A whirlwind social-media campaign that's touched 19 countries has its sights on St. Paul. Legislators beware: Surly beer's 20,000 Facebook friends are taking names and keeping score.
Fans who have helped pile up nearly 2.4 million views of Surly's Facebook pages in the past month are seeking support for a bill that would allow the Brooklyn Center brewery to sell pints of its own beer at a proposed $20 million facility. The Facebook pages are listing Minnesota legislators, then gauging their responses "so we know who we should vote for in the future," one person posted this week.
"I completely underestimated the power of the social media," said Frank Ball, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, an influential player in the legislative debate.
Ball, 62, is a former Crow Wing County sheriff and Brainerd police chief who considers himself well prepared and not easily intimidated. He defended a state law that has existed for 78 years and was initially opposed to the bill that he thought would "erode" a three-tiered system that separates manufacturing, distribution and retailing in the beer business.
He learned quickly that there's no last call for these effervescent beer lovers. Disapproving e-mail flooded his way.
"The part that is downright disturbing to me was how you told Surly to basically shove their idea where the sun don't shine and do it in a different state," read one e-mail Ball provided to the Star Tribune.
"I view you and your association as the toddler that kicks and screams because his ice cream cone fell on the floor," read another of the more polite electronic messages to Ball.
Ball admits he knows little about social media and has to have his grandchildren program his cell phone. But when one of his board members tried to dismiss the Surly Facebook campaign, Ball said he responded, "Shame on you." He added, "There are a million [views] on that Facebook page that prove me right."
Politicos in the mix
Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, the bill's sponsor in the House, said she was aware of the social-media groundswell Surly has raised, but isn't convinced it alone will be enough to pass a bill. The staff of Senate sponsor Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the Surly Facebook page has been a topic of discussion. Scheid did not return calls for this story.
Among Minnesota legislators named -- and sometimes quoted -- on Surly's Facebook pages are Reps. Carlos Mariani, Mary Murphy, Steve Simon, Tim Sanders and Jean Wagenius and Sens. Warren Limmer, Tom Bakk and Sandy Pappas. All but Sanders and Limmer are DFLers.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has twice tweeted in support of Surly, attended a rally in Surly's behalf at a Minneapolis bar last month and mentioned the brewery in his State of the City address this week.
The Surly campaign has reached every continent except Africa and Antarctica, according to the brewer's publicist. Surly's owner, Omar Ansari, said electronic support has come from European fans who have probably never seen or tasted a Surly four-pack.
"It's a call to action, something that lights a fire under people, gets them motivated," said Sean Wilson, chief executive optimist of the Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, N.C.
Social media have been crucial in reaching the customers of craft breweries, said Minneapolis brewer Jim Diley, who produces Fulton beer.
"If people are passionate about something, why not let them galvanize strength through the social media?" said Diley, who supports the Surly bill.
The bill has been reworked -- "watered down to the point that I think everyone will be able to work with it," Ball said.
'Much bigger than Surly'
If it does pass, Facebook will "not be the reason," said Jason Alvey, owner of the Four Firkins, a St. Louis Park craft-beer store. But Alvey has offered his support on Surly's Facebook page.
"This is much bigger than Surly," Alvey said. "Surly is spearheading what's really a phenomenon. The lawmakers have to be paying attention."
There is a second Facebook page, with which Surly is not associated: "Change Minnesota's Laws to Let Surly Build Their Event Center."
Mike Salovich, a St. Paul computer professional, has asked his fellow Surly Facebook friends to e-mail legislators, collect their responses and then post them.
"This could be the first time people at the Capitol are held accountable by a Facebook campaign," he said. "This is beyond beer."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419