Surly Nation

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

Ansari fields constant calls from far-away bar owners who want to serve Surly, but he has to turn them down. All the Surly they can brew is sold in Minnesota, presumably to Minnesotans. Surly folks call their passionate devotees the Surly Nation, and as of this writing the Surly Nation is bracing itself for a wave of Surly Haters, who they assume will arise in response to the four-employee brewery's recent stratospheric successes.

Part of that success might be due to Brooklyn Center's water: Surly's water all comes from the Jordan aquifer—not from the Mississippi River, which is where all of Minneapolis's and most of St. Paul's water comes from. "Water is really the only thing that makes beer local anymore," Ansari told me, explaining that reclaimed Mississippi River water will vary widely in pH over the course of a year, requiring various responses from a brewer. Most of the other ingredients in beer—hops, barley, yeast, and such—have all been internationalized to the point that everyone works with the same materials, like Yakima Valley hops, Scottish and Belgian malted barley, and so forth, though Surly does work with some local barley processed in Shakopee.

And so it was that, as I stood goggling in front of my television at the footage of the bridge collapse, I had four gallons of Surly beer in my refrigerator, one gallon dangerously caffeinated. (That Surly Coffee Bender is not kidding around. It's bizarre and appealing; like an oatmeal cookie dipped in hot coffee, it's both bitter and bright, sweet and cakey and clean and astringent, and it makes you jangle like you just popped a No-Doz.) I did the same things that everyone did that night, I flipped from one channel to another and juggled feelings of denial, helplessness, rage, disbelief, and flat-out astonishment. My rage found odd targets, mostly coastal talking heads who pronounced everything wrong, and some guy on Anderson Cooper 360 who tried to explain the enormity of the situation by relating that he had a friend who was at a Twins game but couldn't get home to Burnsville because of the bridge disaster.

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

"Are you kidding me?" I shrieked, in the numb space between my ears. "What idiot thinks you go north on 35 to get to Burnsville?" Eventually I did what probably most everyone did: I had a drink and went to bed. My drink, of course, was a Surly beer—in this case a summer seasonal offering, their Cynic Ale, a lively, hoppy amber ale that offers the scent of apricots, tea, and sea mist and has the sort of clean, scouring finish that I've come to think of as a Surly trademark. Their beers always seem to me to be simultaneously fierce and tidy, offering a complex bouquet followed by a rich body, and wrapped up with a remarkably clean finish.

Over the next week I had a few more and thought a little more about what it means to buy local products. There are all the reasons I've catalogued before, such as the way the money stays in the community, and the environmental impact, though I will note that driving heavy trucks full of somewhere else's water on local roads suddenly seems not merely bad for global warming but truly catastrophic. More than that, though, there seems to me to be something vague, weighty, and, I know this is indefensible but I mean it anyway, almost spiritually important in dealing with products that lead the same life you do, that drive the same roads, smell the same rain, can't sleep for the same reasons.

Is this spiritual weight of local beer something the Surly Nation realized long ago?

"People take beer really personally," Omar Ansari told me when he was showing me his brewery's new cooler. "It's one of the few things anymore that people can care about where it came from. There are so many things now where you can't care where it comes from because there's nothing local left. People want to drink local. And they want their friends, and people they don't know at all, to drink local too. We hear stories of customers sitting in a bar: Oh, you ordered a Sam Smith Nutbrown Ale? Put your money away. Let me buy you a Surly Furious." With that Ansari shot me a look that essentially said: That Surly Nation, they're not kidding around.

"A lot of people told me, when I was looking to start the brewery, that I should do it in Wisconsin," Ansari said, citing Wisconsin's well-known microbrewery friendliness. "But I told them: I'm not from Wisconsin. I don't cheer for the Packers, so why would I brew beer in Wisconsin?"

That Minnesota loyalty has paid off. The first year, Surly made 800 barrels of beer. Ansari drove the delivery truck himself and did all the sales calls.

"This one place, the guy spit the beer out," Ansari told me. "After he spits it out, he says, 'I don't like hoppy beers.' I was like: I wish you had told me. And should I keep talking, or should I just leave?"

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