Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews


Surly Brewing Co.
Brooklyn Center, MN

Style: Saison
ABV: 6.6%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Outstanding within its style.)

I gotta tell ya’ll Nigel is pumped for this review. Due to a series of events among a number of fellow Beer Dorks, Nigel has finally obtained a long-desired can of Surly, the Minneapolis-based brewery (Brooklyn Center, to be exact) that is widely praised despite its very limited distribution. Surly is known throughout the Midwest for their unique style, which includes funky names, trademark 16 oz. aluminum cans, and, from what I’ve heard, phenomenal brews. Unfortunately, unless you are in the Twin Cities area, Surly brews are nearly impossible to find. I currently have two cans of Surly in my possesion: CynicAle, a Belgian-style Saison, and Furious, an American IPA. I’ve been holding on to these for a while, and I’m finally ready to crack open the CynicAle, hoping the experience will live up to my lofty expectations. Many thanks to Eddie Glick for trading two cans of Surly to me for a Kirby Puckett bobblehead and Kent Hrbek rookie card, and to Jill and Baby-boy for scoring some on a recent trip to the “Land of Aboot 10,000 Lakes.”

While I dig Surly’s style, I can’t really get down with the whole “surly”, “cynic”, and “furious” theme right now. Life is good in Nigel’s world, and I feel a bit guilty drinking Surly during such a blissful period. In a matter of days, Nigel will be firmly entrenched in New Nigeland, which is in the heart of one of the Midwest’s finest cities. Will Nigel miss Old Nigeland? Ha! I’m gonna miss this shithole like I miss an exploding hemorrhoid. No more cow humping, Bud-drinking, illiterate rednecks who think anything created since 1959 is evil. No more having to drive 80 miles to find a good beer. No more dating schizophrenic farmer’s daughters who treat Nigel like a piece of shit. No more working a shit job for little pay (Nigel’s liberal arts degree is about as useful here as an electrician in Amish country). While Nigel did meet a number of good people in Old Nigeland and still has a few friends who are unfortunately stuck here, I have to say this is quite possibly the most backwards place on the face of the earth, and I’m thrilled to finally be leaving it behind forever.

So—new city, new job, new girl (sorry, ladies): all’s good in the life of Nigel. There are still plenty of topics that will get me riled up, however, and in the proper frame of mind to drink a Surly CynicAle. How about my Brewers (the baseball team, not the makers of beer), who I praised not so long ago in this very space? Ugh. Talk about a promising season turned total train wreck. How about politics? Former Texas Governor George W. Bush and his “War of Terror” will always get me riled up, as will the fact that the 2008 presidential election started in 2006. Dear lord, this is gonna be a miserable 16 months. How about the price of gas? I’m not a religious man, but Satan is real, and he runs the oil industry (he may also live in the White House, but I digress). Weather? Massive Midwestern heat waves and prolonged drought all summer give way to a week-long deluge, complete with severe storms and catastrophic flooding. Good thing global warming is only a myth. Sports? Let’s see: fixed NBA games, a “Home Run King” who only broke the record by using illegal performance enhancing drugs, and a star quarterback facing a federal prison term for torturing dogs. OK, I think I’m ready for my can of Surly.

Surly is one of a select few craft brewers who package their product in aluminum cans. When the craft beer movement began to take off in the 1980s, glass bottles were viewed as the superior form of packaging, with the idea that aluminum altered the taste of a finely crafted brew. This may in fact have been true back in the day, as the aluminum can was relatively new to the scene and lacked the proper sealants to prevent any potential chemical interaction. However, as the aluminum can evolved, new versions eliminated the possible interaction between the can and the beer, which may or may not have altered the flavor in the past. Recently, some craft brewers have switched back to cans, either exclusively or on a limited basis. Their argument is simple, and sensible: the cans are more air-tight and damage resistant than glass bottles. As all of us Beer Dorks know, you never drink a finely crafted brew directly from the package; be it can or bottle, you pour it into the proper glass and enjoy. This allows the brew to release all of its various aromas, and enhances the overall experience (after all, aroma is a key stimulant for taste). Thus, as long as the beer was packaged, shipped, and stored properly, it should make no difference if it’s in a can or a bottle.

Surly CynicAle pops open without much excitement: not overly carbonated, it has a nice haze that wafts up without any noticeable foam. This surprised me, as many Belgian saisons that are cork-bottled open with a vengence, with a foam that makes the pour a true test of one’s patience. CynicAle pours beautifully into the glass. A decent amount of initial foaminess dances around a brew that is the perfect color: a deep, cloudy golden brown, with a light creamy trace at the top of the glass. A good amount of sediment is present, a sign of a quality Belgian ale. The aroma is powerful and quite pleasant: very fruity, very spicy, and very sweet. Noticeable hints of orange zest, apricot, cloves, and coriander mix with a sweet malt aroma and a bit of honey, with strong yeasty tones.

The taste is perfect for a Belgian. Loaded with flavor, this brew would make any Trappist proud. CynicAle is slightly more spicy than fruity in my opinion, though both are present in massive quantities. The spice is at first typical of a fine Belgian: coriander and cloves. However, in true Surly fashion, the ultimate spice ends up being black pepper. That’s right … black pepper. While it’s noticeable at the beginning of the drink, it becomes more accentuated as the beverage goes down, ultimately becoming the trademark flavor of this brew. Not offensive by any means, just a bit of a unique twist on a fine brew. Fruit flavors are also powerful, noticeably orange peel, lemon, and a hint of grapefruit. The sweetness comes from a nice hint of honey, as well as sweet caramel malt. Hops are a minor player in the flavor department, but add a nice bitter tinge to a complex brew. Typical of a Belgian, yeast is present, though it blends in perfectly here with the plethora of fruit, spice, and sweetness.

This is a fantastic American take on the classic Belgian Saison. CynicAle goes down smooth, is on the lighter end of the medium-body spectrum, and has a fairly strong aftertaste due to the overall spiciness. All in all, very much recommended if you can find it. I would suggest ordering it from a good beer store, as the other advantage of a canned beverage is that it’s easier to ship. Kick back, get surly, and enjoy a finely crafted brew.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on August 31, 2007.
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