Surly: The anger fueled by the inability to find good beer.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Two Minnesotans, one an avid homebrewer who runs an industrial abrasives manufacturing business started by his Pakistani father and German mother, and the other, a heavy metal guitarist-turned-head brewer, cross paths at the San Diego Brewers Conference. The homebrewer offers to help the head brewer brew at his current brewery, and eventually convinces the head brewer to team up with him to convert the abrasives factory into a brewery, make world-renowned beer, and become one of the fastest growing breweries in the country.
As weird as it may seem, that’s exactly how it happened.
In 1994, Surly’s founder, Omar Ansari was given a homebrewing kit as a gift. Having previously tasted homebrewed beer, he thought, ‘great, now I can make terrible beer in the comfort of my home!’ He brewed the Irish Red Ale and after weeks of fermenting—in a towel-covered bucket in the corner of his apartment—the beer was ready to drink, or at least choke down in disgust.
After that failed experiment, the kit went back into the closet for several years. Omar’s affinity for craft beer grew and eventually he decided to give homebrewing another shot. The second attempt resulted in much better (less terrible) beer and Omar was hooked. He continued homebrewing for years and explored craft beer destinations around the country. It wasn’t long until Omar was brewing regularly. He was married and taking over the family business, an industrial abrasives factory that his parents started and ran for a couple decades.
In 2002, Omar and his wife, Becca, had their first child, Max. Omar brewed an EPA with the birth announcement and a picture of the new baby on the label. He figured that would get a little more attention from his friends than the usual postcard. And it did. His friends and family said, ‘hey congrats on the baby and all, but that beer was really great.’ It’s that kind of encouragement that leads homebrewers like Omar to take on all-grain brewing and fill their garages with homebrewing equipment.
In 2004, Omar’s homebrewing was an obsession. When he wasn’t brewing he was thinking about brewing. One Saturday, Omar was looking through a homebrewing catalog when he saw a two-page spread advertising a three-barrel brewing system for ‘bars or restaurants that want to be brewpubs, or a homebrewer gone wild.’ That got Omar thinking, ‘maybe I should open a brewery.’ The family business was struggling, competitors were going overseas for cheap labor, and Omar’s degree in Economics helped him realize that year-after-year of declining sales wasn’t a long-term plan.
Omar cracked open a beer and started making a pros and cons list for starting a brewery. With more beer, the list of pros was getting much longer than the cons. When his wife got home from work, Omar proposed the idea of opening a brewery. Omar’s wife, Becca, knew he didn’t have a passion for abrasives, like he did for beer and she said ‘let’s do it.’ Next, Omar had to convince his parents, Nick and Dorit Ansari, of his idea—to start a brewery in the abrasives factory. He waited to tell his mom, Dorit, until she was in the hospital, heavily medicated after ankle surgery. Dorit said ‘go for it.’
Then, he had to tell his boss and dad, Nick. Omar delivered his sales pitch for getting out of the abrasives biz and into the beer biz, to the guy who taught him how to sell and spent his life building and running the abrasives business. Nick responded with a smile and a handshake, and said “Welcome to entrepreneurship, son.”
Omar started putting the plans together. He had the idea and the building, so he started learning about the brewing business. He enrolled in programs at the American Brewers Guild, and then apprenticed at New Holland Brewing in Michigan.
At the spring 2004 Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego, Omar met Todd Haug, an experienced head brewer at Rock Bottom Brewery in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They hit it off, and realized they’d both gone to the same junior high in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Todd invited Omar to come brew with him a couple days a week at Rock Bottom. Omar would get to learn about the business of brewing, and Todd would get some company and free labor. A month later, Omar visited Todd’s brewery and was blown away by his beer. Omar tried selling Todd on the idea of joining him in starting a brewery as the head brewer. Todd said no, at first. By fall, he was convinced.
They spent the following year preparing the abrasives factory, cutting concrete (and a water main, accidentally), putting in plumbing and drainage, and moving in and setting up the brewing equipment. On December 30, 2005, Todd and Omar brewed their first batch of beer. At the beginning of 2006, Omar was traveling the Twin Cities trying to sell the beer. People were skeptical. After all, it was the first brewery built west of the Mississippi in Minnesota in 20 years, and Omar was selling them Furious, a hoppy IPA that several bar owners spit out after one sip. But at the beginning of February 2006, Surly sold its first kegs of beer. It wasn’t long until they were filling growlers for longer and longer lines and getting Surly beer into more and more bars, liquor stores, and restaurants.
As popularity grew, Surly started throwing parties and giving brewery tours to show appreciation for the growing legions of fans, Surly Nation. The parties got bigger and the tour lists filled up. Annual events at the brewery, such as SurlyFest and Darkness Day, became highlights over the years that have helped Surly connect to fans, and those fans became thirstier. To meet demand, Surly added more brewing equipment, tanks, and staff, always increasing production but never able to brew enough to meet demand. Surly was quickly becoming one of the fastest growing breweries in the country.
By 2011, Surly Brewing was nearing the limits of production in the Brooklyn Center brewery, and still not able to meet consumer demands. We had expanded distribution outside of Minnesota for a short while, until Minnesotans demanded more. We needed to build a new brewery to increase production but we had a particular idea for the brewery we wanted to build…
Jim Mott, Surly employee #4, had a great experience in an Austrian brewery while on vacation in Europe. He had enjoyed great beer being served right where it was brewed. When he showed Omar and Todd a brochure from the brewery, we thought that’s what we should for our new brewery. There was one problem—a Prohibition-era state law that said only very small breweries could sell pints of their beer to consumers on their premises as part of the three-tier system, which is designed to keep breweries, distributors, and on-premise sales separate.
Why shouldn’t Minnesotans be allowed to gather and socialize over a Minnesota beer right where it was being brewed? Visiting and dining at a brewery is a part of beer culture in many parts of the world – beer lovers could do it in Austria, they could do it in California and Oregon, but they couldn’t do it here – and that didn’t make sense to us.
At the beginning of 2011, we were celebrating our 5th anniversary with parties across the Twin Cities (that’s how we do). At one of these parties, on a very cold night in Februrary, we announced that we wanted to build a brewery where people could come in, see where the beer is made, and then drink the beer. We just needed a little help changing a law.
We shared our idea for building a Destination Brewery through social media and news media, and let people know how they could get involved. Then, the opposition appeared. Who knew there would be people and groups in favor of keeping a Prohibition-era law that prevents breweries from selling and serving pints of their own beer to consumers at the brewery? The status quo made it clear that they were against our plan and would do all they could to stop it.
We were told, ‘it’ll be too difficult, we should just build a brewery in Wisconsin.’ But we’re Minnesotans. We cheer for the Vikings, not the Packers. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it in our state or not at all. While most state legislators wouldn’t stick their neck out, against powerful opposition, to support the law change, two gutsy state legislators said, ‘why the hell not?’ Representative Jenifer Loon and the late Senator Linda Scheid signed on as bill authors and championed the cause for all it would benefit, not just Surly Brewing, but the craft beer consumers and industry across the state. It was about more than us selling pints of our beer at our brewery, it was about making Minnesota a craft beer destination.
We asked fans and supporters to call their legislators to voice their support. And they did. Social media and phones exploded with activity. The movement was strong and Surly Nation’s voices were heard. The “Taproom Bill” AKA the “Surly Bill” was signed into law on May 24, 2011. We celebrated with fans at our Power of the Pint party, and then got right to work planning the construction of our new brewery. It wasn’t easy, but the Surly way is not the easy way.