Beer, comedy, 'the absurdity of the universe': Co-owner of Sisyphus Brewing opens up about mental health

Sam Harriman

Sam Harriman Tony Nelson

If you know Sisyphus, you know it as the Twin Cities’ comedy brewery.

Co-founder Sam Harriman built it to be. It has those oddly low taproom ceilings—far too shallow to fit massive brew tanks, but just the right height for drawing the eye to the stage during an intimate open mic. There’s the comedy room itself, added last year, an 88-person club that rivals some of the best standup spaces in town. And then, there are the cheekily named beers: The First Beer We Brewed; The First Beer We Distributed. Taps flow with Safe Lady, a peanut butter stout that pokes fun at Dangerous Man’s beloved Peanut Butter Porter, and Isaac the Fax Man, a riff on Surly’s Todd the Axe Man.

Maybe you’ve wondered, then, about the brewery’s namesake. It’s an incongruous choice: Sisyphus, the king who in Greek mythology is sentenced to eternally push a huge boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again as punishment for his hubris and deceit. The tale isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs.

“When I picked the name initially, one of my MBA advisors was like, ‘You probably should change this,’” Harriman says. “I didn’t tell anybody, but it was like, I can’t change it. This is the name. And I hope I get to the point someday where I will share with our customers and the Minneapolis community why.”

He’s been asked about it dozens of times since the taproom opened in 2014, and for years, he’s brushed the question aside with a variation on a stock response: “We have a small brew system, so we are like Sisyphus, always brewing.”

It’s not like that answer is a lie. Running a brewery—especially one that doubles as a comedy club—is a Sisyphean task. Kegs are tapped; kegs are kicked. When comedian Ryan O’Flanagan takes the stage on a Friday night in November, the club swells with people, their laugher filling the room, their glasses cluttering tables. But after the set ends and everyone spills out, Harriman and co. don’t have much time before the late show starts. He darts out from behind the bar, head bobbing beneath a knit Indeed Brewing beanie, moving purposefully between the packed-in tables as he fills a bus bin with empty glasses and Pizza Lucé boxes. He and his staff will do it all over again after the second set, and again and again over the course of the weekend. And the next one.

So yes. That well-established reply works. It just doesn’t tell the whole story. Harriman has since decided he’s ready to share the rest. On a cold December afternoon, seated in a sun-drenched corner booth while his dog, a mutt named Albert, wriggles around beneath the table, Harriman explains that Sisyphus’ non-negotiable name is actually a reference to the 1942 Albert Camus essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In it, Camus addresses the futility of existence, the absurdity of life—and suicide. “There is only one true philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” the French philosopher begins (more or less, depending on your translation). “Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

Harriman, it turns out, spent years battling depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. He read Camus’ essay during his junior year of college, and it was one of the first times he remembers feeling understood. “In hindsight, depression and anxiety were huge for me,” he says now. “At a certain point... I think the depression started to fade. But definitely, middle school through college, I was very depressed. Suicidal thoughts every day. ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ was the book that made me reframe my view of my depression.”

Harriman was raised in a family where discussing mental health wasn’t an option. He went to medical school at the urging of his parents, and eventually, realizing that it was contributing to his depression, decided to get an MBA instead. Taking his future into his own hands helped—for a while. But his mental health started to worsen when he graduated. “At a certain point, my anxiety got so bad that I was agoraphobic—afraid to leave the house—for six weeks,” he says.

It was during this time that Harriman found a podcast called The Mental Illness Happy Hour, in which host Paul Gilmartin invites guests to speak with unflinching honesty about depression, addiction, sex, compulsions, childhood trauma. Harriman listened to the first five episodes back to back. And he realized: He needed help. “You have to hit a bottom, I think, at a certain point,” he says. “Or at least recognize that you’re headed towards a bottom. For me, it was like, I’m getting anxiety about going to Target to buy items I need to live. I’m 26, 27 at that time—I was like... I can’t do this for the rest of my life. That was when I finally decided to get counseling.”

Gradually, by talking through his issues, he started to regain control. Once afraid to leave the house, Harriman, along with his partner, cashed in his retirement funds and bought the 7,500-foot space near Loring Park that would eventually become their brewery.

Asked why he decided to wait before going public with his struggle, well: “‘Anxious guy opens suicide awareness taproom!’” Harriman laughs in his best TV news anchor voice. “Nobody would come to that, I don’t think. And that’s part of the problem with our culture. But I chose the name because I want to help fight the stigma that exists in our country. I view that as part of my responsibility in picking the name.”

Today, he’s trying to be upfront about it. In May, Harriman invited Gilmartin to the Sisyphus stage for a live taping of Mental Illness Happy Hour. Seated in front of 80-plus people, in the room he says wouldn’t exist without the podcast, Harriman first spoke about his challenges publicly. Around the same time, he quietly updated the Sisyphus website. If you head to the brewery’s “About” page looking for the hours or address, you’ll instead find a 700-word essay from Harriman in which he muses on Camus, depression, and how we can make the most of our time here on earth.

And earlier this year, Sisyphus brewed a charity beer—“For NAMI, Nah Mean??”—to benefit the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a grassroots advocacy group that provides education, support, and health services to those who are struggling with mental illness and to their families. “There were just tons of people coming up to us when we tapped that beer: ‘Thank you for doing this,’ ‘This is so unexpected from a taproom,’” Harriman says.

Sisyphus isn’t the only area brewery working to end the stigma surrounding mental health. Last year, Fulton released Grog, a New England IPA honoring employee Greg Sincheff, who lost his battle with depression in November 2016. A dollar from each taproom sale of the brew—which returned this year under a new name, Specter—went to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“Everybody knows somebody, right?” Harriman asks. “The more that people talk about it, the better it’s going to get over time.” It’s why he’s no longer shy about sharing his own journey, why Gilmartin will be back in April for another podcast taping, something they hope to do twice a year. And his essay isn’t going anywhere.

“Sisyphus is each of us. The rock is the absurdity of the universe. The confrontation between the meaninglessness of a single life in an infinite universe,” he writes. “There is so much to humanity that gets lost in the scale of the universe. There is music, love, laughter, food, dancing, and of course, beer.”

Sisyphus Brewing
712 Ontario Ave. W. #100,