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Hey, what's the deal with those lights outside Surly's brewery?

Yeah, those little guys up top there. What's their deal?

Yeah, those little guys up top there. What's their deal? Surly Brewing Co.

Hey, what's the deal with... is a new City Pages series that asks: Hey, what's the deal with that?

This HWTDW comes from Reddit, specifically r/TwinCities, where u/ArrayzStartAtZero wants to know: "What is the red light for at Surly Brewing?"

Todd the Axe Man? More like Todd the Ask Man!

Maybe you've noticed them, too—the red and yellow lights outside the brewery's Malcolm Avenue compound (plus another set inside, by the host stand). Sometimes they're dark, but sometimes they're lit, glowing steadily or flashing on and off.

We're usually pretty lit while we're sipping Surlys in the beer garden too, which might be why we never thought to ask anyone what, exactly, those lights mean. Until today!

"Here's the short answer for why it's there," Surly's senior PR and communications manager Tiffany Jackson writes in an email. "The lights serve as a reminder to visitors that this truly is a production brewery and serves to connect them to that process. If it’s flashing red, beer is being brewed while you enjoy your Furious and pizza. Have another, we’re making more."

And there you have it. But since we're always one for the long answer, we got Surly head brewer Ben Smith on the horn to talk specifics.

"If that red light's on, it means we're actively brewing, so we've got a batch of Furious, Xtra Citra, Grapefruit Supreme, whatever moving through the brew house," Smith explains. The lights can also indicate assorted operational goings-on, like a tank that's being cleaned. 

Steady yellow: good. Blinking yellow? Maaaybe not so good.

Steady yellow: good. Blinking yellow? Maaaybe not so good. Noah Schulman

But that's not all: The lights also tell brewers when there's an operator request. "If you're inside the brew house, there's a big horn that goes off, basically telling the brewer to get off his ass and do something," Smith chuckles, "whether it's adding hops, adding some brewing salts, starting to pump wort into the cellar ... those are all things that you have to get up and manually do."

In those situations, the red light will be on, but the yellow light will be flashing too. 

"Alternatively, if something goes wrong and we have a major error ... that also will flash," Smith adds. It can be a tip for tour guides too—a silent indicator about what's happening inside so they know what to expect before taking a group behind the scenes. "When we're not doing anything, that yellow standby light is on." 

Now, that flashing yellow should only go off for about a minute max—the operator can hit a button to clear it away. If it's blinking for more than a couple minutes... that's usually not a great sign. "Even if I'm having lunch or here with family on the weekend and it starts flashing, it gives me anxiety," Smith laughs. "I always know what's happening, for better or worse."

He continues: "It's fun, when I drive up I always know if something's happening, if something's wrong. It's funny, at 7 o'clock, I'll be driving in, and if that yellow light's flashing I just go, 'Oh no, what's going on?' If it's just red, I'm like, 'Oh. Sweet.'"

In Hey, what's the deal with... we're tackling everyday oddities, random curiosities, and what-the-actual-fuck mysteries about life in the Twin Cities. Got a pressing but somewhat trivial q about something you saw, heard, or thought about while stuck in traffic? Email us, and our crack investigative team just might try and figure it out.