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, www.surlybrewing.com

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

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, Ratebeer.com, 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.

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.

"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?"

This year Surly will probably make close to 3,000 barrels. "And that place where the bartender spit the beer out? They recently called and asked for our price list."

Ansari figures Surly can get to 20,000 barrels from their Brooklyn Center home. When they do, Surly beer will have accompanied your neighbors through some half a million moments of triumph, tragedy, dinner, romance, Frisbee golf, television, lawn-mowing, helpfulness, helplessness, rage, confusion, and everything else that goes with a Minnesota beer.

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