Sud Savant: Surly Smoke – How Do You Know When a Beer is Really, Really Important?

“How do you know when a beer is really, really important?” he asked with a hint of sarcasm. “I don’t know,” she replied matter-of-factly. “They barrel age it and put some fancy wax on the top?”


This is precisely the reason that I’m pretty pumped to be drinking today’s beer. Well, that and the fact that it’s brewed by Surly. Not only does Surly make amazing craft beer, but it is also a rather blue moon (er… brew moon?) when I actually get to drink it as it is still only distributed in Minnesota. No more puns. Let’s pour!

Aroma 12/12 – There is no confusing a good rauchbier! My nose gets a frying pan full of salty bacon, smokey clothes after a campfire, and a medium-deep roasted malt. Oddly, there is a lack of the complementary charred malt aromas that one might expect a brewer to utilize. One may even detect a distant plum or two as well as some alcohol warmth. The only other analogy I can think to make is the greasy, browned skin from a chicken after being roasted over wood or grilled with wood chips. After warming a bit, the smokey and salty combine to give a hint of what smells like soy sauce. This seems like a short paragraph to dedicate to such an important feature as aroma, but it does what it does very well.

Appearance 3/3 – This beer poured much thicker than I expected and much darker than a traditional rauchbier. Perhaps I should have suspected something a bit “meaner” after I had to fight my way through that cantankerous wax cap. The head was a shade of brown normally reserved for dark, top of the line stouts! It hissed as it made its descent, usually a sign of a quick-dying head, but still offered a slightly less that average retention and no lacing. Check out how dark this bad boy is!

Flavor 18/20 – Something that any craft beer drinker should appreciate is present immediately in this beer. Sure there are some dark, strong flavors at play here, but the base beer itself is still of a very high quality! Lots of lager elements make themselves known despite the powerful smokey atmosphere. The first flavor sensations are that of the roasted malt and the (again) distant sweetness of a dark fruit. The sweetness of the figs, raisins, and almost chocolatey malts are allowed to play around for a bit in the smoke, but before long they give way to a more stern and straightforward beer. Smoke is always the overarching theme, but after the sweetness things become more bitter and less complex. All that remains is a dark, dark chocolate malt that gives almost zero sweetness to the roasted, blackened malt. The elements of the porter have surrendered to those of the rauchbier. The finish is again smokey while showing off a surprisingly great drizzle of chocolate and some charred malts that had previously remained hidden. The aftertaste is largely a dry, bitter reminder of that char on the back center of the tongue.

Mouthfeel 5/5 – I like everything about this mouthfeel. It’s light enough to drink, yet big enough to carry all these robust flavors. Especially for a lager! Typically lagers don’t get a lot of respect, but this beer is definitely a counter-argument to all the lager haters out there! The body is medium-full, but leans more toward full and exhibits a perfect level of carbonation. The bubbles keep this otherwise creamy beer in check and lively on the tongue. even though it had all the dark fruit sugars to potentially make it a chore. Also, I’m not sure I can say enough about the warmth in this beer. I have never had a beer utilize its alcohol content like this one. It spreads its way across the inside of the mouth, but never in a way where one would assume it is alcohol. It nearly teams up with the creaminess to coat the inside of the mouth with very subtle sensation that makes a very large contribution toward feeling like a much bigger beer.

Overall Impression 9/10 – So much about this beer is good and so little of it requires constructive criticism. It has all the hallmarks of a excellent porter such as dark fruit, big body, and color, but also is still an excellent rauchbier! The smoke never overpowers the other ingredients, but instead either works with them or takes its turn. That statement may seem a little far fetched if you’ve just opened the bottle and the smoke seems a bit dominant, but as your palate acclimates, you will notice all sorts of balance happening in beautiful ways. It also refuses to take for granted the “lesser”characteristics of carbonation and warmth and turns them into critical allies.

Total 47/50 – Let me first say that I have been holding onto this beer for a long time. When fresh, it may very well be umpteen times boozier and taste like it has a dozen more bushels of fruit added. As it stands, however, it is a smokey, dark beer with glimmers of dark fruit and a stealth-grade warmth. I never would have guessed anything close to the bottle’s claim of 8.2% ABV. Ever. It’s just one of the surprises that this beer packs beneath its iron-like wax cap. “What are the others,” you ask? Well, it reads “lager” on the outside of the bottle, so one expects something lighter, less powerful, and more refreshing. This hits more like a porter on every level. I love it when beers exceed my expectations, don’t you? Porter lager… whatever. It’s a beer that deserves to picked up if you see it and is one of the best of this style that I’ve sampled.

Joel R. Kolander is the Cheif Blogger for Sud Savant, a beer-savoring blog for the rest of us. We’re not here to get plowed. We’re not here because we are world-famous beer critics. We’re here because we enjoy savoring a great beer with even better friends. Sharing great beer is just as amazing as finding it in the first place. Lets share!