Surly Brewing has seen its star rise quickly in the craft beer world. Surly was recently featured on a nationally televised program on MSNBC, highlighting the small business' success in the craft beer market in addition to last year's big win at the State Capitol. For this week's Microbrewery of the Week, we talked with Surly founder and president Omar Ansari.
How did your brewery come to be?
Things here at Surly started off like most places with a homebrew kit. I started homebrewing in 1994 with a kit from Northern Brewer in St. Paul and as the years went on, I got more and more into homebrewing. I got married and had a family and, more importantly, had a garage to put all my stuff, so the homebrewing got to be bigger and bigger. In 2004, I was looking through a homebrew catalogue and it had a little three-barrel brewery for sale; that makes six kegs at a time. It was the centerfold of this magazine and literally the light bulb went off like in the cartoons and I thought, "I wonder if I can open a brewery." That's really the official start, I guess. I convinced my wife it was a good idea and we decided to see if we can make a go of it. We convinced my folks it was a good idea which is a big component of what we do because where Surly is at right now is the same building I've been coming to since I was a kid. I was running my parents' [abrasive] business - albeit, poorly - but still running it in 2004 and convinced them to give us about 5,000 square feet and that's when I started putting the brewery together.
How did you name your brewery?
The true definition is "Surly is the anger fueled by the inability to find a good beer." When my wife Becca and I were working on the name back in 2004, we didn't have very much; there wasn't a brewery, we couldn't find any equipment, there wasn't any real recipes nailed down. There just wasn't much of anything so really the name is what we had to work on. We were flying out to Portland, Oregon, on a beer drinking trip and the question was raised, "What happens when you can't find a good beer?" When you walk into a bar and they've got Miller, Miller Lite and Leine's. You turn to your friends and say, "I know you guys don't care about good beer but I do, so let's go to another bar. Let's try and find another place that has some good beer." So "Surly" is what happens when you can't find one of those good beers around. Or when you run out of beer [laughs].
What's your favorite beer you make?
That's a tough question to answer. I would say I probably drink more Furious than anything else, but I think my favorite is probably always going to whatever the seasonal is. That's just a fun part of brewing. As a brewer, you're always two to three months ahead of the season - if we have a summer beer, we start brewing in the spring; our Oktoberfest, we start brewing that in the summer - so you always kind of envision that changing of the season coming and the beer style that goes along with it. For consumers, it just shows up on the shelves one day and they say, "Oh great, it's fall! SurlyFest is here!" Well, for us, we've been brewing it and drinking it for a few months, so that's always fun. And [the seasonals] are only around for a little bit.
If I really had to say, my favorite would probably be Wet which is our wet hopped, fresh hopped beer. We brew it with fresh hops picked off the field in Yakima Valley, Washington. They put it on a truck, we get it two days later and we brew with it. It really couldn't be any fresher. It's a pretty difficult beer to brew but that's kind of what it makes it Surly [laughs].
What's your favorite beer someone else makes?
I'm a big fan of anything by Russian River. I love those guys. They're not available in the state but they kind of introduced me to some American-style sours which is a pretty fantastic style of beer. Victory Brewing Company makes a bunch of fantastic lagers. Bells, Founders out of Michigan. That's the fun thing about traveling. When I'm here, I'm usually drinking our beers but when you travel, you get to drink whatever's local. People always lament the fact that they can't get our beer here or there. That'd be great if you could get everyone's beer everywhere, but then they wouldn't seem that special.
What are your plans for the brewery's future?
We're working on building that new [$20 million destination] brewery. We put a down payment on the brewhouse [in early June] so that'll be showing up in a while - they take a long time to make. We're trying to get some land stuff finalized. We're shooting for 2014 to be up and brewing and have our new facility going. That'll be pretty big; hopefully have a restaurant and a beer garden and give folks a good reason to come check it out so it won't just be folks who have been here for a tour where we kick you out after two hours. Hopefully, we'll able to do some fun stuff with the restaurant and do some music maybe at the new location. That's pretty much what I'm working on full-time these days.
What is the best piece of advice someone gave you before you started?
Some advice was "Don't do it," "It's a horrible idea" and "Go do it in another state." Probably the best advice I got was from folks in the industry who said, "Whatever you do, brew good beer." In the '90s, there was a bit of a bubble of breweries and a lot of folks got into it for maybe not the right reasons or didn't know what they were doing and didn't necessarily make the best beer. Maybe that brewery didn't make it, but it kind of casts a pall on the whole industry when folks go and spend eight bucks at the liquor store for a six pack and they're like, "Geez, this isn't any good. These guys don't know they're doing. I better go back to what I was drinking." So when we're brewing beer, it's not just reflects on us but the whole industry.
Other folks said, "Just brew good beer. That's what you got to worry about. Not just for you, for the whole industry, for everybody." I always think that was good advice; the industry is bigger than any one of us.
What is the best piece of advice someone you can give homebrewers?
The issue usually when folks want to get into the [craft beer] industry or they want to learn to brew better beer, it all comes back to brewing more beer. Take notes, do a good job, understand what you're doing and learn from your mistakes. Certainly, if it's possible, get involved with some of the local brewing clubs. That's such a great way to learn more about your beer by bringing it to other people and not just your friends who say, "It's great!" Your friends do think it's great but they might not know that much about beer to understand some of the nuances or maybe they don't really understand that maybe that's not how that beer is supposed to taste.
I remember sending some beers to a homebrew competition and getting them back and reading the critiques, I was like, "Oh, I didn't know all that was wrong with my beer." But that's why you do that stuff, to learn from some other folks and try to brew better beer.
It's brewing more beer and trying to get input from other people on what's going on, I think is the best way to do it.
Describe the local craft beer scene in 11 words or less.
It's booming. That's two.
It's a pretty fantastic scene. When I got into it in 2006, there was us and Summit as far as production breweries in the Twin Cities. Then Flat Earth opened up, Lift Bridge and Fulton now have production breweries, Harriet Brewing is going strong. We've got Steel Toe, Lucid just opened up, Badger Hill is going to open up, Excelsior is going to open up, Pour Decisions is going to open up, Staples Mills opened up, Indeed's going to open up, Dangerous Man is going to open up, there's another one in the California Building that's going to open up, there's a brewpub in south Minneapolis that's going to be opening up, Boom Island is brewing... [laughs]. It's crazy!
It took a little longer for the beer scene to get here than some other spots; the laws are such that don't help, but I think everyone out there now is excited about craft beer, from bars to liquor stores and, of course, consumers and that's what drives it all. It doesn't matter how great the beer is or how much we yell about it, if people don't want to drink it, it doesn't really matter. And people want to drink it. Everyone out there can't make enough beer so that's a great sign. It's a great time to be a craft beer drinker in Minnesota, that's for sure.
When I started in '06, there were probably less than ten craft beer bars. Now a bar opens up and has more tap handles than those craft beer bars opened up. They were specializing in beer and maybe had 15 handles. Well now, a bar opens up, it has 20 handles and it's all craft beer. That's great for a drinker. You get less surly because you can find good beer [laughs]!
If you're not drinking beer, what are you drinking?
Two things: Coffee or water. You got to hydrate. You got to wake up and then you got to hydrate [laughs]. It's important to stay hydrated.
Surly Brewing, for the time being, brews its beer in Brooklyn Center but won't be in its current location for long. (At an event in Washington, D.C., in early June, Ansari said he's close to finalizing "a 8.5-acre site in the middle of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area real close to the [University of Minnesota campus].") Tours are available - check out their summer hours - but they do not sell beer at the brewery.
Find Surly on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube. Head brewer Todd Haug is on twitter, too @surlybrewer.
Previous Microbreweries of the Week:
Boom Island Brewing Commpany
Steel Toe Brewing
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