Talking Expansion and The Next Level of Craft Beer With Surly’s Todd Haug

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Todd Haug, the brewmaster over at Minneapolis’ Surly Brewing Co., is a bit of an intimidating-looking guy, at least if he’s not smiling. Sporting a wild, wiry gray beard, a passerby on the street would probably peg him right off the bat as a metal guitarist, and they wouldn’t be mistaken. This is a guy whose Twitter profile lists “powermad guitarist” before “creator of beer formulations,” priorities clearly in place and tongue firmly in cheek. In short, he’s a character, and one of Surly’s most visible public faces, known for answering questions like “What’s the brewing philosophy in your brewhouse?” with “Don’t fuck it up.”

As such, he was easy to pick out of a crowd during the recent Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival in Paso Robles, CA. While covering the festival, Paste was able to snag a brief interview with Haug about the future of Surly, which recently opened a brand new destination brewery and beer hall while also greatly expanding the brewhouse’s capacity. We discussed the brewery’s climb into the next level of regional distribution, along with their fantastic new IPA Todd the Axe Man, named after Haug himself, which Paste also named as one of the 10 most memorable beers of the festival.

Paste: So, how are things going at the huge new Surly facility?
Haug: Well, in March we really reached our stable point there. So since then we’ve been making Furious and any of the new seasonals out at the new plant.

Paste: After tasting Todd the Axe Man here, I’ve been thinking about how Surly is sort of moving into a new phase as a larger regional brewery, which is tough considering how high the demand for your beer is. What do you see as the brewery’s next phase?
Haug: Well, that’s the big question, I don’t know if we’ve figured that out ourselves. We’ve been so preoccupied with getting the new place open, and the new place isn’t just a production facility. It’s a very big beer hall, finer dining restaurant, family event center and almost two-acre garden. So that’s taken a lot of our brain power up for the last three years. Now that it’s up and running and fairly stable, now we need to start thinking about that NEW three year plan.

Paste: You guys are in a brave new world compared to the beer landscape when you started.
Haug: Right, there’s a lot of new breweries out there and a lot more local competition in our markets.

Paste: And you guys are on that higher-production sort of tier now as well.
Haug: And because of that, you’ll see more of our special releases reaching further from the brewery than before. But like, take Chicago, while we’ve been fucking around and building this new place, a bunch of really good new breweries have opened in Chicago. So it’s definitely more competitive, but that’s great. The more beer, the better.

Paste: Is there anything you want to make as a brewmaster that you haven’t been able to make so far because of the brewery’s limitations?
Haug: Oh yeah, a bunch, it’s a long list. The list has gotten longer since last year when we were maxed out on capacity at the original brewery. We had to just keep growing our core brands and didn’t have a lot of wiggle room to do one-offs. Now that the new place is open, we have a great outlet to showcase draft-only one-offs. Our beer hall is where we’ll be getting critical feedback and tweaking those recipes.

And what we’re making there isn’t cutting edge, it’s not stuff that people haven’t done before, it’s what we really want to make.

Paste: So if you have the capacity, what corners of the beer world do you want to explore more that you haven’t had the chance to do?
Haug: I think our sour program will continue to develop, for one. We’ll have our Misanthrope out in bottles this year for the first time, which is kind of our counterpoint to Pentagram, a saison fermented traditionally with belgian ale yeast in stainless and then inoculated with brett and aged in white wine barrels. That will be out hopefully in bottles, and hopefully we’ll add a couple more to that sour lineup. We’ve got a new IPA, Todd the Axe Man that will be out this summer—that gives us like 7 IPAs, but we still like hops. Enough to put four pounds per barrel in Todd the Axe Man.

Paste: Those do get a lot of play of course, but the Surly portfolio is actually really balanced. You’ve got hyper-American beers but you’ve also got traditional Belgian, German and British ales and lagers as well. You don’t see a lot of breweries that do that.
Haug: Well, we’ve always tried to do stuff that is different, and sometimes different is traditional. The whole reason we made our Helles is because Omar’s mom is from Northern Germany and she always complained “You just make these hoppy beers and nothing for your mother.” Turns out it’s one of our number one sellers at our beer hall. It’s one of those beers that the savvy craft beer drinker appreciates because they can have a couple of them—and then the IPA tastes amazing afterward. And the brewers even like it because it’s challenging to make and easy to fuck it up. It keeps you on your toes.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and Surly Furious was one of the game-changing IPAs of his craft beer infancy. You can follow him on Twitter for more brewer interviews and beer features.