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One would think Surly was offering a free bottle of Darkness with each purchase of their new Hell as fast as this stuff was flying off the shelves today.

Within 30 minutes of receiving their shipment this morning, The Four Firkins was cleaned out of their 10 case allotment. Thankfully, I was able to run over to Zipps over lunch and grab some, but it was nearing depletion there too. The rabid Surly Nation strikes again!

I always love a new Surly offering…it’s like a whole new adventure, a new beer to love and appreciate. Hell is a kellerbier (aka zwickel bier), an unfiltered lager that has its origins in the Middle Ages. The beer was traditionally fermented in open troughs in dark, cool caves, and is usually marked by a pronounced cloudiness from the yeast.

Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but word is this is a one-time distribution of Hell in cans through retail outlets. So when it’s gone , it’s gone (and based on what I personally saw today running around town trying to find it, sounds like it may already be). You can still likely catch it on draught at a handful of select area bars, I’m assuming.

Hell (German for light) poured with a bright, orange hue and perfect clarity, especially interesting considering this is unfiltered. Right up front lots of breadiness and grain. Pure malt all the way, immediately reminiscent of several pilsners that I’ve enjoyed recently. None of the American hops noted on the side of the can in the aroma. Taste is relatively sweet, prickly mouthfeel with good carbonation and a perceptible bite in the finish. Not bad.  

I’ll eat my words from the comments section in my recent Summit Kolsch review, as Surly has clearly shown with Hell they can brew a beer “to style” (if you look beyond the use of American hops in this one, which aren’t even a remote factor).

But I’m frankly a little surprised by Hell. The problem I have with this one is not about execution…it’s about expectation.

A consistent story is key to the relationship people have with an organization, often a deeply personal and emotional thing. And altering that consistent and accurate perception in some way can have implications for an organization’s constituents. I’m talking brand management…New Coke…Ford Edsel…or even more recently Whole Foods’ CEO railing against the federal healthcare proposal.

I’m not at all saying Hell is Surly’s undoing here. That would clearly be absurd. But with Hell, I think Surly has shifted their storyline a bit, and I don’t think it’s working for them. While a solid beer, Hell is a pretty wide departure from the rest of the Surly portfolio, the most “un-Surly” Surly beer I’ve had to date. And I’d expect those used to aggressive, hoppy and infinitely complex offerings that extend a middle finger to the dispassionate beer establishment may be caught a little off guard pouring what is arguably (here’s where the irony comes in) one of the best examples of the style…probably the only real example of the style many of us will be fortunate to drink.

So has Surly painted themselves into a corner, never given the flexibility to brew well-done, more traditional beers? I don’t know the answer to that, only the market knows. But what I do know is that enjoyment of a beer often extends beyond the taste buds, and Surly Hell is a very simple, German light lager. What you see is what you get.

What I got, however, wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. 

Rating: B-

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