Bonus blog today! I visited the Surly taproom today and wanted to share a review of my experience. This was my second attempt to visit, the first time being when we tried to visit on what we thought would be a tame Thursday evening. After seeing cars parked over three blocks away we knew that wasn’t going to happen. Today we were intending to go to a different restaurant in Saint Paul when my wife noticed the Surly parking lot from the highway and mentioned that it was busy but not too bad. Quick change of plans and we decided to take a right instead of a left on University Avenue.
Although there were a lot of cars in the parking lot, it appeared that we wouldn’t have trouble getting in, and that was certainly true. Surly has designed this entire building to accommodate massive crowds. Even the restrooms are spacious with double digit numbers of places to do your business.
When you enter Surly you are greeted by two signs that inform you that if you just want beer to go find the “Beer Here” sign and you can get in line for a brew at your leisure. The second sign tells you to go visit the host desk if you want to be seated at a table and get waited on. We were also informed that you can sit at the bar and it’s first-come-first-served. We decided to get a pager and wander around the beer hall with our drinks while we waited to be seated. After a few minutes a spot at the bar opened up so we sat down, and before we could flag down a bartender for a food menu our pager went off, so we headed back to the host desk.
Surly fashions their beer hall like a European style beer hall. Our “table for two” was the end of picnic-style bench table, where two other couples were sitting. If you want to eat alone you can stay at home. You’re out with people, so you’re going to sit with people, so get used to it :). If you’re like my wife and I, where we regularly sit at the bar, you get used to sitting next to strangers pretty often.
After a chance to look over the menu our waiter took our order. I got a Surly Burger with a side of cornbread, and my wife tried the beef brisket BBQ. The food arrived lightening fast with my cornbread at my table within 2-3 minutes. My burger consisted of two quarter pound patties loaded with cheese and smothered in “fancy sauce”. It was absolutely delicious with a nice bit of spice to the sauce. Not enough to call it spicy, but loaded with flavor. The fries that came with the burger were a bit of a disappointment as they felt overly seasoned and spicy. I felt like a mellower seasoning would have complimented the sauce on the burger better. If I tried to eat the fries with the burger, the heat on the fries overpowered the flavor of everything else.
My wife’s BBQ was incredibly tender, and melted in your mouth. She had a choice of two barbecue sauces and chose the milder one. The beef came with two slices of ‘Wonder-bread’ style slices of bread; nice and traditional BBQ. The portion size was certainly adequate for both of our meals, however, be prepared to pay upscale pricing. My burger and fries was $12 on the lunch menu, and my wife’s pile of meat was $14.
The big question of course, is “How was the beer?” As you might expect from an operation like Surly, the beer was top notch all the way. I’m not a West Coast IPA/super-hopped-up fan, so a lot of their hop-heavy beers tend to be too abrasive on my palette. Since this is their taproom, there were a lot more choices than you can get in a can. Surly offers both 8 oz. and 16 oz. pours. Because I wanted to sample a few I decided to stick to 8 oz. pours and ended up trying three different brews.
First I tried the Witch’s Tower, a sessionable brown ale. The beer is named for the iconic Witch’s Hat Tower on the Mississippi river in the Prospect Park neighborhood (it’s actually an old water tower, said to have inspired Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower). The beer itself was really solid, with a slight hop aggression found in most American Browns, but also a nice bit of bite from toasted green cardamom pods. This was a really solid brew and I would love to see this on shelves sometime.
Second, I decided to take a risk and try the Fiery Hell, which is their standard Helles Lager with puya chiles. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for this beer that much. The heat was far too prominent, and at the same time I was dealing with the overly spiced fries. Trying to wash out the heat of the fries, with an overly hot beer was rather unpleasant, but I soldiered through it in an effort to clean my plate and glass and prepare for my final beer.
That final glass was Surly Bender, which is available in cans, and is a brew that I enjoy quite a bit. It is an oatmeal brown ale, and it’s really smooth and delicious. This is the type of beer that made all the heat just disappear, and smoothed over my palette with delicious subtle notes of cocoa, caramel and vanilla.
At this point we were done eating so we took the opportunity to explore the rest of the public space in the building. I grabbed my glass of Bender and we went into the upstairs level where they are currently building out their fine dining space, and their event space. The event space was really nice with huge windows on both sides. One side overlooking the hot-side portion of the brewery, and the other looking outside.
The exterior of the building is filled with open public space as well. There is a large balcony on the second floor, and the ground level contains massive patio space, including a gas powered fire pit for days like today. I can only assume that in the summer this space will be a beautiful area to spend a warm night.
So is Surly Brewing worth the trip and the crowds? Yes, most certainly. Although Surly is credited with helping to push through the legislation that allowed taprooms in Minnesota, they were late to the party to open their own destination brewery. However, that wait was well worth it, and their new facility is amazingly designed and functional. I will certainly be back, even just for a bit of beer from time to time, and I highly recommend others to check it out.