Brewer Profile: Jerrod Johnson and Ben Smith of Surly Brewing Company

Jerrod Johnson and Ben Smith, the new head brewers of Surly Brewing // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Jerrod Johnson and Ben Smith, the new head brewers of Surly Brewing // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

When Surly announced Todd Haug’s resignation as head of brewing operations last October, it set off a blaze of social media speculation from the brewery’s followers and from writers, who pondered the future of the decade-old brewery. What was behind the move? Could Surly have done something to keep him? Would Surly still be Surly without “The Axe Man”?

While this drama played out, Surly’s lead brewers Jerrod Johnson and Ben Smith were in the brewhouse, quietly working to keep cases of Furious shipping and the tap lines in the Minneapolis Beer Hall flowing. After years of climbing the ladder under Haug’s tutelage, the two found themselves in a position they could have only dreamed of when they were first hired—stepping into the role of head brewer at one of the most notable breweries in the Midwest.

Two weeks after Surly officially named Ben and Jerrod the head brewers of the Minneapolis destination brewery and the original Brooklyn Center brewery, respectively, we are sitting inside Brewer’s Table, Surly’s fine dining restaurant. It’s 2pm on a Wednesday, and below us, the Beer Hall is packed to capacity with diners taking a late lunch and drinkers taking an early happy hour. Outside, a line of semis stretches up the road, loaded down with eight new 600-barrel fermenters waiting to be installed. One thing’s clear: Despite the changeover, things at Surly aren’t slowing down.

While it may seem like a daunting task to fill the shoes of the brewmaster who had been at Surly since the very beginning, Ben and Jerrod aren’t showing any signs that they are buckling under the pressure. In fact, the two are remarkably relaxed.

“I feel like I should be more nervous than I am,” admits Ben; Jerrod nods in agreement. Next to each other, the two seem like polar opposites. Jerrod is large, wild-haired and bearded, and rolls out his clever wit in an unhurried tone, while Ben is slim, clean-shaven and speaks in a quick, earnest manner. But in fact, they are two sides of the same coin, playing off one another’s strengths.

Jerrod Johnson and Ben Smith behind the bar in the Brewer's Table // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Jerrod Johnson and Ben Smith behind the bar in the Brewer’s Table // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

The new head brewers have good reason for feeling confident. A smooth transition led by Todd helped position Ben and Jerrod for success. More than that, all the years of mentorship from the former brewmaster and Ben and Jerrod’s years of experience in running day-to-day operations at each of the breweries has prepared them for this moment.

Jerrod began his tenure at Surly back in 2008 when there were still only a handful of employees, but his brewing roots are on the West Coast. Originally from Grand Forks, North Dakota, he moved out to Oregon after high school. “It’s one of those things where you either have a baby, or you leave right away,” Jerrod explains with a smirk. “I left right away to go out west.”

During college, he started homebrewing and worked as a pizza cook at Steelhead Brewing, a pizzeria and brewery in Eugene. After offering to lend a hand in the brewhouse, Jerrod was brought under the wing of head brewer Jamie Floyd, who went on to start Ninkasi Brewing. Impassioned by his experience in the brewery, Jerrod moved to Portland and got a job at the local Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery under another notable brewer, Van Havig.

Eventually Jerrod decided he needed to return to the Midwest to be closer to family and began searching the ProBrewer threads for brewing jobs in Minnesota. Seeing a job posting from Surly, he started researching the young brewery. “They had just gotten through the first Darkness Day and I was looking at all the photos from that, and I was like, ‘Wow, this seems like a pretty cool place.’” Havig, who had connections to Todd Haug during his days brewing at Rock Bottom, pushed Jerrod to apply. He flew to Minnesota in the fall of 2007 for an interview, but it wasn’t until 2008 that he got a call back.

“I think they wanted to keep their options open, but I got a call that March and they offered me the job,” Jerrod says. “By that point I was over it. It was like—no, it’s spring in Oregon, the cherry blossoms are out. I’m fine. And I mentioned it to Van and he was like, ‘If you don’t take that job I’m going to fire you, because you’re a fucking idiot.’ I was like, all right I’ll at least think about it for a couple days. After I really thought it through I realized, yeah, I did need to get back to family and took the job.”

Jerrod Johnson, co–head brewer at Surly Brewing // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Jerrod Johnson, co–head brewer at Surly Brewing // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Jerrod cut his teeth at the Brooklyn Center brewery in an era of explosive growth for Surly. When plans for the destination brewery began to take shape, he explicitly asked to stay behind at Brooklyn Center “to see through what we had started there,” he remembers. “I knew that everyone else was going to be putting more than their full time into getting ‘MSP’ going, so I took over most of the day-to-day operations [at Brooklyn Center] really before this place was even open.” Since then, Jerrod has been managing the team of brewers who make the majority of Surly’s brands.

Ben is also a Midwesterner who got his start in beer out West. Originally from Willmar, Minnesota, Ben spent his young adulthood in the Twin Cities where he got into craft beer. He moved to Big Sky, Montana, where he worked as a brewer at Lone Peak Brewery for a couple of years. “It was a good learning experience. There were two of us that did everything, so I learned a lot in a very short period of time,” Ben remembers.

During that time, he was on a waiting list at U.C. Davis, eventually getting accepted into the school’s Master Brewers Program. Before moving to California though, Ben heeded some advice and sent his resume to Surly. Not long after he received a phone call from Haug.

Ben Smith pouring a beer behind the bar at Brewers Table // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Ben Smith pouring a beer behind the bar at Brewers Table // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

“Basically he was like, ‘Do you want a job when you’re done at Davis?’ and I was like, ‘Sure, sounds good,’” Ben says. “I always joke because now we’re such a big company I don’t think I’d ever get through the hiring process. But at this point, we had a phone conversation about bikes and he offered me a job. It was a full year before I came on board, so it was always kind of surreal until I made it back.”

“You were mythical in those times,” Jerrod chimes in, remembering hearing Ben’s name tossed around the brewhouse during that year.

“Mythical?” Ben replies. “Like who is this fucking weirdo?”

“Like: ‘Yeah, when Ben comes, when Ben starts,’” Jerrod replies. “And then you came and it all came true.” They laugh, and it becomes obvious these two friends and neighbors are the yin and yang balance that Surly needs.

Both of them are perfectly suited to each of Surly’s breweries. Ben, a drummer with an analytical, process-driven brain, has been running day-to-day operations of the 300-barrel state of the art brewhouse in Minneapolis for a year and a half, producing the brewery’s flagships with attention to consistency. Jerrod, a keyboardist with a free-flowing personality, has been at the helm of the Brooklyn Center brewery for two and a half years, crafting Surly’s one-off recipes and barrel-aged beers.

While they are excited to dust off recipes they’ve been holding onto and give fans a taste of a new generation of Surly beers, Ben and Jerrod are more excited to help their brewing staff advance their skills, in the same way Todd did for them. The brewery’s new Innovation series will showcase experimental one-off beers brewed by their staff, allowing them to scratch their creative itch.

Ultimately, though, it’s Ben and Jerrod who will define the next era at Surly. They’ve been tasked with taking up the mantle and advancing it forward, and together they undoubtedly will. They are two halves that make a whole; a sum greater than its parts. Together, these guys are Surly.

About Brian Kaufenberg

Brian Kaufenberg is the editor-in-chief of The Growler Magazine.

Speak Your Mind