Surly pushing brewing boundaries with the formulation of a crystal clear lager

Surly used cutting edge technology for its newest release—Crystal Surly Lager // Photo courtesy of Surly Brewing Company

Surly used cutting edge technology for its newest release—Crystal Surly™ // Photo courtesy of Surly Brewing Company

Seeking a return to its radical roots, Surly Brewing Company has announced a new cutting-edge addition to its seasonal lineup—Crystal Surly™. Brewed especially for summer, this lager is almost entirely clear.

“When people think of clear beer, they usually think of alcoholic malt beverages like Zima,” says co-head brewer Ben Smith. “But Crystal Surly™ is 100 percent beer: malt, hops, yeast, and water.”

The initial thought for Crystal Surly™ came from a mistake made a few months back in filtering a batch of Surly Hell, when a brewer accidentally ran the haze clearing centrifuge at a higher than normal speed. “We noticed that it not only cleared the haze, it also stripped some of the color from the beer,” explained co-head brewer Jerrod Johnson. “In true Surly fashion, we asked ourselves how far we could push that.”

While the idea for a crystal clear lager has been on Smith and Johnson’s mind ever since, they haven’t been able to figure out how to filter out the color without also stripping out flavor. “Now that Riley has our lab up to date with new technology and equipment,” Smith explains, “she gave Jerrod and I the go ahead to get crazy and try this out. We’re very pleased with the results.”

Surly worked with engineers at the German firm that built their 100-barrel brewhouse to design new technologies that would enable high-speed centrifugation without flavor loss. “Those Germans really know how to tweak a system,” says Smith.

The process that was developed is referred to as “Solid Phase Extraction.” Smith breaks it down: “This involves taking organic compounds dissolved or suspended in the beer and separating them from other compounds according to their physical and chemical properties using Reverse Phase Chromatography. On a very basic level, we’re looking at compounds in a polar mobile phase and non-polar stationary phase. The polar compounds of organic materials will bind onto SPE materials due to van der Waals forces, thus separating out the compounds we want to keep with the color-active ones we don’t. The discarded color-active compounds will be saved and used to make Darkness a new level of black.”

This new technology yielded a beer that was nearly crystal clear. But Smith and Johnson wanted to push the envelope of beer clarity. The answer came from an unlikely source—the grist.

A special blend of low-polyphenol Crisp Clear Choice malt as well as low-protein flaked corn adjuncts were chosen “to produce a high-gravity, low protein and polyphenol wort, with a heavy-step mash incorporating protein, beta-glucan, and scarification rests,” explains Smith. “The wort was then boiled heavily with our normal process-aid additions to eliminate and precipitate out as many protein and polyphenol compounds as possible. The concentrated beer post fermentation was heavily filtered using a normal leaf beer filter, then followed by a special tannin ion-exchange resin filter. At this point we incorporated the SPE process to remove the remaining color-active compounds in the beer.

Surly Crystal Lager after the SpE process // Photo courtesy of Surly Brewing Company

Crystal Surly™ after the SPE process // Photo courtesy of Surly Brewing Company

From there, the brewers adjusted the liquid’s ABV using deaerated water, added lactic acid for pH control, and then finished by back-sweetening with clear Belgian Candi-syrup and adding both hop bittering and aroma extracts to hit our bittering and aroma specifications.

The result – Crystal Surly™.

According to Riley Seitz, Surly’s QA/QC manager, even after the vigorous extraction process, the aromatic characteristics of Surly’s house lager strain are in full effect. “And there are a lot of noble hop aromatics from the extracts,” she adds.

“The most surprising element was the brilliant white meringue of foam on top of the beer,” Smith says. “We really hope our consumers enjoy this as much as we do.”

Seitz expects Crystal Surly™ to have an extended shelf life due to the lack of polyphenols and other oxidation-prone compounds. “Our dissolved oxygen numbers of the bright beer are the best they have ever been. We also were able to ramp up the carbonation and effervescence of this beer due to lack of the color-active proteins that inhibit carbonation,” Seitz explains.

“The trend right now in craft beer is toward lighter beers,” says Surly founder Omar Ansari. “But with Crystal Surly™ I think [head brewers] Ben and Jarrod have pushed that concept several steps further. Hey, we’re Surly.”

For Crystal Surly™, Surly is forgoing its trademark cans. “We thought clear plastic bottles would better showcase the beer’s extreme clarity,” says creative director Michael Berglund. Crystal Surly™ will be available in clear two-liter bottles and shrink wrapped 24 packs of 12-ounce bottles. Release is expected in late April. This summer Surly intends to offer fruit infused versions like lemon, tangerine, pamplemousse, and melón pomelo in the taproom.

Editor’s Note: CLEARLY this is bullshit. Happy April Fool’s Day from Surly Brewing Company and The Growler!

About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.