Surly Nation

Need a drink? Yeah, It's been that kind of month. So how about a local surly ale?

SURLY BREWING CO., 4811 Dusharme Drive, Brooklyn Center, 763.535.3330,

I write this column a few weeks before you read it, for any number of dull, production-related reasons and—my God, that bridge came down! You've heard it all before by now, but as I write this, I'm still reeling. Those poor people in the toxic catfish black stew of the Mississippi. I just can't believe we've traded in our patrimony of quiet exceptionalism and good government for this. It's finally been answered: What's worse than a cold Omaha? A cold Los Angeles.

Oddly, in the last hours before the bridge collapsed I was hashing over a lot of the big-picture who-are-we and why-are-we-here questions that the bridge collapse inspired with Surly Brewing founder Omar Ansari, while he gave me a tour of his Brooklyn Center baby, the Twin Cities' newest up-and-coming microbrewery.

Local beer makes good: Brewmaster Todd Haug (left) and founder Omar Ansari
Bill Kelley
Local beer makes good: Brewmaster Todd Haug (left) and founder Omar Ansari

Location Info


Surly Brewing Company

520 Malcolm Ave. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414

Category: Breweries and Wineries

Region: University

I'd been meaning to write about Surly for a while, and there seemed to be lots of recent events to peg the story to—for instance, in June a beer magazine,, had judged Surly Darkness, the brewery's Russian Imperial Stout, to be the best American beer in the whole entire world. (Surly Darkness has, as of this writing, slipped to the second-best American beer and fourth-place in the whole wide world, possibly due to the fact that the beer is only available seasonally and is sold out until Halloween.) Another magazine, Beer Advocate, also just named Surly the No. 1 best brewery in the entire U.S. of A. No, seriously. They did. Another bit of Surly news that interested me: You can now get "growlers"—resealable, refillable gallon jugs of beer—from the brewery in Brooklyn Center almost every Saturday, from noon to two o'clock.

I went up there one Saturday to get a few, partly because I've never had a growler and it's a new thing to do in the Twin Cities, partly because I knew I'd get a chance to purchase beer that's hard to come by otherwise, but mostly to see the crowd. The crowd was worth it: All thirtysomething guys with interesting vehicles and quick senses of humor. "I wish I lived closer," I ventured to a fellow customer. "I do. Ha, ha," he told me dryly, making funny diabolical movements with his eyebrows and loading up his car. (Growlers of Surly vary in cost depending on what's in them. Smooth, dark, bready Surly Bender costs $8. Hoppy, snappy, amber Furious costs $9. A limited-edition beer like Coffee Bender, brewed with, literally, cold-press coffee in small 20-gallon batches, costs $20. Each refillable bottle also requires a $3 deposit.) Finally, Surly had set up a canning line not too long ago, and I was interested in the idea that cans, not bottles, are now seen by many beer lovers as the more beer-friendly packaging model, as they protect the beer from all light and the sprayed-on material that coats the inside of the can prevents the beer from having any contact with metal. The logic runs that if you pour that can of beer into a glass, thus bypassing the chance for your mouth to come into contact with the can, you'll get a better beer than you would have if it were packaged in a bottle. So I went into it thinking there was a lot of news coming out of one little brewery.

Yet when I went in for a brewery tour I found that Surly was actually the site of any number of only-in-Minnesota stories: For instance, I learned that it's the product of a particularly Minnesotan mixed marriage—of a Macalester boy and a Carleton emergency room doctor, who fell in love playing ultimate Frisbee, got married, and now have three little boys under the age of 6, which ensures that any moment not filled with medical emergencies or beer is nonetheless lively; that the startup money for the brewing equipment came largely from the Uptown real estate boom, after Omar Ansari sold an Uptown triplex he had bought soon after graduating college; that the good people of Brooklyn Center actually rewrote their city's entire liquor code to permit a brewery to operate there once Ansari told them of his plans. Finally, I learned that Surly Brewing sprang from the ashes of Minnesota's declining manufacturing base. You see, Ansari's family ran a company, the wonderfully named Sparky Abrasives, that manufactured and sold industrial abrasive products, and Omar took over the reins of the business just as all of his competition moved overseas.

"I like to say I ran the company into the ground," he told me, leading me into the spic-and-span warehouse that makes up Surly Brewing. "But our company went the way of most American manufacturing. Americans don't really make anything anymore except software, movies, a few medical devices, and beer."

Wanting to be on the right side of that equation, and after spending a decade as a passionate home brewer, Ansari went to beer school (in Vermont, at the American Brewer's Guild) and then set about checking out the various brewers in the Twin Cities. Then he got a sledgehammer and a couple of Dumpsters and took to demolishing the floor of his parents' warehouse. (Breweries need sloping floors for drainage.) New cement, lots of stainless steel brewing equipment, and some cutting-edge package design followed. That, in turn, was followed by a stroke of luck: Ansari was able to hire the man he thought was the most talented brewer in the state, Todd Haug. The first keg of Surly beer was sold in February 2006, and now here we are. Best brewery in America, best American beer in the world, from a Brooklyn Center brewery not even two years old.

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