Brewer Magazine Q&A: Ben Smith, Surly Brewing

This is a part of a continuing series of Q&As with brewers from across the U.S. Brewer Magazine will share business and personal insights from Brewmasters, Head Brewers, Brewing Managers and others each Wednesday to help you, a fellow brewer, Brewmaster or brewing manager get to know each other better in the industry and learn more to better develop your own brand.

Benjamin Proudfoot Smith, Head Brewer, Surly Brewing — Minneapolis

BREWER: What is a lesson learned within your position that sticks with you to this day?

SMITH: Something I learned and adopted early on in my career and, I reiterate to my team almost daily, is to triple check every process. Look at your hose connections and configurations. Check your water temperatures. Check your chemicals. Check all parameters and setpoints. It’s hard to make a mistake if you take the time to look at everything three times before you start a process, and again once it’s running. It sounds simple but it’s saved my ass many times over the years. A simple mistake on our level could lead to thousands of dollars in lost product/revenue.

BREWER: Who is your mentor in the industry and why? What have you learned from them?

SMITH: I’ve been lucky to study and work for some of the best in the business. I studied under Drs. Michael Lewis and Charlie Bamforth at UC-Davis and they have continued to be a resource, especially when working on new processes and techniques. From them and the other instructors I learned the importance of quality, consistency, and stability, the holy trinity of production. Practically, I’ve learned the most from Todd Haug, my predecessor at Surly. He taught me that there is always more to learn and to never be complacent with current practices and processes. I learned to take risks with using new ingredients, be it malt, hops, different yeasts, or other non-traditional adjuncts. Todd is especially great at always having a diverse portfolio of drinkable but unique beers. He always had a variety of beers at low-, mid-, and high-alcohol ranges, both malt- and hop-forward and sour and other alternate and exotic options — this taught me to never settle on brewing one beer style well and to always have something for everyone to enjoy. To put it simply, he taught me to stay diverse and keep experimenting. Don’t follow trends; set trends through innovation and experimentation.

BREWER: What have you added to your brewery lately that’s unique or making your business more successful?

SMITH: One of the best and most unique aspects of Surly Brewing is that we have two very different and distinct breweries. Our large Minneapolis Destination Brewery allows us to brew a large volume of beer for our top three core brands: Furious, Hell and Xtra-Citra, and produce our large volume seasonal releases and variety packs. In the meantime, our original brewery in Brooklyn Center continues to produce a large variety of small batch beers, our remaining core brands and our barrel-aged and sour beers. We have the ability to stay nimble and agile with the Brooklyn Center brewery, and continue to experiment and innovate on new beers without interfering with our core production. Additionally, the Beer Hall at our Minneapolis Destination Brewery allows us a venue to present our R&D batches and gather consumer information so we have an idea of what will be successful out in market in wide release.

BREWER: In today’s business climate for craft beer, how will your brewery grow?

SMITH: In 2018, Surly will continue to grow and expand into new markets. We have some capacity with our current facilities and staff to increase our annual production without any major expansion. At the same time, we are focusing on our internal processes to maximize efficiency, minimize waste/loss, become more sustainable, and increase overall yields through improvements in process and technology to increase our overall profitability.

BREWER: What sort of innovations in craft beer excite you?

SMITH: I’m a process guy so I’m always looking at new technology and process innovations, especially with regards to ingredients such as malt and hops, in order to make beer better and more consistent.

BREWER: If you had one strategy that you could implement to better the craft beer business, what would it be?

SMITH: Quality assurance. I think the biggest challenge in craft beer is achieving the holy trinity of production I mentioned earlier — quality, consistency, and stability. Having a good quality assurance program in place will help get you there. If you don’t have a product that stands up and stands out in today’s saturated market you will not have long-term success.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.