Bright Ideas with Omar Ansari

Omar Ansari
Omar Ansari, founder of the Surly Brewing Co. in the Twin Cities.
MPR image/Chris Schodt

Omar Ansari, the founder of Surly Brewing Co., talked with MPR's Stephen Smith, host of the "Bright Ideas" series, before a live audience in the UBS Forum on November 27, 2012.

============FULL TRANSCRIPT==================

Stephen Smith: Today on "MPR News Presents," it's the "Bright Ideas" program. I'm Stephen Smith. Each month, I invite a guest to the forum here at Minnesota Public Radio headquarters to talk about important issues and ideas before a live audience.

My guest this time is Omar Ansari, founder and president of Surly Brewing Company in Brooklyn Center. Ansari first got into beer making with a home brewing kit. In 2006, he launched his own commercial brewery, and he called it Surly for reasons that he'll explain shortly.

Surly produces a handful of rich flavors, and sells as much of the stuff as it can manufacture. Ansari was also at the center of a recent campaign to change state law that allows production breweries to sell directly to consumers at the brewery site. Surly plans to open what it calls a destination brewery with a restaurant and a taproom on the University Avenue corridor between St. Paul and Minneapolis. Please welcome Omar Ansari.


Smith: Thanks for coming.

Omar Ansari: Yeah. Thank you for inviting me.

Smith: How did you get into this beer business? There was a home brewing kit that somebody gave you at some point in your life?

Ansari: It was a home brewing kit. My old girlfriend, Molly Dunn, back in 1994 got me a home brewing kit. Which I was little not too excited about when I got it, because I'd had home brewed beer, and it was horrible. My roommate brewed some at one point. It was a closet and a bucket that a couple guys living in Uptown had. The beer was god awful. So when I got this gift of, "Oh, great! I can make beer on my own and make it really poorly tasting and spend a lot of time," I didn't think it was such a great idea. But went ahead and got the starter kit from Northern Brewer, and that's what launched a million beers, I guess.

Smith: What kind of beer was it?

Ansari: That beer was an Irish red ale was the first one we brewed. It's really a story of setting low expectations. [laughs]

Smith: That always works.

Ansari: Probably not the best beer in the world, but at that point, it seemed like, "Oh my gosh, this is delicious, it's actually something I've made." I loved it and it turned out great. That's really what kind of got things going.

Smith: Are you a guy who makes a lot of his own stuff anyway? I mean, cook, do you make your clothes or build your own car?

Ansari: No, no. I guess I don't make a lot of stuff. Back then, I always worked with my folks, their manufacturing firm, so that kind of, every day, we're making stuff at work.

Smith: What kind of company was that?

Ansari: We made industrial supplies. It's kind of like what 3M does, but a lot less high tech. It's just products made for finishing metal.

Smith: Abrasives.

Ansari: Abrasives. Actually, yeah, got a can of Abrasive right here.

Smith: Abrasive Ale you're holding there.

Ansari: Abrasive Ale, an homage to the old factory. Yeah, that's kind of where my folks moved to the Twin Cities in the '60s to work at this friend's factory. They ended up buying it. I spent my life growing up in that factory, working there in the summers and was running it when the idea for the brewery came up.

Smith: Did you think you were going to be sort of taking over the family business? Was that the plan going in?

Ansari: Yeah, that was kind of it. I got through college and realized I'd have to get a job.

Smith: Kind of a rude awakening.

Ansari: Yeah. I sort of went into college just thinking, "All right, I'm going to figure this out in this next four years." It didn't really happen.

Smith: At Macalester.

Ansari: At Macalester, that's right. It just sort of worked out that when I realized I'd have to work for someone, that I'm like, "Well, why don't I work for my folks? They're here," and at some point, they were going to need someone to help out. It was a small family company. It's not the kind of thing you sell, because there's not that much in it. It just seemed to be a natural fit to say, "Well, I haven't figured something out, so why don't I go give that a shot?"

Smith: Then you did figure something out. When did the light bulb go off for about, or when did the beer stein pop up?

Ansari: Well, it literally did, the light bulb just kind of went off one day. It was a number of years later, it was 2004. I was homebrewing. I was sitting at home on a weekend and thinking about homebrewing. I had a homebrew catalog in front of me and thinking about what I was going to be brewing next week and flipping through this catalog. In the centerfold of this catalog was a three barrel brewery for sale. That makes about 100 gallons of beer, at that time, I was making around 10 gallons at a time. A lot for a homebrewer. They called it a system for the bar or restaurant that wanted to add a brew pub, or the homebrewer gone wild.

I saw that, I'm like, "Huh. I wonder if I could open a brewery." That's really, literally, that was what kind of got the whole thing going. I just started, got out a notebook and wrote down some pros and cons. Got my wife on board at the end of the night.

Smith: She thought that the pros were longer, the list was longer than the cons?

Ansari: She did. She knew me working for my folks. We had five people working there. It wasn't this giant. It's not Cargill family business. It was a pretty small operation and I really wasn't happy doing that. I wasn't very good at it. We kind of knew that I was probably going to have to do something at some point, because the business was kind of getting smaller and smaller. I was running it into the ground, if you will. We kind of knew something was probably going to happen at some point.

Smith: You didn't have the grit for the abrasives business is what [indecipherable]. [laughter]

Ansari: It seems like I didn't, no. Maybe it wasn't the salesman side or the whatever, but it just wasn't in my blood. It just, it seemed to be a good timing. I'm not an idea guy. I know we've got "Bright Ideas" here, but I've got some friends that, they throw them off all the time. It's just like, "Wow, how do you keep coming up with that?"

Smith: We could call it "Bright Idea" if you wanted. [laughter]

Ansari: There's just one idea.

Smith: Right.

Ansari: We're riding that one. Yeah, it just kind of worked out great, because my folks' space, that was a big spot, big part of this brewery succeeding.

Smith: That you had a commercial place you could work with.

Ansari: Right. Because one of the most difficult things about starting a brewery is finding a building to put it in, because you've got to cut the floors out, you need to have drains. I figured I could maybe get a sweetheart lease, I knew the owner. That's why we called it...

Smith: [laughs] You went, did you have to go, "Mom and Dad, I kind of want to take over the building and build a brewery in it." What was their response?

Ansari: Well, I told my mom when she was in the hospital. She was on some medications. I figured it was the right time to tell her. She kind of knew that it wasn't my passion, selling industrial abrasives, so she was all for it. I really was nervous about telling my dad because they're semi retired, so it was messing up with their retirement plans probably. I told them I'd worked on this plan for a couple weeks of how I'm going to present this and the whole deal. "I got this great idea."

The thing that was great is after I sold them this bill of goods about opening a brewery and how I think the Twin Cities are ready for a new one. Waited to see what's he going to say. Puts his hand out and shakes it. Says "Welcome to the club of being an entrepreneur." Which was awesome because I'd always been running his dream.

He came here from Pakistan when he was in his 20s to live the American dream. That's what they've done, starting a business. He realized that me running his dream wasn't necessarily going the right way, but with my own passion that would probably go a lot further. It seems to have been the right decision at this point.

Smith: For such a happy occasion, you decided to call it the Surly Brewing Company. Where do that name come from?

Ansari: I guess there are a couple of reasons why we've got that name. We wanted to do something regional, because I think beer is so tied in to the area it's in. But being in Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Center Brewing, there's already a Brooklyn Brewing that's pretty well known, so we couldn't come up with any great tie ins there. My wife and I were working on names. Back in 2004, there were no recipes. There was no actual physical brewery. It was just these plans, these dreams, so we spent a lot a time taking about the name. We want to do something we could have fun with.

I was selling industrial supplies. No one cares what the name is or what it looks like. It's, "What's the price?" That's the only thing that matters.

Looking around the beer landscape, just seeing people have fun with beer, with Three Floyds and Stone Brewing Company, a lot of breweries just having fun with it. We want to have a name we could have some fun with.

We talked about what happens when you can't find a good beer. You walk into a bar. They've got Miller, Miller Lite and Leinies. You turn to your friends and say, "I like good beer, so can we go to another bar?" Surly is the anger fueled by the inability to find a good beer. That's where that came from.


Smith: The names of the brews themselves kind of live on the dark side, generally. Furious. There's Cynic. There's Hell, which is about as surly as you can get, it seems to me.

Ansari: That one's from my mom.

Smith: Oh, really!

Ansari: Well, it's German. "Hell" in German means "light." If you walk into a bar and ask for "hell" or "helles," that means the light beer.

Smith: I don't think that's what a lot of people are putting two and two together on that.

Ansari: But that's what makes it all fun, though, isn't it? I think on all the labels, they're all darkness and smoke. It's just a fun, creative piece. I just don't think we've ever wanted to name the beers "Pale Ale" or "Cezanne." There's so much room in beer brewing and selling of beer for creativity, whether it's the art that goes into it or even just the names. It's usually myself and my wife, and Todd Haug, our head brewer and his wife, Linda, that kick some names around. Usually something rises to the top that makes us all laugh, or we all think it fits the bill.

Smith: Tell me. For those people who are not chemists and scientists or home beer brewers, what makes a craft beer different from Budweiser?

Ansari: I think it's simply what you put into it. It's, I think, also about what you want to get out of it. I think what the bigger breweries do is, they've got a lot of shareholders. They're looking to maximize profit. The approach they make is one of, "How do we make the most money selling this product?" I think for the most part, a lot of craft brewers are, "How can we make the best beer we can," so you end up putting way more ingredients in it maybe than is called for or is necessary relative to those bigger breweries.

Smith: Well, let's talk about that for a minute. What are the ingredients of a beer?

Ansari: It's four basic ingredients. You've got water, barley, hops, and yeast. Now, the bigger breweries do use adjuncts, which are corn and rice.

Smith: Fillers.

Ansari: Filler, you could say fillers, yep. And you know, what they do is kind of bring down the flavor for a more neutral, tasteless flavor. They're cheaper than using barley. So that's one of the, that's kind of actually one of the definitions of a craft brewer, is not using those in your beer. So, it's not just barley, but what kind of barley are you using? Not just hops. But what kind of hops are you using and how many are you using? And I think what most of us are trying to do in the craft beer business is trying to bring those together to create the most flavorful beers we can.

They don't have to be big or extreme, but however it's going to work to be flavorful, to have some sort of character to it which I think you could argue that the big breweries, that's exactly what they're trying not to do. They're trying to make it not flavorful and trying to kind of bring it down to the lowest common denominator.

Smith: Now, I don't want to get too deep into the grains here, but I do want to talk about what does the barley do? I mean, I know what the yeast does, that's the fermentation part.

Ansari: Right. Well, the barley adds all the fermentable sugars. So without the yeast...

Smith: There's nothing to cook on.

Ansari: Yeah, yeast metabolizes that sugar. That gives us alcohol and CO2, so the barley provides that sugar and provides the color, and provides a lot of the backbone, sort of the malty character of that beer. That gives it its bready, malty kind of character.

Smith: And barley is a grain that's grown, I assume like in Iowa or some place.

Ansari: It's grown, Minnesota is one of the growers. The Dakotas and Idaho is another big grower, and a lot in Canada.

Smith: Now, what's a hop?

Ansari: A hop is a female flower of the hop plant. They can grow anywhere, or they can grow a lot of places, but they're mostly cultivated for the craft beer industry in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. It's really amazing how small of an area hops are grown in. I mean, barley is millions of acres.

Smith: Because it goes into a bunch of other stuff?

Ansari: It has a lot of uses, whereas with hops, the only use for hops is for brewing beer. So I think the hop acreage in the US is only 40,000 acres, which is not a lot.

Smith: No.

Ansari: And it's a big challenge to try and balance off those supply demand, it kind of is bouncing all over the place right now.

Smith: You say it's a flower. Is it like petals or is it like...When I've seen pictures of it, it looks almost like a little Brussels sprout or something.

Ansari: No, it looks like that guy right there. I mean, it's not gold, they're green. But yeah, it looks kind of like a tiny pine cone. They're little, and they pick them right off the vines and dry them and then pelletize them. That's how for the most part we use them.

Smith: So you have a big kettle and you pour a bunch of water in there. Do you heat the water up or is it cold?

Ansari: So yes. So we've got a couple different kettles, a couple different tanks that the brewing process happens in. It happens in the first tank, we add hot water. So it's around 170 degrees. We add the grist, which is crushed barley. We add that together and it's sort of an oatmeally like mixture and we'll let that set for a while.

Smith: How long?

Ansari: Oh, probably about 20, 30 minutes. So conversion takes place. So those enzymes, they're enzymes that naturally occur in barley that get activated at around 150 degrees. When those enzymes get activated, they start breaking down the starch, starches in that barley kernel. Turn it into sugars that we can use.

So then we'll start pulling that liquid out of that first tank and pumping it into the kettle, and then we'll fill that kettle up. So we've got to add more water in the first tank to rinse all the sugars out. Fill that kettle up with wort. It's not beer yet because we haven't added yeast, so it's call wort. We fill that up. We boil it for 60 or 90 minutes. Add hops along the way. We add hops in the beginning for bittering. We add hops at that end for aroma.

And once that's done, we cool it down. Send it into a fermenter, add yeast from a tank that's done fermenting. Then hopefully it takes off, and three weeks later, we've got beer.

Smith: As I understand it there are two basic varieties. One is a lager and one is an ale. I mean, if you...

Ansari: The yeast strains, yeah. There are a number of different varieties in each of those. So like if you're using an ale yeast you could probably choose 50 different types of ale yeast that all have different characteristics. But the big difference is kind of how they ferment. Some ferment at the top, some at the bottom. Those lager strains ferment a little slower. So they don't produce some of the fruity flavors that an ale will have. But it does take a little bit longer. So it ferments a little colder. So it takes a little bit longer. So our beer Hell or SurlyFest, that will take maybe four weeks to ferment out, as opposed to two to two to three for our ales.

Smith: How much beer you selling these days?

Ansari: Well, everything we can make. I think this year, we're going to probably sell just under 40,000 kegs of beer which has come a long way from the 1600 we sold in 2006.

Smith: And you sell it, how much is sold in cans and sold through stores and how much goes to bars and tap rooms?

Ansari: It's about 50/50. We probably sell half the beer in bars and restaurants, and about the other half to liquor stores.

Smith: Why in cans though? Because I thought there was sort of like a -- at one point, I know that it was not cool to put your beer into a can.

Ansari: You know, I've got to give a lot of props to Todd Haug, our head brewer. You know, he's not here talking today, but he's a huge part of Surly, of what we've done, who we are. The beers, he writes the recipes. I ran into him at Rock Bottom in Minneapolis. He was the head brewer there when I got to know him in '04. I started brewing with him...Well, I didn't brew with him, I kind of made a mess in the brewery. But I got to hang out with him and we'd chat.

And one day, we're talking about this brewery I'm building and he said, you know, you should put your beer in cans. I said that is a horrible idea. The only kind of beer you find in cans is crummy beer. So that was kind of my first introduction to the idea of putting beer in cans.

Smith: What was his reasoning?

Ansari: He's a huge fan of canned beer. He thinks it's the best protector for the beer.

Smith: Because no light gets through?

Ansari: Yeah, because light, if you take a glass of beer summer time is the best time to do it pour a glass of beer out of a can, put it in the sunlight. Let it sit there for five, ten minutes, the flavor of the beer changes. That's the skunky beer flavor folks talk about. I always refer to it as a cabin beer flavor. All the beers when I drink them up north seem to have a certain flavor to them. It's that...

Smith: Because unlike fine wine, aging is not beer's friend.

Ansari: No, not, you know some beers age well, but a lot, certainly a lot of hoppy beers, and that's where that change takes place for those hoppy beers in the sunlight. So he is extremely sensitive to that. As any good brewer should be, he's got a fantastic palate. There's no doubt that for that reason cans are great for that.

And it's also, obviously, a wonderful packable, portable, pretty, well, I wouldn't say indestructible, but pretty good vessel for getting beer outside and around. So that was kind of the reason he suggested it.

So he kind of came back when we started looking at packaging lines right after we opened. We started looking at a canning line because it was a great way to package the beer. Very low oxygen pickup levels. And he'd been a fan of it. It looked different, which I thought was huge. You know, talking to folks in the liquor store business. They're like, "People buy with their eyes." I'm looking around and everything kind of looks the same. So you kind of put all of those things together and it was Todd's wife Linda that suggested we put it in a 16 ounce can, in a tall boy.

I was like, "Well, that's not a canned beer. That's like British beers like Guinness or Boddingtons." I'd rather have that out of a can. British beer in a can, that's different. Like, "Oh, wait a second. No it's not. It's just a different kind of format."

So that's when we decided to pull the trigger and give it a shot. That's the good thing about being small. You don't have to worry about selling beer to everyone in the world. We're like, "If we can sell a couple of hundred kegs worth of beer in a cans, we'll be doing great." We didn't have to try and convince everybody.

Smith: You've been at this professionally as a business for about six years, but the boom in the craft beer world has been happening now for the last 20 or 30 years it seems. What accounts for why suddenly after so many years of there being four or five brands time wise, you were a blue or a red, a Schlitz or a Pabst or whatever -- what happened that suddenly made microbreweries and craft brewers come along?

Ansari: I guess it was just a few individuals out there looking for more flavor. Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada and Fritz Maytag at Anchor Steam, some guys that were really kind of way out there on a limb at that point. I can't even imagine trying to sell craft beer in the late '70s and '80s. [laughs] What a different world.

I think that's where a lot of that came from. Maybe it's from traveling overseas. It certainly seems to be for some of the craft brewers that started the craft brewing scene in America. A lot of stories you hear are, "Oh, I was overseas," and "I was in the military. I was in Britain and drinking beers," and "All of these unbelievably fantastic beers are in Germany." They were drinking beers and brought that back and said, "We want to do that here."

I think in the 1970s, there were only 42 American breweries left and they were all brewing the same kind of beer. I guess it's kind of the same thing we're seeing today with what's going on with food. It's folks searching out for more flavor and also probably trying to be connected to the product that you're consuming. It doesn't all have to come from a giant factory.

Smith: In Milwaukee, or St. Louis, or wherever it is ... is it in Denver that Coors is?

Ansari: Yes. Coors is out in Denver, Golden.

Smith: Of course, in Minnesota, before Prohibition, there were breweries everywhere. There were at least 100. Lots of little towns...

Ansari: Most towns had breweries. It was just part of the landscape of America at the time. That was just part of any town. You would have a local brewery because before refrigeration got going and you could ship beer 400 miles, you just didn't ship beer. I think it was Budweiser that really got that going with railcars and ice and shipping beer. Before you just couldn't do it, it would spoil. Even beer doesn't spoil that much. It has alcohol in it. But it certainly doesn't get any better when it's sitting out in 90 degrees.

So where would you go? You wouldn't go to the grocery store and get a six pack out of the cooler. There was no cooler, so you would go to your local tavern and they would be getting beer that was coming in on a horse drawn carriage from the local brewery. That's just how it was done.

That's the great thing is now there's as many or finally more breweries than there was before prohibition, so it's finally caught back up.

Smith: In Minnesota?

Ansari: Around the country. There are over 2,000 breweries now around the country. I still think we have a little ways to go in Minnesota to catch up to where it was, but we're gaining.

Smith: I read there's a Minnesota Craft Brewing Guild that has something like about 40 members now.

Ansari: I think we've got ten new members in the last 12 to 18 months, so we've been growing a lot in Minnesota.

Smith: Is there a danger in that? Is there a saturation point if you will for the specialty brews?

Ansari: It's a question that comes up a lot and I don't know what the right answer is for that. I think there's always room for good beer. I think as more breweries show up, I suppose there's a bell curve to that like everything. You'll have some people making really great beer, a lot of people making pretty good beer and a few folks not making good beer.

Smith: Are most of them making it for distribution or are there more brew pubs that are just serving it locally?

Ansari: It's a little bit of both. I think in Minnesota, we've seen more breweries opening up in the last 12 to 18 months, but we've had a few brew pubs open up also, so I think the growth is going on the production brewery side. I think things will shake out and there'll be some breweries that close and that's when maybe we'll start figuring out how much is enough. We can't make enough. I know Summit is expanding. A lot of breweries are growing, so it's hard to know when is enough. If someone were to ask me for my advice about getting into the business, I'd say, "I certainly wouldn't want to discourage anyone from doing it because it's a great industry and you don't know until you try and find out the hard way."

Smith: What's the biggest danger in running a brewery? Can you have crop failures? Like a farmer could have crop failure. I suppose if you were baking bread, your oven could explode. I don't know. What's the risky part of this business? Do you ever have a kettle that just flops and you've got to pour it all out?

Ansari: We've been really fortunate with Todd at the helm. We've had I think a pretty consistent product. We haven't had any problems like that. I guess one of the biggest problems you could have is an infection which occurs at breweries. A brewer spends most of their time cleaning.

There's a reason we use stainless steel and a bunch of chemicals to try to keep everything as clean as we can, but occasionally it happens at breweries. You've got some little nook and cranny where something starts to grow and it can infect all of your beer.

It's kind of a disaster when that happens because you have that stuff start growing in your cans and bottles and the beer doesn't taste quite right. It's not going to make anyone sick. There's alcohol in it, so that will kill off anything for the most part that will do you any harm. But still, that's just kind of a nightmare waiting to happen of just you have product out there that's going bad. No one wants that, so that's always a concern.

Luckily, we, for the most part, work with enough big...Barley is such a huge multinational product that if it's in tight supply, it cost some more money which you never want to do, but it's not the end of the world. Hops can be difficult. It's a real small area. We've gotten cutback what we've had contracted for so that's...

Smith: Is there more competition for the raw materials, especially things like hops?

Ansari: Yes. With the number of craft breweries that are out there now and certainly with the hop varieties that people want, that a lot of breweries are brewing and those are the brands that are growing IPAs, pale ales. People love hops, so those particular varieties, there are more people who want them than have them, so demand is outstripping supply again. That's always the fear on my end. That the big guys get in. If the Buds and Millers decide to get more into craft beer and just go and somehow figure out how to buy all the supply of it, that's always kind of a terrifying prospect.

Smith: Do you think that they're looking at that?

Ansari: Budweiser bought Goose Island out of Chicago, one of the older craft breweries, a few years ago. They're allowing them to do what they want to do and get more of that beer out there. But for someone who runs a craft brewery, I can't say it's anything but kind of terrifying to have them come in because they've got other motives than just trying to make good beer.

Smith: So you sell a four pack of these 16-ounce cans for roughly 10 bucks?

Ansari: Yes. That's roughly average.

Smith: Somewhere around there. How much does it cost to make a can of beer?

Ansari: Well, not $10. [laughter]

I don't know. We'd have to get our accountant involved to kind of figure it all out. It's a little bit less.

Smith: Is this one of those businesses that has a tiny margin or a little bigger? Where are you with this kind of thing?

Ansari: I guess it's somewhere in between tiny and bigger. I don't know. [laughter] We're fortunate that we're able to self distribute our beer in the Twin Cities, so we drive it around.

Smith: You drive it around in your car.

Ansari: I used to, yes. It was a big deal. After we were open a year, I was able to afford a sprinter to drive the beer around, so it was great driving my three kids to daycare and unloading them out of a sprinter. I have a big commercial delivery van, but that's kind of what we had to do.

Smith: It said, "Surly Brewing Company," on the side of it?

Ansari: It did.

Smith: "The beer kids are here!" [laughter]

Ansari: They got to wear their Surly gear at the daycare. They can't wear it to school, but the daycare was OK with it. So everyone knew who we were over there. That's been a huge help for us. That's actually been one of the main reasons we've been able to grow the way we have and try to work on building what we're building. It's by being able to manufacture it and distribute it both at the same time.

Smith: How does Minnesota and the Twin Cities, how does it, as craft beer market, compare to other parts of the country? For example, I know that Portland, Oregon has been doing this for a long time. I guess San Diego is kind of a hot spot these days.

Ansari: That's a great spot. Denver of course is great. Seattle. I think it's ascending. It's probably where some of those cities were, so it's not one of the best but it's certainly far more at the top than at the bottom as far as big cities go. I think the fun thing and that's what's been great for me to see is the change from when we opened to where we're at now where so many bars have added draft handles and become gastro pubs and beer bars. So, that change is taking place before our eyes, so we'll end up getting to where those other cities are.

I don't know if we'll ever get there when San Diego, Denver, Portland, those towns all have over 40 breweries. That's a crazy number, but there's that many people that are drinking local beer. In Portland, supposedly 50 percent of the beer consumed is craft beer which is crazy number. That's unbelievably huge. We have "craft brewers own 10 percent of the market" is kind of the number of what we're shooting for. We're not there yet, so to have 50 percent of the beer drank in a market be craft beer, it's unbelievable.

There's a long ways to go to that and it would probably never happen. It's just sort of the culture of that town, but it's just great to see that so many people are into craft beer now, so many bars, so many liquor stores. That's all driven by what consumers want.

We didn't know when we started if enough people wanted beer from a brewery. Could the Twin Cities support another brewery? Because it was just really Summit at that time for production breweries and here it seems like there's a new brewery in the Twin Cities opening about every month.

Smith: While we were away for the news break, you poured me a glass of what I think is your newest concoction?

Ansari: Abrasive, yeah. That's our new seasonal that's out right now.

Smith: It's a seasonal. Tell me about this. I'm going to taste it here. This is a light golden color.

Ansari: It is a light golden color. It's deceiving. It's double IPA, so it's chock full of hops and barley, so probably comes in around eight percent alcohol. Sort of a ridiculous amount of hops in it. We brewed it...

Smith: Very flavorful.

Ansari: Thank you. We brewed that, I think first it was our farewell to Growlers, when we could no longer sell Growlers, we...

Smith: What's a Growler?

Ansari: Growler is a half gallon refillable glass container, and that was our only way to sell beer at the brewery when we opened.

Smith: People would bring it to you?

Ansari: Yep. We'd sell it, and then we would fill them. Brew pubs can do that, and small breweries when they're under seven thousand kegs of beer a year can do that. We kind of grew out of that smell brewers exemption, and we had a farewell brew for that. We wanted to thank all the folks that had been buying the beer, so we brewed what we called "16 Grit" which is unabrasive, a size of abrasive. We brewed that as an homage to the old factory and ended up tweaking it a little bit over the years and turned it into Abrasive, so that's what we're drinking now.

Smith: What is seasonal about it? What season is it aimed at?

Ansari: This one. It's not a year round beer because we don't have enough hops to brew it year round. We brew about 20 different beers. We can't brew them all year round and I think that's part of the fun. Part of the craft beer world of brewing side and of the drinking is seasons change, new beers come out and they're not there all the time. Whether it's Darkness, we'll make a big event out of that at the brewery or Mild comes out in the spring or early winter, it's just things are always changing and it makes it fun at the brewery to mix it up.

Smith: What flavors or what thicknesses, weights, what kinds of beers in the craft movement sells the most? What are the most popular?

Ansari: I think IPAs right now are actually getting unbelievably huge now that some of the bigger craft breweries like New Belgium, that really hasn't been one of their big selling beers and Sam Adams really hasn't done much with that and they both now have some big IPAs out there. That's a lot of beer when those guys start pushing IPAs, so that seems to be probably one of the biggest brands. That's what they always tell us at the Craft Brewer's Conference. At the big annual meeting, they kind of say, "IPAs."

Then seasonals are the other big trend or other big trending style of beer, so not any one particular type. A lot of breweries have seasonal sampler packs, those kind of things. People want to drink something new and different. That's, I think, how that works out.

Smith: You can tell me if I'm wrong about this, but it seems like in the craft beer world, the naming is not of breweries themselves but of the specific brews, there tends to be kind of a manly thing going on there. It's kind of a dude thing, right? You've got Cynic. You've got Furious. There's Big Engine Block, Massive, Bicycle, and all these other things that sound like everybody should be a snowboarder doing extreme sports and then coming in for the beer.

Tell me about the marketing of the stuff.

Ansari: Well, that's what I guess you could maybe say that about us. I wouldn't say everyone has gone down that road, but that's certainly some of the persona we've taken on. We've named our beers...the can is not real subtle.

Smith: Very distinctive looking design. I want you to talk about that.

Ansari: I guess the road we wanted to go and have...It's trying to have fun with it. I think that's part of Todd's nature. He's a big music fan. Plays in a metal band, lead guitarist. He's fantastic at that. It's, I think, trying to take some of that energy and bringing it to the product. Our beers are for the most part...some are, but most aren't real subtle. I think one thing usually with Surly Beers to describe them would be "flavorful."

Smith: In your face.

Ansari: In your face. I guess we've had that go through to the other ways we present ourselves.

Smith: This was not just accidental. When you are designing the cans the way you are, which have very bold, distinctive graphics, obviously you want them to pop. You want them to stand out on the shelf.

Ansari: Sure.

Smith: When you guys are thinking about who your beer audience is, who is your beer drinker out there?

Ansari: I guess when we started, we seemed, "Well, it's probably younger guys. It was kind of this 20 something to 30 something year old demo is what we're after or who's going to drink our beer." We really found out when we started going to beer events, we started opening up our doors, it was really everybody. It was just everyone that's around. I still do tours, and usually every tour there'll be someone's grandma there. I'm always like, "Huh, you're into craft beer." I probably wouldn't have guessed that when I looked.

It is amazing, it is really everyone. I mean, it's a lot of folks that, they don't go out to bars anymore, maybe. They're a little older, have kids. They're just like, "I don't go out, but I get your beer at the liquor stores and drink at home, because I don't have the time or inclination." It really is kind of everyone. It's not really just one group to kind of pin down.

Smith: When people have beer tastings, I assume, those kinds of things, like wine tastings, do you spit the stuff out like they do in a wine tasting?

Ansari: No. No, that's a wine tasting thing. No. [laughter]

Smith: You say that with a shake of the head, and a bit like, why waste a beer?

Ansari: Well, why would you want, I mean, what's the whole point? No, the only time someone spit our beer out was when I was trying to sell them some Furious at a bar. He was taken somewhat aback by the beer, which was a strange sales call to make.

Smith: He thought it tasted too much like something?

Ansari: No, well, he said, "It's really hoppy. Why didn't you tell me it was hoppy?" He's like, "I don't like hoppy beers." I'm like, "Well, I said it was an IPA, I thought as a bar manager, you would know that, so. [laughter]

"Are you interested in buying the beer?" [laughter]

Smith: My guess is that you don't have a tap on that.

Ansari: We do now. [laughter] Yeah, that's part of that changing beer world in the Twin Cities and all of Minnesota. No, a beer tasting is usually, you just want to finish it off. Sometimes folks will dump it if they don't like it, if they find a beer they don't like, but they don't spit it out.

Smith: Now, of course, the whole wine aficionado thing has a bit of a class or some might say there's I'm not saying it but some people might say there's a bit of a snobbery around it or whatever, a lot of foreign terms and stuff like that. What about craft beer? Is it getting into kind of like, is it kind of getting into that area where people are beginning to be a bit...?

Ansari: I think there's a part of that that does exist. I mean, those are hardcore beer geeks and that's kind of what they do. Yeah, there's some of that, but I think for the most part, beer festivals or beer events are pretty democratic, are pretty open to all beer drinkers to try your beers out. As the industry keeps growing, we have more breweries coming in. I mean, it is a challenge.

At some of our beer festivals, we don't invite all the breweries, because it's like, "Well, yeah, we're not selling the same kind of products that Budweiser and Miller, Coors are. That's not the kind of beer festival it is." For craft beers, we're trying to, at our festivals, put the focus on the beer, not about how much can you drink, but how is the beer. That's the whole point.

It's kind of this continuing education process, I think, that we have. Our goal at the Minnesota Craft Brewer's Guild, I mean, same with Surly, is just to try and expose as many people as we can to these beers and the flavors that we have.

Smith: There's also kind of a craft spirits movement that I've been detecting in some communities, anyway, where people are now making, like, Oregon has some distinctive vodkas that they're making, which seems a little bit crazy.

Ansari: Yeah, it's going on. I can't say I'm that familiar with it, but I know some breweries have teamed up with some craft distillers for a number of products. I think it's for whiskey. The source, the product is distilled down, it's called beer, the wash. It's beer, it's unhopped barley, for some of the product. They usually end up working with, or often work with a brewer or someone like that to help kind of make that base product. Minnesota, the laws are kind of set up to maybe not have as many craft distilleries going on. I know, really, the license costs $35,000, so it's a little tougher just to get into it. To start brewing beer, I think the license is $500. It's kind of hard to just kind of get into it and try it when you've got to spend 35,000 bucks.

But I was driving up to Detroit Lakes yesterday and I did see a billboard for Minnesota's first craft distillery, Panther, I think it was. Yeah, some new stuff is going on. I think there's no doubt with what we're seeing with food and beer, there's going to be more of that as time goes on.

Smith: Speaking of the law, you were involved in a fairly public campaign to get Minnesota law changed because the law, up until recently, said that a production brewery, place that sells X amount of beer, and I guess distributes it outside of their own location, could not serve that beverage on site. You could have a small brew pub as long as you didn't try to sell it in cans at a liquor store or at some other bar?

Ansari: Right. So there's a distinction in Minnesota between a brew pub, so in Saint Paul here we're close to Great Waters, so they manufacture beer on site. They sell it all on site. They can't sell their beer to the Happy Gnome down the road. At our place at Surly, or at any of the other production breweries like Summit and Shells, we make the beer on site, we sell it to other folks for them to...We sell it to bars, restaurants, liquor stores, or distributors, and sell it at their place. When someone comes in for a tour, we can give them a free beer, we cannot sell them that beer. That's really the crux of what the whole change was, is so when someone comes to the brewery, we can sell them a glass of our beer.

Smith: Why do you need to be able to do that? I mean, the liquor industry, and especially some bar owners were pretty upset with you at first for proposing this. Why was it important to you?

Ansari: Well, it's something that's legal in about half the states, so it's not...I don't think something that was going to change the axis of the Earth by allowing breweries to sell pints of their own beer. It wasn't going to bring down the three tier system, in my opinion. I think whenever there are changes to the liquor industry, it ruffles a lot of feathers. People often times don't want to see the laws changed, because they think it can lead to something else.

Smith: Suddenly the people buy beer on Sunday at a liquor store.

Ansari: That's what I was told someone, someone in the industry told me, "Omar, you don't know what you're doing, they're just using you as a pawn to sell, to have Sunday sales." I'm like, "I'm pretty sure that's not what going on, but OK."

Some bars saw it as just competition of like, "Hey, I sell your beer, why are you going to sell it?" We lost a few accounts because they're like, "No, we don't need your beer." The irony, of course, is those bars were selling beer from other breweries in other states that sold their beer on site. Bell's Breweries, they sell their beer on site in Michigan. Stone Brew, they sell their beer on site in California. A lot of breweries do it.

Smith: Yeah, but you're not going to drive to Michigan to have beer.

Ansari: Well, true, but I mean, for the principle of things, you ought to throw off all of those beers, not just ours.

Smith: OK, I see. But why was it important for you from a business standpoint to have a destination brewery?

Ansari: I think, actually, it's a story of Jim Mott, our lead driver, employee number four. He'd gone to Prague to play at the World Ultimate Championship and traveled around for a bit. He came back and he'd gone to Stiegl brewery. He brought back a brochure from this trip and went to the Stiegl brewery, which is a very old brewery. I was sitting in the office looking through this brochure. They had pictures of their museum, and pictures of their restaurant, and their outdoor beer garden, and their event center.

I share an office with Todd. We just have, it's not an office, it's just a big room. With Todd, our head brewer, and Jim's there. I'm looking at this thing and I go, "Todd, can you imagine what we could do if we could just sell a glass of beer?" That's really kind of where it started. We're building a bigger brewery. I don't think we ever would build this brewery if we weren't able to sell beer, because it'd just be bigger, which I don't know if that's the reason why we're doing it, just to be bigger. I think being able to sell folks a glass of beer, bring them into kind of our world of what we're doing, that's what kind of made, I think, made it something worth fighting for.

I've been able to travel and see some other breweries that are able to sell beer, and just how fantastic they are. It just seemed that, that was worth doing. Especially when I could go drive over to Hudson and do it, so if it works in Hudson, it seems silly we couldn't do it right here.

Smith: Can I get a can or a pint of Surly in some state other than Minnesota? What's your distribution area?

Ansari: You cannot. We used to sell our beer in South Dakota, Wisconsin and Illinois, but a couple of years ago, we did not have enough beer for the growing Twin Cities markets, so we pulled out of those markets just to keep adding more stores here in the Twin Cities. It is a Minnesota only beer.

Smith: Do you plan to keep it that way, or do you have national ambitions?

Ansari: I think we're going to build the new brewery and see how much beer we have for everyone. If there's some left over, we'll send it out to some other spots.

Smith: What will the capacity be? Will it be double what you're doing now? Triple?

Ansari: Well, the breweries, we keep adding fermenters. When we start off, it'll be double, but as time goes on we add more fermenters. We could probably get up to probably five times what we're doing now, or more.

Smith: Finally, in this health conscious age, it makes me wonder. It is possible to have a craft beer that's a light beer? Or is that a contradiction in terms?

Ansari: If you take our beer, "Hell," for example, it is a lighter beer. It doesn't have light calories, that kind of light beer.

Smith: That's what I mean. In the calorie conscious world, is that sort of like saying light...

Ansari: I would say just have a half a beer. [laughter]

Smith: Yeah, but in a 16-ounce can, how long is that other half is going to last?

Ansari: Well, you just need a friend. Then there you go. [laughs]

Smith: Thanks for listening to "Bright Ideas." I'm Stephen Smith.


Transcription by CastingWords

Volume Button
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News