Michael Agnew's picture

Surly Has Attitude and Beer to Match

Don't Call Me Surly.
Don't Call Me Surly. (Photo credit: www.brewstravelers365.files.wordpress.com)

If you ask brewmaster Todd Haug what’s behind the beers at Surly Brewing Company, he’ll tell you it’s in the name.

“Surprisingly a lot of people don’t know that surly is actually a word in the dictionary.” he said.

In a manner that conjures the dictionary’s “churlishly rude” definition, the Surly image is one of rough contrarianism. It’s an attitude sustained by a roguish band of heavy-metal brewers sticking it to convention.

The beer names reflect the attitude. The name of Surly’s highly-rated IPA, for instance, is Overrated. “It’s kind of a joke at ourselves and the industry and at the people who take it way too serious,” said Haug, a former guitarist for the speed metal band Powermad who segued into brewing. “It is supposed to be fun.”

The Surly attitude also informs the approach to recipe creation and the brewing process.  “We’re like, ‘Okay, so-and-so brewery has done that, so were going to do the exact opposite. Just because of that.’ It can be that simple of a motivator or inspiration. If this is the way it’s always been, or that’s the way you’re supposed to do things, then we do something different.” The new brewery opened in December.

Despite distribution only in Minnesota, brash brews like the flagship 100 IBU Furious American red ale or the dense and dusky Darkness Imperial Stout are well known. But Surly’s lineup isn’t just about going over the top. The ominously-named Hell is a drinkable, German-style helles lager. The angry moniker Bitter Brewer belongs to a balanced English pale ale. Over half of the beers in Surly’s stable are nuanced examples of basic classic styles. Maybe that’s just another manifestation of that surly contrarianism. If you expect extremity, they’ll give you subtlety instead. Last year, for example, Pentagram won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival in the relatively subtle wood- and barrel-aged sour beer category. 

A look into the brewery at the original location in Brooklyn Center just outside of Minneapolis reveals a room bulging with tanks. The crush of stainless steel makes it difficult to move. One has the feeling that adding just one more vessel could cause the walls to burst. In 2011 Surly founder Omar Ansari announced his plan to build a $20 million dollar destination brewery with restaurant and beer garden. The only problem: breweries in Minnesota were not allowed to serve their beer on site. Not easily deterred, Ansari, a former home brewer who later apprenticed at New Holland Brewing, took on the state legislature and powerful special interests to get the “Surly Bill” passed, legalizing brewer taprooms.

After initially starting up in 2005 in the Brooklyn Center space borrowed from his family’s industrial adhesive business, Ansari’s new facility is now a reality on Malcom Avenue in Minneapolis. The grand opening took place on December 19 and the Beer Hall has been drawing good crowds since the first day. The 100-barrel Rolec brewhouse from Germany is the centerpiece of the space, with full-window walls allowing views of it from nearly every corner. In the entryway guests look directly into the cellar and the conical bottoms of six 600-barrel fermenters. “It’s really all about the beer at Surly.” said Ansari. “And we want everyone to see that right away.”

food menus are also built around the beer. Executive chef Jorge Guzman, formerly of the upscale Solera tapas restaurant in Minneapolis, is bringing a fine dining aesthetic to the brewpub concept. It’s more than just adding beer to recipes. Each dish is crafted to pair with a specific Surly beer. “Every night is a beer dinner at Surly.” said Ansari. “We don’t have wine. We don’t have anyone else’s beer. There are no spirits. It’s a beer dinner every night.”

The downstairs Beer Hall has a casual vibe and a less formal menu to match. The spacious deck and two-acre beer garden face abandoned grain elevators and aging industrial buildings, gritty surroundings appropriate to the crusty Surly image. Just beyond is “The Bank,” the University of Minnesota stadium that will host the Minnesota Vikings for the next two seasons while a new downtown stadium is built. It’s an eleven-minute walk, making the new brewery, a temporary NFL game day destination. Serving another round in the new Beer Hall.

But with Surly able to soon double its 30,000 barrel annual output, the key new destination for the beer and beer lovers are neighboring states, where distribution is expected to expand.

Surly Brewing Company
520 Malcom Ave. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414



Call or check website for tour info at new location.