Recently for A Whale A Week I've been going through the Surly Darkness vintages in order to make a dent in my stash, as well as to try them all in close proximity to decide which one is currently the "best". Earlier this year I did a series on the Surly Anniversary beers starting with Surly Four. I know, I know, I'm a Surly Fanboy...but hey they're my local brewery putting our sought-after beers that I can actually find! As of this weekend at All Pints North in Duluth I was lucky enough to get a glass of Surly Three to test out and figured I'd jump back in time in order to work on completing my rare Surly beer series.
A quick recap of what came before: The Surly Anniversary beers have been quite a mixed bag over the years, but I appreciate the brewers stretching their 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 is below! Four was the first of these that I loved from the get-go and is reviewed HERE. Five was their first sour and is reviewed HERE. Syx was a 15% multi-wood aged monster, and is HERE. Seviin was a Belgian strong ale finished off with brett and was reviewed HERE. Eight was a strong oat wine aged in High West Rye Whiskey barrels and is reviewed HERE. I did get to try a preview sample of Nein at All Pints North this year, but will wait to do my official review until I have a full bottle to try!
Surly Three was a braggot--an unusual hybrid style that combines the malted grain of a beer with the honey of a mead. The style is a very loose one, but the overarching definition requires a balance of the honey and grain characters. This would rule out many of those summer honey wheat beers that use only a tiny percentage of honey in the recipe. Commercial braggots are rare these days, though the style has been around since probably the 1300's. This particular beer has an estimated ABV of around 10% and has very little hopping to it. The beer was brewed with 50% honey and 50% dark German Munich malt and fermented with a Belgian yeast strain. They also aged it on toasted white ash--something I've never heard of doing before.
I first tried Three when it was released in early 2009 (Winterfest I believe) and was shocked by how cloyingly sweet and boozy it was. Frankly I was unimpressed. The beer was never bottled and quickly faded into obscurity. Every once in a while it will pop up at special Surly tappings and goes quickly due to it's rarity. The beer currently has a rating of 88 on BeerAdvocate and 96 at RateBeer but there aren't many ratings from the past year or so.
This past weekend in Duluth there was a special tapping of some rare beers in the basement bar (Rathskeller) of Tycoon's Ale House. Some cool guys from Indeed that I ran into at Endion Station earlier clued me into this semi-secret event--thanks so much! Tappings included special beers from Indeed, Steel Toe, Fitgers, Bent Paddle, and of course Surly. We met up with several friends there and shared around an embarrassment of riches from the local beer scene. One of these was Surly Three. My favorite was the Bent Paddle Mocha Double Black. I'd love to get back to the Rathskeller at some other time since the dark basement bar with exposed brick arches has a huge amount of character. They also supposedly have at least one of the best mixologists in the state on staff!
I'm not going to lie here: this was not the most controlled or accurate tasting I've done for this series of reviews. It was dark, loud, and amazing beers were circulating around while I tried to jot down my thoughts. But I still couldn't pass up the opportunity to fill in this gap in my Surly anniversary beer reviews!
Sweet honey right up front. Molasses and caramel notes after that first hit of SWEET. No hop aroma at all. Light roasted or toasted notes as it warms. Plenty of dark fruit like raisin or prune. This makes me nervous to taste how sweet this might be...
It was dark in there. Very dark. So bear with me. This was a dark beer, but not opaque, with a deep brown to dark amber color (near as I could tell). Carbonation was quite low and whatever head was present on initial pour was gone promptly.
The flavors in this were complex and layered, changing with each taste. The predominant character was a nearly overwhelming sweetness, but the type of sweet flavor seemed to change during the tasting. At one point I would get strong marshmallow, at others caramel and vanilla. Molasses or dark buckwheat honey sweetness was a strong flavor profile in this beer. Fig, raisin, and prune all twist briefly across the tongue. There was moderate oxidation in the beer, resulting in a young sherry or barrel aged note that was not present when this was fresh. Mouthfeel was coating and somewhat thick. Bitterness was minimal, but enough to keep this from being cloyingly sweet. No hop flavors. Carbonation was low, accentuating the sweetness and thick mouthfeel.
This beer is a completely different beast from its humble initial presentation. Age has increased the complexity and impact greatly. Where some of the anniversary beers have not aged as well (Seviin) some seem to really come into their own with time (Syx) and this one certainly fits that latter category. Color me impressed! I think a bit more bittering hop or more carbonation would make this beer more balanced, but Three is still a very cool beer to get a crack at.
Overall Score: I give this one a 4.25 out of 5.
So the upshot here is: if you can get a taste of this, jump in line to do so. Finishing off a half pint of it got a little tough as that sweetness started to get out of hand, so stick to sharing or small pours. Now I just need to find a Surly Two!