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The most unlikely bartender in the state of Minnesota may well be the 76-year-old Pakistani immigrant pouring beers on Friday evenings in the tasting room at the Surly Brewery in Brooklyn Center.
"If my father found out he would kill me," laughs Naseem Ansari, known to family and friends as Nick.
"These are good beers, they're tasty," says Nick, his pride bubbling up like the beer in the glasses he's filling.
Nick can't quite be called the father of Minnesota's fastest growing brewery, but he is most certainly the dad to Surly's owner and founder, Omar Ansari.
The three-year-old craft brewery is on a roll with tours filled weeks in advance and a growing legion of Surly fans who border on cult-like in their loyalty. On Friday evening they line up at the brewery store to purchase Surly sweatshirts, caps and glasses.
"I tried to get on the tour a bunch of times, I couldn't get in," says Katie Shaeffer of Plymouth, pointing to her male companion. "So I told him I got one, we're going no matter what's going on. His mom came into town and I was like we're still going."
But this seemingly overnight success story has a back-story 50 years in the making.
"We are immigrants, I came from Pakistan and she came from Germany," say Nick Ansari as he pages through wedding photographs of him and his wife Dorit.
Nick and Dorit married in Chicago in 1958 then moved to the Twin Cities to work at, and eventually buy, an abrasives company making industrial grinding wheels.
By the 1990s, Omar had an economics degree from Macalester College and was heir apparent to the family business - struggling as it was.
"I always begged for business, and people shooed me away," says Nick. "He knew that."
Nick knew his son's heart wasn't in abrasives, and Omar grew to realize it too. "I'd go to these trade shows, I'd meet people, I go to these meetings, I'd just try but I wasn't very good at it."
Then Omar, who'd dabbled in home brewing, asked his parents if he could set up a small brewery on one end of the factory.
"And we said, 'Go for it,'" recalls," Nick.
Omar will never forget it. "He said 'Congratulations, welcome to the club' and he shook my hand. He understood that to make a small business turn, you have to be passionate about what you're doing.
The name Surly was chosen to represent the way one feels when they can't find a good beer.
Todd Haug, who had worked years earlier at St. Paul's Summit Brewery, signed on as head brewer.
Then against all odds Surly took off.
"We sold our first keg in February of '06 to Café Twenty Eight in Linden Hills and we started canning in October of '06 and since then we haven't been able to make enough beer," says Omar.
Distributed in parts of Minnesota, western Wisconsin, Sioux Falls and Chicago, Surly now has a two-year waiting list of liquor stores wanting its cans.
The brewery produced 1600 kegs of beer its first year in business. Omar expects to brew 16,000 kegs this year.
The grinding wheel equipment was all sold two years ago. The Surly brewery now fills the entire factory and an upcoming expansion will bring additional brewing tanks too big for the door through a hole in the ceiling.
"I begged for business all my life and now all the people are begging Omar for his beer," says Nick proudly. "Now that is something which is beautiful."
In a nod to his parents, Omar named his latest Surly variety "16 Grit," after a popular grinding wheel size.
"The people who are in the abrasives business, they know it right off the bat," laughs Nick who is not too shy to cheerlead on those Friday evening tours.
"I read in the Wall Street Journal yesterday people are drinking cheaper beer. You couldn't tell that by all the people you see over here." Nick tells a recent tour group. Clearly amused by his father's enthusiasm, Omar, standing nearby, offers a reminder, "Let's not forget that's free beer they're drinking tonight." The tour group of 100 bursts into laughter.
"Omar has always thought of this as the family business, take two," says Rebecca Ansari, Omar's wife. "It's all the same thing, but we just changed what we were selling."
So Omar will continue to deal with the excitement and challenges of rapid expansion, while Nick get's to come along for the ride.
"He's got no shame," laughs Omar as his father hugs up his customers a few feet away.
Nick would have it no other way. "People come and shake my hand just because I'm Omar's dad, now why wouldn't I be proud of that."
With all due respect to grinding wheel customers, beer drinkers show a lot more love.
(Copyright 2009 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)