'Rock star' beer crafter opens future for brewpubs in state

Addressing a tour group
Surly Brewing Co. owner Omar Ansari addresses a tour group at his Brooklyn Center, Minn. company Friday, Sept. 30, 2011. Ansari's brewery is based in a building his parents used for their abrasives business.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

In a tucked-away former factory in Brooklyn Center, beers with names like Furious, Darkness, and Hell are born.

They're popular craft brews from Omar Ansari, owner of Surly Brewing Co., and arguably the rock star of Minnesota's craft beer movement. Aggressive and unorthodox, Ansari helped bring about one of the most significant changes to the state's liquor laws in recent history.

View more photos of Surly's brewery in Brooklyn Center.

A new law that allows breweries to sell their beer directly to customers on site takes Ansari one step closer to his vision of a $20 million destination brewery and restaurant.

The 41-year-old Ansari is a fount of charisma, but admits luck and timing have been on his side. St. Paul-based Summit had already been in business for two decades by the time he started his brewery five years ago. Ansari gambled, confident the Twin Cities was ready for a second craft beer.

He recruited brewer Todd Haug, a heavy-metal guitarist with a long gray beard who started his career at Summit. The two men agreed their flavors would be bold.

"We talked about that a lot, the kind of beer that the Cities needed," Ansari said. "Some of those more assertive flavors are signature of the type of beers we like to drink."

That decision seemed to awaken a legion of beer drinkers, including home brewer Sam Portz, 24, of Cottage Grove, Minn.

"They introduce people to something they don't normally get: really hoppy, really dark, bitter," Portz said. "They do all the stuff that other brewers seem to be afraid to do."

Today, Surly has a waiting list of about 500 bars and liquor stores that want to sell its beer but can't, Ansari said. There's not enough of it.

To help meet the demand, Ansari unveiled plans in February for a larger destination brewery. It would increase his production capacity by tenfold, and also give patrons a place to order enjoy a pint with their meal. There was only one problem: It wasn't allowed under state law. Minnesota prohibited breweries of a certain size from selling their beer on site.

Cans and kegs
A Surly Brewing Co. employee finishes a day's work in Brooklyn Center, Minn. Friday, Sept. 30, 2011. The brewery has grown from the sale of 1,748 kegs in 2006 to more than 34,000 kegs this year.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"It's Omar's style, where he'll talk about something and figure out how to do it later," said Mark Stutrud, founder and CEO of Summit Brewing Co. in St. Paul. While Ansari sometimes gets ahead of himself, he's determined, Stutrud said.

Not many people know Stutrud himself tried to change the liquor law shortly after he started Summit 25 years ago. He proposed a similar bill that would allow breweries to sell beer. Back then, his phone lines lit up with calls from irate bar owners.

"Tim O'Gara of O'Gara's Bar and Grill was on the other end, screaming and swearing, basically saying, 'Get your tap handles and kegs if you want to sell your beer at your brewery.' " Stutrud recalled. "I really realized how sensitive the bars and restaurants locally in this area perceive competition from brewers."

Stutrud said he learned from that experience to respect the boundaries between breweries, distributors and retailers. It's known as the three-tier system. In recent years, both Stutrud and the head of Schell's Brewing Co. in New Ulm quietly pushed for a taproom bill, while massaging relationships with the state's powerful liquor lobby.

"Being an older brewery, we're probably a little more sensitive to trying to working together to get something everyone can live with," said Schell's president Ted Marti.

Ansari went about it differently.

Chatting with a tourist
Surly Brewing Co. owner Omar Ansari enjoys a beer while chatting with Dan Smith during a tour of the Brooklyn Center, Minn. brewery Friday, Sept. 30, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

He hired a lobbyist and used Facebook and Twitter to unleash the wrath of beer drinkers, known collectively as Surly Nation. The beer activists called and emailed legislators urging them to pass the bill.

"That's the only thing we had. I knew we had 25,000 fans on Facebook. It's this rabid fan base that helped us get us in the bars and helped us be one of the fastest-growing breweries in the country," Ansari said. "That was our ace in the hole."

One of the rallying points for Surly Nation came shortly after Ansari announced the project. Frank Ball, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, told reporters that Ansari was "greedy," and could take his business elsewhere if he wanted to complete his vision of a destination brewery.

"Nothing is preventing him from going out and opening up a brewery in another state," Ball said.

Ball's associates now say his choice of words exaggerated the opposition from some members of the liquor lobby.

"The executive directors of associations sometimes don't have the media training as one perhaps would like," beverage association lobbyist, Joe Bagnoli, said in a recent interview. "As a consequence, there were things that were said that probably shouldn't have been said or created a picture of a hostility that didn't actually exist."

Bagnoli said Ansari called him before he announced his plans for the new brewery.

"As a person, he's not hostile. He just said, 'I think I ought to be able to do this, and I'd like to do this,' " Bagnoli said. "I would say it's not an unreasonable request. We just have to figure out how to do that without rocking the boat."

After some compromises were written into the bill, Gov. Mark Dayton signed it into law in May. State law now allows brewpubs. However, local city ordinances regulating liquor still apply. The St. Paul City Council in July passed an ordinance to allow local breweries, including Summit and Flat Earth, to serve the beers they produce on site. Minneapolis followed suit in August.

Ansari acknowledges some in the industry have chafed at his style, including some of his own customers. He said a few bars have since dropped Surly from its taps.

"Some people say, 'You came out kind of strong, it turned people off,' " he said. "But it seemed to be the thing we needed to do. I don't think getting the law changed would have happened on its own without the social networking strength behind it."

From a public relations perspective, it was brilliant. If you hadn't heard of Surly before, you have now.

Bars such as the Muddy Pig in St. Paul say it's short-sighted to see Surly as a competitor.

Co-owner Mark van Wie said the bar was one of Surly's first customers in 2006, and that he would be foolish to take the popular Furious off his beer list. Some of the criticism he's heard about Ansari needs to be put in context, said van Wie, who credits Ansari with helping fuel the local beer craft movement.

"He has ruffled feathers, because he's very straightforward. If he wants something, he goes and gets it," said van Wie. "This is the most parochial industry you can ever imagine. It takes people like Omar to shake up the system."

Others say Surly and Summit are inspiring smaller breweries to take a chance and help build Minnesota's burgeoning craft brewing scene.

"Summit was certainly the first brewery to believe and then prove you could make a national impact from right here in the Midwest. Surly has proved that and run with it," food critic Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl said. "Harriet Brewing, Steel Toe Brewing, they're all following in Surly and Summit's footsteps. It's what's going to turn this from a one-business, two-business community to a full-business community.”

Ansari has been meeting with consultants to narrow the list of sites for his new brewery. He plans to announce site finalists in a month or two and hopes to finish the project in 2013. While some say that's an ambitious timeline, cities are lining up to try to lure him. St. Paul and Minneapolis have changed their local ordinances to allow breweries to sell pints of beer on site, and are among the metro-area cities that have expressed interest in attracting a future Surly brewery to town.

Ansari said down the road he hopes to pass on the family business to his children. He has four young boys, and hopes one of them grows up to like beer.

Omar Ansari
Age: 41
Hometown: Born in Minneapolis, raised in Golden Valley
Education: Graduated from Macalester College with an economics major
Family: He met his wife, Becca Ansari, while playing Ultimate Frisbee in the summer of 1998. They have four boys.
Why "Surly"?: The company's name reflects "the anger fueled by the inability to find a good beer," Ansari said.
First stumbling block: About a week after Ansari decided to house a new brewery in his parents' old abrasives factory in Brooklyn Center, he learned the city had an ordinance prohibiting breweries. The law was later changed to accommodate the brewery.
On craft beer: "We brew for people who didn't know they wanted it until they drank it. The market is exploding in the Twin Cities. We can't make enough beer for bars. The other craft brewers in town are having a hard time making enough beer. In the next five to 10 years, we'll have 20-plus breweries here in the Twin Cities. I think that's great."
His ideal brewery site: Six-plus acres, near a transit line and bikeways, riverfront location a plus.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.