Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Coffee Bender

Surly Brewing Co.
Brooklyn Center, MN

Style: Brown Ale
ABV: 5.1%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Recommended)

With the Second Annual International Beer Month sponsored by the Toyota Prius in the books, I’m excited to return to ol’ fashioned American craft beer. Nothing says good, honest business ethos like small, independent entrepreneurs right here in the U.S. of A.

But hold on a second … just how “ethical” is my can of Surly? Breathe, the hundreds upon hundreds of Surly faithful who worship this quality Minnesota brewer like a cult. I’m not calling out the brewing ethos of Surly, or any other aspect of their seemingly successful, fun, and quality business. Rather, I’m calling out the local establishment from whence I purchased my cans of Surly.

In the past, I’ve heaped praise on one of my favorite local purveyors of fine suds, Xxxxxx Xxxxxx in Milwaukee. The beer selection is second to none, with both domestics and imports, and the prices are typically reasonable, if not low. This seems to have changed, as many recent trips, both from myself and the girlfriend, have revealed some shady practices. My last trip led to the exciting discovery of Nøgne Ø Winter Ale in the bargain cart, marked down to $4.99 from $7.99. I got home, looked at the receipt, and yep … I paid $7.99. Trumping this, my lovely girlfriend stopped on her way home from work, and being the sweetheart that she is, bought me a bomber of Southern Tier Inequity. Thinking her bill was a bit high, she checked the receipt, which showed they charged her exactly $20.00 for a bottle that sells for $7.49. Shady.

That’s nothing when compared to the Surly saga. In early January, the girlfriend showed up with some beer goodies, and one of them was a can of Surly Cynic Ale. I about had a seizure. “SURLY IS FINALLY IN MILWAUKEE!” screamed Nigel. She said they had a bunch of it there, all in individual cans. I savored every drop of that can of Surly, and kindly asked her if she could get more (side note: I’m not lazy, but it’s 20 miles to said store from our residence, and she drives by there daily on her way to work … hence, she gets there more than I do). A couple of days later, she returned with six individual cans of Surly, an assortment of Cynic Ale, Bender, and Coffee Bender. What I saw next left me speechless: each can had a bright orange price tag on it that read $5.99. Six frickin’ dollars a CAN! Outrageous. It then occurred to me that, as someone who tries to keep an ear to the ground in all things craft beer, I had heard nothing about Surly entering the Wisconsin market. Was this in fact smuggled Surly?

I’m thinking yes. A few weeks back, I was in the store myself and any trace of Surly was conspicuously absent. When a brewery with a huge following like that hits a new market, you’d expect to see it everywhere. But alas, my girlfriend appears to have been suckered into spending almost $40 on six cans of Surly, easily double of what one should be paying. Again … shady. If anyone has any info on Surlygate, I’d love to hear it. I don’t want to throw one of my favorite local businesses under the bus, but things appear to be askew, and I’ve put myself on a Xxxxxx hiatus until I figure out what’s going on (hello, Ray’s, Sendik’s, and Woodman’s … you’ll be seeing lots of Nigel).

To make the best of a bad situation, I’m going to take advantage of my rare stock of Surly by reviewing Coffee Bender. A gift from fellow Dorks about three years ago allowed me to try both Furious and Cynic Ale, the latter of which I reviewed, and Bender is a brown ale. Thus, Coffee Bender, though still a brown ale (albeit one brewed with Nigel’s other favorite beverage, coffee), is basically my only option. So away I go, with a serious review in the midst of Surlygate.

Coffee Bender is a special concoction, which takes the year-round brown ale Bender, and cold steeps it 20 gallons at a time with Guatemalan coffee beans. Thus, it’s a brown ale with actual flavor, a pleasant treat for Nigel, who wants so badly to love brown ales but finds their typical blandness easy to pass up. I love the melding of coffee and ale, so I’m giddy to see what the brewmasters at Surly have come up with.

Coffee Bender pours as you’d expect from any brown/dark ale: a decent initial head about a finger deep that quickly dissipates, leaving a creamy tan lace at the top throughout with some stickiness on the sides. A deep, impenetrable hue with ample chunkage, it’s a fine looking brew in the glass.

Aromas are, well … coffee. It would be hard to steep anything in coffee for an extended period without changing the overall sense of it. The problem is, and excuse me if I come across as a “coffee snob” (I am, by the way): it smells not of freshly ground coffee, or roasted beans, but rather of stale coffee grounds in that slimy filter after it’s been sitting for the day. Cold, clammy, stale … and, dare I say, cheap … coffee is the dominant aroma, and it doesn’t hit me right. A vigorous sniff seems to indicate it’s not a bad bold roast, but the aroma doesn’t cut it for me. Also a detriment is the fact that it smells only of coffee, without any other noticeable hints. My excitement has waned.

The flavor redeems somewhat, making this a decent, though far from great, brew. Perhaps my picky coffee tastes have jaded my overall view of it, but if you’re going to mesh these two wonderful drinks, you’d damn well better get both aspects right. The beer is good … having had the regular Bender, it’s in the upper echelon of brown ales I’ve had (only Bell’s Best Brown, Dogfish Head Indian Brown, and Tyranena Rocky’s Revenge top it, in my opinion). But the coffee doesn’t enhance it, unfortunately; on the contrary it drags it down a notch. Initial flavors are again overpowering coffee, but a stale, cold roast that doesn’t translate well into the overall profile. Dark malt plays a prominent role, which provides the best aspect. There’s a nice roasted, earthy undertone that provides some creaminess (think of adding cream to a bitter coffee) and a balancing role. However, beyond that, it’s pretty one dimensional. While darker than Bender, I don’t sense much of what made that a good brown ale; rather, all I sense is gas station coffee gone bad. Medium bodied and smooth on the palate, the same 5.1 percent ABV found in regular Bender is here, meaning it’s a potential session brew … though probably not at six bucks a can.

Overall, I have to say I’m hugely disappointed in Coffee Bender. Perhaps it’s being spoiled by other phenomenal coffee brews, notably Central Waters’ awesome Brewhouse Stout and Peruvian Morning, Dark Horse Perkulator, and others. It’s not a bad beer, but the addition of coffee actually brought down the overall rating of a brown ale, something that isn’t easy to do. While I’d still recommend trying it should you see it, I have to give it a very, very low three mug rating, after leaning towards a two for most of the review. Not awful by any means, but clearly not up to Surly’s usually impeccable standards. And, on a side note … avoid paying 6 bucks for smuggled Surly. There are plenty of places out there to find this fine Minnesota brewer without being date raped at the cash register.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on March 9, 2010.
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