Meet the brewer: Ben Smith, Surly

by Jim Lundstrom

Q: What triggered your interest in beer? Did you begin as a homebrewer?

A: I’ve been a big craft beer fan since I’ve been old enough to drink, and fondly remember long weekend afternoons on the patio with friends at Town Hall brew pub near the U of M campus before the craft beer boom introduced us all to tap room culture. 

I graduated with a degree in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, but had started college as a chemistry major – switching gears after a couple of years, but this came in handy later. 

After college I received a homebrew kit and took off on an adventure that continues to this day. 

I took a deep dive into the science of brewing and made/purchased all the equipment necessary to make decent beer at home. However, at some point I asked myself, can I make a living doing this? 

At the time, not so much! 

I got a lot of great advice from local brewers like Mike Hoops at Town Hall, and even Omar at Surly (his advice: marry someone with good health insurance! – Thanks, Omar).

Again, back then there weren’t a lot of breweries open. Surly was the only new production brewery at the time and this was before the Surly bill and tap rooms were legal, so there weren’t opportunities to get your foot in the door like there are now.

I looked into career opportunities, and decided to apply to the Master Brewer program at the University of California-Davis. Luckily, I had started my college education as a chemistry major and just had enough prerequisites for the program at Davis. I was accepted but put on a three year waiting list.

While I waited, I looked for work in the brewing industry and ended up getting an entry-level job at a small brewpub in Big Sky, Montana. Within a month, I packed everything I owned in my car and moved to Bozeman, commuting 40 minutes up the canyon to work every day. I left a decent job with a salary, health insurance and a 401K in Minneapolis to make $10 an hour with no insurance, which was a tough transition, but it was great experience.

There were two of us that did pretty much everything so I learned the ropes quickly. I ended up working there for a couple of years before getting the call from Davis, where I moved and studied under Michael Lewis and Charlie Bamforth. I graduated from the Master Brewers program and also received my Diploma in Brewing from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in the UK (this is an excruciating three-day test).

I should have mentioned that, before heading to Davis, I was lucky to connect with Todd Haug, Surly’s head brewer at the time. The “Surly bill” had just been signed into law and plans were in the works for a new destination brewery. As luck would have it, they were looking for a new brewer to join the team.

I started as a shift brewer at Brook-lyn Center while the new brewery was being built. I transitioned over to the new brewery to assist in commissioning the new equipment.

This July, I’ll be celebrating 7 years with Surly. I’m extremely proud to be the Head Brewer and lead the best brewing team in the world at a brewery that influenced my decision to become a professional brewer when they first opened 14+ years ago. 
 
Q: What beer have you brewed for the public are you most proud of?
 
A: It’s not my recipe, but the beer I’m most proud of is Furious. Over the years, our teams have done a ton of work to improve the consistency, quality and stability of Surly’s flagship brand. While the recipe hasn’t changed drastically, we’ve made a ton of changes to process to ensure that the Furious you’re drinking is as fresh and delicious from the time it’s brewed to when it lands in a beer fridge.

Q: What is your go-to beer?
 
A: My go-to Surly beer has to be Hell. It’s a classic German-style lager and a perfect beer for having a few with your friends (hopefully we can do that again, soon?). 
However, I love drinking Dreamyard IPA from my friends over at Modist Brewing Co. It’s made entirely from oats and wheat (no barley). Keigan and the team over there make amazing beers with their unique brewing system that differ from anything else in the market. And, they’re phenomenal people and great friends. 

Q: Is working at a brewery different than what you thought it would be?
 
A: Yes and no. The best thing about working at a brewery is that no day is the same. You wear a lot of hats. Brewers are part-time plumbers, electricians, accountants, scientists and event planners. The most important skill you can have as a brewer is the ability to trouble-shoot and improvise. Even after 10+ years, there’s always a new problem that needs be solved that you haven’t seen before. 

 Q: Are you able to locally source material for Surly beers?
 
A: We source almost all of our ingredients nationally. One of our largest suppliers is Brewers Supply Group with offices in Shakopee, Minn. Most of our barley is grown in the U.S. and Canada, but we do get some malt from the U.K. and Germany. I would say 99% of our hops come from Washington and Oregon.

 Q: How large a team at the brewery?
 
A: Our entire production team is just over 50 people including brewing, packaging, warehouse, quality lab and facilities teams.
 
Q: Is there a beer on your to-do list that we can look forward to?
 
A: One of my heroes in the brewing world is Lauren Limbach, the Wood Cellar Director at New Belgium. I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Lauren the past few years and she’s been a great mentor as I’ve grown in my role at Surly. Last summer, she shipped us a tote of her microbes and we brewed a beer, combining our house Brettanomyces strain with her bacteria cocktail. It’s a blended-culture American sour ale with blueberries aged in virgin oak and red wine barrels, called Culture Collab. It’ll be released in a box as a single can, similar to our Thirteenth anniversary beer last winter. It should be out in market this fall and I can’t wait!

Q: Anything else you want readers to know about being a brewer?
 
A: Honestly, it’s a hard career, and takes its toll physically and mentally. It’s not the best fit for most people but it’s one of the most passionate and kind communities of misfits and weirdos and I love it so much.