Fearful Symmetries

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21 October, 2015

A Sterling Example of an Oktoberfest: SurlyFest by Surly Brewing Co.

I do believe that this will be my final Oktoberfest/Märzen (pedantic aside for the day: that's pronounced "Maer-tsen") review of the season. That's not to say that I don't have any autumnal beers at home but I am almost certain that none of them are Oktoberfests. (I reserve the right to buy Staghorn, however.) And so before I get to the main course, I will note that I was in Chicago recently where I had Oktoberfests by Sam Adams and Revolution and found both to be wanting. They just both tasted watery to me instead of having nice, rich malt flavors. The lesson is, if you're in Chicago and want a good Oktoberfest, stick with Metropolitan's Afterburner.

It's been a while since I've had some Surly. A friend moved to the Twin Cities a few years ago and he'd occasionally bring some beer from his new home back to Madison when he visited. I got to try Hell, Cynic, and Bitter Brewer back in 2012. This past summer the Minneapolis brewery began distribution in Wisconsin so I need not rely on the kindness of kith making cross-border runs any longer.

Truth be told, SurlyFest was a late addition to my Oktoberfest arsenal. I had thought that I'd bought all the Oktoberfests I could handle when I heard that SurlyFest was brewed with rye. Memories of drinking Great Divide's Hoss danced in my head so I just had to give it a taste. I love rye in beer.

My SurlyFest poured a light amber and was clear. I got a nice head of about ¾" which was tan and loose. It took its time in dissipating which meant my glass was quite nice to look at for a while as I struggled (and failed) to get a decent photograph. There were a goodly number of bubbles going up the glass. My picture notwithstanding, this was a really pretty beer.

While I knew that SurlyFest was brewed with rye, I was unaware that it was dry hopped. Dry hopping is the process of adding hops to your beer as it ferments. The aromatics of the hops remain as they are not boiled away. Had I known this I wouldn't have been taken by surprise by SurlyFest's pungent hop aroma. It smelled very floral but I also discerned a bit of citrus in there too as well as some spiciness as if from a Noble hop. I discovered that the beer was brewed using a single hop – Sterling – a hybrid of (mostly) Saaz and Cascade. Knowing this I must admit it smells just like one would expect having only read the list of hops from which it descends.

In addition to the hops, I could barely make out some bread and caramel malt aromas as well. They were there but well-hidden beyond a wall of lupulin.

At this point I was ambivalent. On one hand I enjoyed the wonderful Sterling hop aroma but on the other I feared that all of the malt goodness, including my beloved rye, would be overwhelmed by botanicals.

Upon tasting the beer I was right to worry. The hops came rushing at my tongue in a tsunami of floral and herbal flavors. They also provided some zesty bitterness which was complemented very well by the spicy rye. Underneath all of that was a malt backbone that I could feel more than taste. The beer had a firm medium body so I knew that there was barley malt in there somewhere but I could barely taste it. I nearly cried when I read that SurlyFest was brewed with Melanoidin – the Helen of Malts, the malt that could launch a thousand beers. I should have been drowning in toasty malt gluttony yet I just kept tasting hops. That's not completely true. I could actually taste the malts, just not very much. There was some toast to be tasted along with hints of sweeter malt flavors like bread and caramel but, as with the aroma, they were mostly hidden beyond a wall of hops. Oh, the carbonation added a little bite too.

SurlyFest finished very dry with a lot of hop bitterness that emphasized the Saaz roots of the hops with its spicy flavors and put the floral and herbal ones in the back seat. I found the hop taste here to be overly astringent and it was worsened by the fact that the flavor lingered for no small amount of time. Bringing things full circle, my glass was left with some wonderful Schaumhaftvermoegen on all sides. SurlyFest was definitely pretty from the first drop to the last.

Unfortunately, the presence of rye in SurlyFest got me to buy the beer but the lure of the toothsome grain proved to be a Trojan horse as this beer is really about the hops. In their defense, Surly does declare that this is not a typical Oktoberfest. Three kinds of rye and Melanoidin malts should be sending me into fits of ecstasy but there's just too much hop flavor here. I'm happy to have a hoppy bouquet and, indeed, SurelyFest smells wonderful. But let me have the malt in the taste.

Beyond having dashed my hopes and expectations, SurlyFest isn't a bad beer. I do think it could use a bit less hops to allow the malt through but the rye spiciness is really tasty and the Sterling hops smell and taste great. I would note that, however you cut it, the hops in the finish are just too acerbic.

Junk food pairing: I am recommending deep fried cheese curds this Oktoberfest season. I'm also willing to bet that the salt from some fried curds could be just the thing to bring out the elusive malt flavors of SurlyFest.

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|| Palmer, 3:24 PM


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