This essay is part of a series this month, coinciding with the concept of Flagship February, wherein we intend to revisit the flagship beers of regional craft breweries, reflect on their influence within the beer scene, and assess how those beers fit into the modern beer world. Click here to see all the other entries in the series.
For the vast majority of the entries in this series, it’s safe to say that I don’t necessarily remember, with any particular clarity, the exact moment when I sampled that beer for the first time. Those memories are lost to history and largely occurred during a string of interchangeable, mid-2000s college trips to the only decent beer bars off campus, as my knowledge of craft beer styles was growing with exponential fervor. With most of these beers, I could only give you a general idea of when I first became a fan.
Not so, when it comes to Surly Furious. In this case, I know exactly when and where I got my hands on some for the first time, at a now dearly departed suburban Chicago beer bar, because the experience of my first Furious was a benchmark by which I judged many other IPAs in the years that followed. In my head, it became a template for what IPA was all about … which is ironic, given that during various points of its existence, Surly has marketed Furious as a (very, very hoppy) amber ale. Whatever you call it, though, Furious has always been synonymous with Surly.
What so stunned me, drinking it at that bar for the first time in the late 2000s, was the sheer audacity of Furious’ all-out hop assault. I had been a semi-regular consumer of pale ale and IPA in those days, tending to lean more in the direction of malt-forward beers, but Furious was a revelation. I had never tasted anything with the hop punch that it possessed, both in terms of aroma/flavor and sheer bitterness. More than anything, it was actually the bitterness that commanded my attention—unaccustomed as I was to how intense hop-derived bitterness could be, it completely leveled me. That perhaps sounds unpleasant in retrospect, but by the time I was a few sips in, it’s safe to say that I was hooked. Surly Furious, perhaps more than any other beer, built my appreciation for the function of bitterness within the flavor profile of IPA.
In the years that followed, Furious was a rare treat, one where regular access always seemed to be outside my grasp. The company dipped in and out of Illinois distribution as demand surged, and never made its way down to where I lived and worked in the center of the state. I distinctly remember the various occasions where I managed to find it on tap as miniature celebrations, or the time I paid my editor at the newspaper to mule me back a case from a trip to Minneapolis—also the first time I got to try cans of the always-delicious Surly Coffee Bender. And of course as time passed, I eventually discovered other IPAs that I appreciated as much as Furious, but I never lost my sense of appreciation for a beer that had helped my palate adopt a greater lust for hops.
In the 15 years or so since Furious was first developed, the IPA market has changed to such a degree that it’s hardly recognizable as the same beer style. You can hardly blame Surly, then, for the fact that they haven’t always seemed to know if they should even be calling Furious an “IPA,” when they have other beloved brands such as Todd the Axe Man that much more accurately sum up the modern zeitgeist. Eventually, however, the company seemed to come to a consensus that makes sense to me: Furious is an IPA, and it always will be one—albeit, in a style all its own. And that style is becoming more unique as time goes by, rather than less, which allows Furious to play to its strengths. It’s brash. It has no shortage of malt presence. Yeah, it’s bitter. And we like it that way, thank you very much. So let’s see how it’s drinking in 2020.
Tasting: Surly Brewing Co. Furious
Surly’s description of their flagship is short and sweet, and goes like this: “The beer that built Surly. Aggressively hopped and citrusy, but with a chewy, caramel malt backbone.”
I would have thrown the word “bitter” in there somewhere, but yeah, that’s a fine description of Furious. This beer is all about finding a precarious balancing point between pine/resin/citrus/caramel and bold bitterness.
On the nose, I get pine cones, sap, orange zest, dark caramel and the suggestion of a bit of sweetness—I thought of those digestive wheat biscuits you’d have with tea, although the considerable amount of malt may also have put me in the “black tea” frame of mind.
On the palate, this beer is still a bruiser, although it’s unsurprisingly far more mild than I perceived it all those years ago, as I’ve obviously become much more accustomed to big flavors in the years that followed. Resin and fresh pine are followed by flashes of citrus, but I find this one to be more “green” than fruit-forward—a consequence of existing in an era when fruit flavors tend to be so much more intense. There’s also some caramel and biscuity balance, but it’s definitely more hop than malt driven, despite the deep amber color. The bitterness is certainly still as I remembered it—bold and long-lasting, building for 30 seconds or so after the initial sip. I’d use the word “abrasive” (in a good way) if Surly hadn’t already used that for a different beer in their lineup. It’s a full-flavored, somewhat intense (to the modern palate) IPA that satisfies both the need for hops and the desire for malt, which some drinkers may realize they’d forgotten when they revisit it.
The fact that this beer is Surly’s flagship also speaks to the particular audience that their brand was able to cultivate over the years. To brew a beer with this kind of verve and bitterness isn’t exactly uncommon, but to have it as your flagship suggests a brewery with a take-no-prisoners attitude toward flavor. Clearly, for Surly it was always meant to be Furious.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.