Surly founder Omar Ansari on the MN brewing scene and "what makes a Surly"
Surly Brewing Co.
When Minnesotans think of the recent boom in microbrewing, it's hard not to think of the 2005 upstart Surly Brewing, whose distinct marketing, award-winning, and high-demand beers have helped lead the revolution. The brewery has taken the reins on the growing scene, with Surly founder Omar Ansari serving as current president of the Minnesota Craft Brewer's Guild and the brewery becoming the namesake of last year's Taproom Bill (a.k.a. the "Surly Bill").
The Hot Dish spoke with Ansari during a busy October to hear his thoughts about the state of the industry in Minnesota, as well as how Surly is adjusting to its new role as it expands.
Hot Dish: What was your business before opening Surly Brewing?
Omar Ansari: I worked with my family's business. My folks owned a business that manufactured industrial abrasives on the site of the current Surly brewery. They'd owned it since I was born. I began working there after college, but after a while I finally decided I wanted to start a brewery on the premises.
HD: How instrumental was head brewer Todd Haug in the creation of Surly?
Ansari: Todd is a huge part of who Surly is. You see his thumbprint on the brewery. You see his personality come through in every facet of who Surly is and how we present ourselves: our uncompromising, "take no prisoners" approach, I guess. The recipes are Todd's--he writes them--and Todd is always pushing things to make our beer more "Surly" and make them better. That's always the question we have when we are making a new beer: '"What makes it Surly?"
HD: How do you come up with the names of your beers?
Ansari: Oh, you know, they just come to us. Myself, Todd, my wife Becca, and his wife, Linda, kick things around, and we like to be a little subversive, maybe a little ironic and tongue-in-cheek. It's beer; you got to have a little fun with it. So that's what we shoot for with the beer names.
HD: Does Minnesota have a long way to go to deregulate the beer industry?
Ansari: Deregulating the beer industry? I don't think anyone in the beer business wants to see deregulation; that might not be the right term. I don't think getting rid of the laws would help because if we got rid of them, the big guys -- Miller, Coors, Bud -- would just come in and take over.
What I think a lot of us would like to see is a continuing loosening of the things breweries can do. If you look at the spectrum of 50 states, some of them are way more liberal with beer laws, some of them have more conservative rules, and ideally you'd like to move towards those who give brewers a little more flexibility and more options, like in California, Oregon, and Colorado, for example. That's the direction we'd all like to head in the Minnesota beer business.
HD: How does Minnesota beer set apart from other regions in terms of beer?
Ansari: One of the differences here is that we haven't been doing it for quite so long, so in other places there are some more entrenched styles. The craft beer industry has only blown up in the last few years in Minnesota, so we are still creating what that "Minnesota scene" will be. But I think, as years go on, we'll be able to hang with any other part of the country in terms of quality of beers.
HD: How will the Destination Brewery change Surly's identity in terms of being a "small brewery"?
Ansari: One of the beer names we kicked around once was "I Liked Their First Album IPA," so that's the same sort of issues we'll face. When we started Surly it was just me and Todd, so, yes, it's definitely changing.
There will always be new smaller breweries opening out there, and they'll catch people's attention, and that's one of the cool things about beer: It's always changing. But Todd and I have talked about this issue for years, and we didn't ever think it'd be an issue, as we never thought we'd have this demand for our beers. But it all made sense to us when we decided we'd just brew the beer like we want to and we would never change the beers to get bigger. That's the goal. We're not going to be one of the small Minnesota breweries anymore, but we'll be one of the great Minnesota breweries.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.