Why Smith Says “Try & Fail” a Key to Innovation for All Breweries

This is a part of a continuing series of Q&As with members of the brewing community from across the US. Brewer Magazine will share business and personal insights from Brewmasters, Head Brewers, Brewing Managers, Sales Directors, QCQA Managers and others each weekend to help you get to know each other better in the industry and learn more to better develop your own brand.

Ben Smith, Head Brewer, Surly Brewing — Minneapolis

BREWER: What do you feel have been new challenges in your position that have helped push you and make you better at your job?
SMITH: The past few years have been extremely challenging beginning with COVID-19 and the shutdowns, followed by the ripple effects on the supply chain which continue to impact the industry to this day. It feels like everything that can go wrong has, but that’s made our team at Surly so much stronger. We’ve adjusted and figured out ways to continue moving forward and be innovative and nimble where needed. I think we’re making some of our best beers ever from our smallest innovation batches up to our new core brands hitting the market. Despite all of the challenges we’ve faced in the last few years, we are continuing to invest in quality through a cross-flow filtration unit, increasing shelf stability and our seven-barrel innovation system.

BREWER: Why did you enter the craft beer industry and what makes you love being a part of it and staying in it?
SMITH: I fell in love with the art and science of brewing. It perfectly balances my left brain’s analytical and logic-driven tendencies with my right brain’s creative side. I love the process of building a new recipe from a conceptual flavor profile all the way through physical production, and then fine-tuning and dialing in the process to ensure a consistent and stable product. I’m constantly learning in this job which keeps things fresh and ultimately, a lot of fun. Nothing is better than sharing a beer you’ve made at the end of the day with friends and family. At Surly, we’re not just about beer, we are all about the experience and coming together as a community. Our focus is on bringing people together, and Darkness Day is a perfect example of what Surly does best. A space to enjoy beer, music, entertainment and ultimately, share it with people in our community.

BREWER: What are some recent trends in brewing that you’ve tried or are excited about trying?
SMITH: We’re seeing a lot more breweries working with Thiolized yeasts, which are yeasts that have been modified using CRISPR technology to amplify the expression of thiols through fermentation. We’ve had a lot of fun working with them. Many brands are finding success in experimenting with different flavor profiles with this technique because it makes them more nuanced and balanced. You can get more of an impact with hops and different flavor profiles when working with Thiolized yeasts as well. There are some flavors that tend to hit you over the head a bit, such as citrus fruits or wine, so we’re experimenting with mixed fermentations, wine-beer hybrids and balanced hop additions to achieve a more nuanced flavor profile. We are always keeping an eye on what other breweries are doing through our network. People are always bringing up new technical ideas and products they are excited about. We stay connected with our hops suppliers, they are coming out with new hops and flavor profiles and we will give them feedback.

BREWER: What was your business’s greatest accomplishment during the past year, and what are your goals for your brewery this year?
SMITH: Two things happened around the same time. First, Minnesota law changed allowing us to sell limited package products direct to consumers — crowlers, growlers and 750ml bottles. Previously, we were not allowed to sell any beer to go. Second, we commissioned a new seven-barrel innovation system at the brewery. As a result of this combination, we are now able to explore beer styles and expressions more than we have in the past because of our distribution model and volume limitations. Now, we’re able to produce a ton of small-batch beers and get them direct to consumers right away. We’ve also started a direct-to-consumer bottle subscription called the Surly Bottle Project. Our first release was a barley wine aged in O’Shaughnessy Distillery’s bourbon barrels, and we have three more releases planned for this year. We’re excited about the opportunity this subscription adds for us to partner with local distilleries in the area. Our team has been very hands-on while planning out our seasonal beers by hand-picking barrels. We’ve had a lot of fun with it, and the first year’s subscription sold out. We have received a great response for the first beer, and we’re excited to share what we have next. Most importantly, we’ve been able to bring back Darkness Day, our annual celebration of our Russian Imperial Stout with exclusive limited-release bottles and draft offerings available to the public. We’re super excited about what’s coming this year too. One Man Mosh Pit Hazy IPA relaunched and is available in six and 12 packs of 12 oz. cans for the first time. Surly Lemonade recently debuted just in time for summer. Before I Die is a new Lager coming out to pair with those items on your bucket list.

BREWER: What are some changes in the industry that you’ve observed in the past few years, and how has your business adapted to stay competitive?
SMITH: The craft brewing industry is evolving alongside consumer demands. We must look beyond beer to find alternatives, including seltzers, flavored malt beverages, hop waters and hemp-derived THC products. Changes in Minnesota laws have allowed Surly to launch the Surly Bottle Project and our hemp-derived THC products, Take Five. It was a surprise and fun change to experiment. The industry as a whole is going beyond beer. We’re seeing brands nationally releasing non-beer products. I think we’re all opening our minds to what is possible, and it’s a lot of fun for me and my team to branch out and work beyond beer products. For those within the industry, it’s important for us to keep an open mind and innovate outside of our comfort zone. Continue to try and fail at new things, because you don’t know what you will discover next. The industry is evolving, and I think people within this industry are taking on more than just creating beer products. It’s definitely not a boring time to be working in this industry. I’m excited to see what’s next, to take on new challenges and figure out a way to continuously innovate exciting products for Surly.

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