Thrash-metal music still echoed through the beer hall and Todd the Axe Man IPA remained on tap at Surly midday Friday, when the owner of the brewery that literally changed the laws of beermaking in Minnesota sat down to talk about what lies ahead.
Seemingly unstoppable over the past decade as it went from two to 365 employees and opened a $35 million facility in Minneapolis, Surly Brewing hit its first sour patch in October when its co-founding brewmaster, Todd Haug, abruptly quit. The news was treated like the Lennon-McCartney breakup of Minnesota brewers, and led to speculation that the company would sell out to a giant brewer.
On Monday, Surly will formally announce Haug’s replacement. Or make that replacements.
There are two head brewers now: Jerrod Johnson and Ben Smith, both of whom worked under Haug at the brewery in recent years.
Ahead of the major changeover, Surly owner Omar Ansari gave his first candid interview since Haug’s departure to clear the air about their split and talk about Surly’s future. This month, the brewery is adding eight new, massive brewing tanks to more than double the capacity at its Minneapolis facility — from about 100,000 barrels per year to 200,000 (behind Summit Brewing’s 250,000 barrels, the state’s largest).
Surly will soon be selling a lot more beer, but it definitely will not be selling out. Ansari firmly put the kibosh on buyout rumors.
“That will never happen while I’m here,” said Ansari, who took over his immigrant parents’ fading Brooklyn Center abrasive-metals warehouse to jump into the still-untested beermaking business in 2006.
“The idea has always been to keep this a family brewery,” he added.
Ansari’s keep-it-in-the-family mindset partly explains the fallout with Haug. Dubbed “the creative genius” and “wizard” in the company’s own press releases — the latter description fit his stringy gray beard and affinity for Nordic heavy-metal — the brewmaster was never given an ownership stake in the company despite widespread belief that he was the secret to its success.
“I built, recipied, named, mentored, branded Surly’s beer and brand, and the owner couldn’t get together any type of plan to retain me,” Haug said this week. “I quit Omar, not my job.”
Settling into his new job at another innovative Midwestern brewery, Three Floyds in Chicago, Surly’s ex-brewmaster still wishes his former co-workers well. “I leave behind a great and capable production staff,” Haug said.
For his part, Ansari said he and Haug had operated under a deal that Haug agreed to from the beginning, one Ansari thought was fair but also could have been negotiable. He does not deny Haug was a major factor in Surly’s ascent.
Within Surly, Johnson and Smith admit they may not offer the same cultish persona that Haug brought. “I’m not going to grow a long beard and cover myself in tattoos,” Smith quipped.
However, the duo, both in their mid-30s, is confident they can fill Haug’s shoes behind-the-scenes — especially since they’re working together.
“Neither of us are alpha-male competitive types,” said Johnson, “so instead of competing over who would get the job, we told Omar we would just really like to do it together. We learn from each other, just like we learned a lot from Todd.”
The duo is already nearing the debut of their first new recipe as brewmasters: A champagne-like ale called Frisson, that will be tapped on New Year’s Eve.
Fittingly, Ansari used a restaurant analogy to sum up the loss of his original brewing partner: “When the chef leaves the restaurant, the recipes don’t go with him,” he said.
And Haug actually wasn’t the first major loss from Surly as far as Ansari is concerned. Just a month after opening the doors on its long-in-the works “destination brewery” — which followed Surly’s successful lobbying efforts at the Legislature to allow breweries to sell beer on site — Omar’s father, Pakistan native and business entrepreneur Naseem Ansari, died suddenly.
“The American dream was very much a real thing to my parents, coming from other countries,” Omar said. “So for him to see this place open meant everything to me.”
Taking time off to grieve over his dad’s death also taught Omar “that Surly is such a big enterprise now, with so many smart and capable people working here,” he said. “It doesn’t depend on just me or any one person.”