Surly Brewing

10 10 2008

by Shane McCallister with edits by Megan Hines and Emily Larson

Read for a fill - by Shane McCallisterI decided to go to the Common Roots Café for a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of tap beer the other day. I asked the women at the register which beer she would recommend, and she asked, “Have you ever tried a Surly?”  I said, “Not to my knowledge, I’ll give it a try.” After a brief wait, I headed to the nearest booth with my sandwich heating one hand, my beer cooling the other. I sat down and noticed I was not the only one with a tall glass of Surly. I anxiously took a sip of the fiery drink. “Damn fine,” I said out loud as I slowly savored each drop of the Furious Ale. After the glass was dry, I walked back to the register to ask the women where the beer was brewed. “It’s brewed right here in Minneapolis, at Brooklyn Center,” she told me.

That’s where I now stand today, 4811 Dusharme Drive, ready to go on a tour of Surly Brewing Company. Standing outside of a traditional redbrick warehouse, I would have thought I was in the wrong place had I not seen the eight-foot Surly logo made out of crushed beer cans. I found the owner, Omar Ansari, and his gang of employees including Todd and Sarah, enjoying some snacks that had been dropped off for them. The group was congregated around the steel beer tap in the tasting room that Todd, the head brewer and welding expert of the bunch, had made. Todd also welded hangers for the hoses to be placed when not in use. Sarah spoke to me about the importance of a clean brewing environment. “It’s safer and better for the beer,” she said. “It’s common sense.”

Inside the Surly Brewhouse - by Shane McCallisterInside the warehouse space, the shimmering metal barrels and the abundance of stacked kegs assured me I was in a brew house; it was a breath-taking site for any beer drinker. I was able to take a look in the coolers which were having new doors installed later that day. On one side of the cooler were palettes of 16-ounce beer cans stacked to the ceiling and on the other side were the kegs. While I was walking around exploring the ins and outs of the place, everyone else was hard at work cleaning or moving kegs. Omar cruised by on the forklift and gave me a nod, “I’m ready whenever you are.”

Omar is a first generation American. His parents emigrated from Pakistan to start their own business before Omar was born. Growing up in a household with an entrepreneurial attitude certainly had a positive effect on Omar, and he spent plenty of time at his parents’ abrasives business on weekends and after school. “They don’t call it a family business for no reason,” said Omar. “Everyone has to do their part.”

As Omar got older, he became more involved with learning how a business was run. Omar ran the abrasives business for a few years, but soon realized it was not his passion. What was he passionate about? He found that out the Christmas of 1994 when he received his first homebrew kit. Years later, after traveling the country and trying some of the best micro brews the nation had to offer, Omar began to get serious about his dream. What once was a hobby was now taking over the garage. As Omar experimented with all-grain brewing, he knew more space would be needed. To keep the project going, in January of 2004 he moved his equipment into a space at his family’s warehouse.

From there, Omar was able to realize his dream of starting what would become Surly Brewing Company. Omar recalls that, “The stars were aligned for starting a brew house, and my parents had a lot to do with that.” In the next two years, Omar and his crew slowly turned what was once 5,000 square-feet of industrial space into a haven for beer. Many things needed to be done: a wall had to come down, a drainage system installed and a tasting room built. Omar, Todd and the other five employees did everything in the house, with the exception of the electric work. Spending the afternoon there, I noticed that when something needed to be done, these people didn’t waste time talking about it – they just took care of it.

Surly by the Can - Shane McCallisterBy February of 2006, Surly had sold its first keg. It’s never easy for a new brewing company to get their beer sold in a bar. Omar himself went to bars and liquor stores to let the owners try his beer. Most of them would say no the first time he asked. After all, Surly was the first new brewery in Minnesota since Summit Brewing Co. opened in 1986. Despite hearing “no,” Omar kept pitching his beer to local bars and restaurants. He knew the way to get Surly into the local establishments was to get the public interested in the brewery, so Surly started giving Friday tours on May 26, 2006. As the gossip about a new brewery grew, Surly began to find its way into bars. Omar told me about introducing Surly to the CC Club in Uptown. “The CC Club was one of the bars that told me ‘no’ over and over,” said Omar. “When other people started asking why they didn’t support the local brewery, the bar came to us asking for kegs, that we happily sold them. Then just a couple of months ago Surly was the Beer of the Month at CC Club and they were selling a keg a day.”

Two short years later, Surly refreshes thirsty customers in Chicago, Western Wisconsin, South Dakota and all over Minnesota. When asked about the future of his company, Omar just laughed and said, “Our plan is the no-plan plan, and it’s been working so far. Now bars call me asking for Surly. I don’t have to go door to door like a salesmen anymore.”

Surly is quickly becoming a well-known and popular beer in Minnesota. As a young company, Surly relies on customers to get the beer into their favorite bar. Surly doesn’t have an advertising department, so if you want some Surly, let it be known. Omar also relayed the story of a man who told the owner of his town bar that he would drive to the next town’s bar if Surly wasn’t on tap soon. He got his wish and Surly Ale appeared on tap. They are grateful to the beer drinkers with the taste for Surly.

Surly’s three-year anniversary is coming up in February, and Omar admits they are still figuring some things out. But he knows for sure that beer is meant to be brewed locally so it stays fresh. He also told me that when it comes to making their seasonal brews, he’d rather make too little than too much because he “hate[s] watching beer go bad while it sits in the coolers.”

In order to work in a microbrewery, Omar said you have to love and be proud of what you are doing because the return doesn’t compare to the amount of work you have to do. The employees I talked to had nothing but positive things to say because they are proud to be a part of Surly Brewing Company and make some of the finest beer in the Midwest. They have a strong passion for their beer and other micro brews, since fresh beer comes from local breweries. “Brewing beer is a life style not just a job,” said Omar.

Although they may not follow any sort of plan, they do plan to be brewing for a long time.

To view these photos and more, please see the Surly slideshow.

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