bitter roast character.  They certainly share a lot of similar flavors, but the Pentagram was "easier" to drink and more mellow.  I'm curious to see if aging Pentagram will result in more of the sour character I found in the Five.

Freya gets in on the tasting action by doing her imitation of a face-hugger from Alien...

As usual I'm going to go ahead and post a free link-up below so if any other enterprising beer hoarders/reviewers want to "taste" along you can link to your own website or blog and we can get some different views.  Or feel free to just comment on the blog!

Next week AWAW returns with…You guessed it Surly Syx!  Get ready to taste along and put in your two cents!

(Photo credit for the unaltered killer whale goes to Seaworld website.)

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