Standing on the staircase overlooking 100 or so of his 154 employees — up from just two eight years ago — Omar Ansari actually sounded a bit surly as he made his first toast to his new $30 million-plus brewery.
“Half the life of Surly has been spent getting to this, a lot longer and a lot more money than we thought it would take,” he said.
Looking on with smiles as bright as the heavily hopped beers in their hands, his parents, Naseem and Dorit Ansari, were supposed to be in Florida, their winter home, when the first glasses were raised at the new Surly Brewing complex last month in Minneapolis. They didn’t want to miss the moment, though.
“It’s a true milestone in my life,” said his father, a native of Pakistan who immigrated to the United States in his 20s with $100 to his name. Ansari’s German-born mother shares much the same story.
In that not-so-long-ago era when Twin Cities area breweries could be counted on one finger and the average beer drinker didn’t know an IPA from an ERA, Ansari went to his parents and asked if he could take over the family’s abrasive-metals business, then fading along with America’s manufacturing industry. He wanted to turn it into a brewery, then a newfangled idea in Minnesota.
To the benefit of everyone statewide who enjoys craft beer, his father agreed: “Sure. I’ve gotten to live my dream. It’s time for you to follow yours.”
This week, beer lovers from across the state will follow 44-year-old Omar and his slightly scary-looking but truly masterful brewmaster partner Todd Haug to their new facility in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood, off University Avenue near the University of Minnesota campus.
The brewery’s beer hall is set to open to the public Friday night, with a high-end restaurant and outdoor dining area to come later. When it hits full production, Surly’s new complex will fill more than 100,000 barrels annually — half of Summit Brewing’s capacity in St. Paul, but triple the capacity of the original Surly complex in Brooklyn Center and way more than any other brewery in town.
Surly Brewing led the push for a change in state laws to facilitate this manifestation of Omar Ansari’s dream. Now his new “destination brewery” could change the way breweries statewide operate, while transforming an industrial, just plain junky-looking corner of Minneapolis.
“Most breweries are building big places way out in the suburbs, where they can get land cheap and easy,” Ansari said, referencing newly built tourist-oriented breweries near Philadelphia (Victory), San Diego (Stone) and Grand Rapids, Mich. (Founders).
Echoing the words of a fateful 2007 article in Beer Advocate magazine that ranked Surly the best brewery in America, he added, “We’re not like most breweries.”
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On the morning Ansari and other Surly associates wore purple to the brewery to meet before the Vikings-Packers game (a 12-minute walk), Haug stood out like a severed thumb.
Wearing a black T-shirt by obscure Norwegian metal band 1349 — whose name was obscured by his long, stringy hair and silvery, chest-length beard — Surly’s brewmaster was hard at work overseeing one of the most menial but crucial parts of any brewer’s job: cleaning.
“Everything about the brewing process is going to be more precise and consistent,” he bragged, staring at computer screens that monitor every facet of his new tanks. He put the new line to work just after Thanksgiving.
Haug, 45, was schooled in the wider world of beer when he was still too young to drink it legally.
As a 17-year-old guitar wiz, he joined local speed-metal band Powermad, which signed to Warner Bros. in 1987. After spending $250,000 to make an album at Paisley Park and landing in David Lynch’s film “Wild at Heart,” the quartet hit the road opening for the likes of Overkill and Blue Öyster Cult.
“We didn’t make any money, but we got to see America — and drink a lot of beer,” said Haug, whose new band is Vulgaari. “We weren’t crazy partyers. We would just seek out whatever the local beer was in each city.”
Between gigs, he worked part-time at Summit to learn the craft. When Rock Bottom Brewery opened in downtown Minneapolis in the mid-’90s, he landed the job as head brewer.
“You had to have some standard beers, being in the theater district,” he said of his decade there, “but more and more I tried new things.”
Ansari, meanwhile, was shopping around for a brewing partner. During a visit to Rock Bottom, he wrote in his notebook: “Best beers I’ve had in Minnesota to date.”
Little did he know that he and the brewmaster had gone to junior high school together in Golden Valley, where Ansari still lives.
“Todd had a perm back then, so I didn’t recognize him,” he cracked.
That Ansari and Haug barely knew each other in school attests to their seemingly unlikely partnership.
Ansari is into sports and the outdoors the way Haug is into music. Looming over his partner at just over 6 feet, Ansari is clean-cut with only one noticeable tattoo (Haug has many) and in good shape (for someone who runs a brewery, anyway) with a much more affable, salesman-like demeanor. Both are laid-back, quick to laugh and hardly ever surly; the name came from Ansari’s frustration over trying to find better beer.
Ansari floundered a bit before settling on an economics major last-minute at Macalester College. He didn’t really know what he wanted to do after graduation. “So I went to work with my parents, which was at least work I knew,” he said.
Namely, he knew how hard it is to run a business. When he was a child, his parents had to put the company through bankruptcy. Haug’s folks had to do the same during a rough spell at their small publishing company. Haug also helped his wife, Linda, open Cafe Twenty-Eight, a popular eatery near their house in Minneapolis’ Linden Hills neighborhood that closed three years ago, in part so she could helm the restaurant side of the new brewery.
“We both really understand from our families that there aren’t a lot of handouts in business,” Ansari said. “The secret is no secret: You have to work your ass off.”
They did exactly that for Surly’s first year, 2006-07. Haug happened to be experienced in welding — somehow not surprising — and assembled much of the brewing line himself in the Ansaris’ metallics warehouse.
While Ansari’s wife, Rebecca, took care of the first three of their four boys and brought home a steady paycheck, he did most of the delivering and marketing of Surly’s initial two, oddly named brands of beer, Furious and Bender.
“We made 800 barrels that first year and had a hard time finding places that wanted to sell it,” Ansari recalled. “Now, we’re going to be making 20 times that, and we probably still won’t be able to meet demand.”
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Competitors could quibble over how much Surly single-handedly raised demand for craft beer in Minnesota, but they can’t argue the impact of the so-called Surly Bill, the 2011 state law that allowed breweries to sell their product on site — thus spawning a boom of two dozen taprooms around the state.
Surly funded a public campaign and lobbying effort for the bill with one goal: To build a destination brewery.
“The president of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild at the time told me to build it in Wisconsin, because the laws were better,” recalled Ansari. “I didn’t want to do that. Todd and I grew up here. We love Minneapolis, and everything you get from living in or near the city: the restaurants, the arts, the music. We wanted to not just be a part of that, but to add to it.”
Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who advocated the Surly Bill and helped steer the brewery to its new site, recalled, “I was told it was political suicide to help them out and try to change liquor laws.”
As he got to know Ansari and Haug, he came to understand the persona behind Surly’s products: “Those guys manifest the brand. They’re incredibly skilled at what they do, but they also approach their beers and their lives with a fun sense of irony.”
Surly’s longtime logo artist and new in-house creative director, Michael Berglund, thinks the brewery’s metallic look and industrial setting build upon Ansari and Haug’s original vision.
“They’re guys that believe in the purity of the creative process and in creative people, especially Todd, coming from the musicians’ standpoint,” Berglund said. “I think that shows in their beer, and now it shows [in the new brewery]. They could’ve cut a lot of corners or built a much plainer-looking place in a much more boring part of town.”
As he hinted in his toast to employees, Ansari knows all too well that corners were not cut.
The final price tag of more than $30 million soared from initial estimates of $20 million. Unforeseen costs ranged from extra building pylons, necessitated by soil conditions, to an environmental cleanup of the site, which for decades housed a potato-product plant. (Surly received about $2 million in federal and county grants for the cleanup, which still wasn’t enough, Ansari said.)
And then there were many adaptations in the brewing equipment.
“As nice as everything is out front, we also got a kick-ass brewery that’s specifically designed to make our beers,” Haug noted, promising more output of the company’s cult-loved but hard-to-brew brands Darkness and Abrasive (named in honor of the old Ansari family business).
Omar said the very existence of the new complex is a tribute to his parents’ legacy as immigrants.
“My parents are proud of their Pakistani and German heritage,” he said, “but they’ve always been more about the community they’re in now. I did this brewery here because I believe in this community. I really think we’re changing it for the better.”