Local brewery booms as others struggle to stay afloat

Surly owner Omar Ansari, left, and employee Keith Doten, right, serve a variety of brews for tour participants to taste test Friday.  The brewry, located in Brooklyn Center, offers tours by reservation Friday evenings.

Image by Ashley Goetz

Surly owner Omar Ansari, left, and employee Keith Doten, right, serve a variety of brews for tour participants to taste test Friday. The brewry, located in Brooklyn Center, offers tours by reservation Friday evenings.

In these harsh economic times when many companies are struggling to stay afloat, a local brewery is beginning to expand quicker than it can handle. Surly Brewing Company, which hails its name from âÄúthe anger fueled by the inability to find good beer,âÄù celebrated the third anniversary of its first sale Monday. In those three years, the beer has built a strong fan base and expanded to bars in the region, including nearly 30 in Chicago. Owner Omar Ansari said âÄúSurly NationâÄù âÄî his name for the beerâÄôs fan base âÄî has helped the beer grow in popularity during the economic downturn. While he said his beer is more expensive and might deter some people because of the crisis, he originally thought the economy might not affect beer. âÄúI always sort of thought beer would be recession-proof because thereâÄôs always a reason to drink âĦ good times or bad times,âÄù he said. And people are drinking.

Bender, one of SurlyâÄôs five year-round brews, is an oatmeal brown ale made with Belgian and British malts flavoring the beer with cocoa, coffee, caramel and vanilla..

When Ansari and his brewer, Todd Haug, began brewing in January 2006, they were making about 50 kegs a week. Now, they brew between 150 and 300 a week and still cannot meet demand. âÄúWe canâÄôt ever make enough beer, so it seems to be a constant problem,âÄù he said. While this âÄúproblemâÄù seems like a great one to have in the market today, the economy is making it more expensive to make beer. When Surly opened in 2006, Ansari said hops cost only $3.50 per pound. Now, the cost is $20 per pound. The âÄúSurly NationâÄù has grown despite increased prices, and a local liquor store owner is upset that he cannot serve the fans. Irv Hershkovitz , owner of Dinkytown Wine and Spirits, said the store was put on a waiting list for Surly nearly two years ago and continues to lose customers to other stores, including U Liquors across campus, that request the local beer. The college market has helped Dinkytown Wine and Spirits become one of the stateâÄôs top sellers of other local beers, including Summit and Grain Belt, Hershkowitz said, adding that he can stock any Minnesotan or Wisconsin beers being sold in Minnesota âÄî except Surly. âÄúWhen youâÄôre first turning 21, youâÄôre experimenting with what youâÄôre probably going to drink the rest of your life,âÄù Hershkowitz said. Ansari said the company is continuing to focus on brewing more kegs than cans because it is a better way to âÄúget the name out there,âÄù and some campus bars are seeing people flock for the beer. Big Ten Restaurant and Bar co-owner Todd DuPont serves the Bender variety of Surly and said itâÄôs among the top-five sellers of the restaurantâÄôs 16 beers. Dupont said beers have to pass a taste test from the shopâÄôs employees and some regular customers, and now that people are drinking the beer, it will remain on tap. Downtime Bar and Grill General Manager Chris Shaffner also said Surly is among his top selling beers, and he likes it because âÄúitâÄôs local and itâÄôs good.âÄù Local was one of the topics on AnsariâÄôs mind when he opened the brewery in 2006 because he initially saw room in the market for another brewery. âÄúI thought the Twin Cities could use another brewery, and I thought maybe thereâÄôs a chance the market would want to drink the kind of beers I want to brew,âÄù Ansari said. Summit Brewing Company opened in St. Paul 23 years ago, and Grain Belt Beer opened more than 100 years ago in Minneapolis and has since moved out of the Twin Cities. Initially, the hardest thing for Ansari was finding a building. His parents owned an industrial supplies manufacturing company, Sparky Abrasives , and let him rent out 5,000 square feet to begin brewing. Now, Surly is operating on the entire 22,000 square feet, making beer and offering free tours. Almost every Friday as many as 100 people show up to tour the facilities and taste a few of the varieties of Surly. âÄúThey should be able to come in and try your beers so they know what they want to purchase in the stores,âÄù Surly employee Sarah Lawson said . Fifth-year ecology, evolution and behavior masterâÄôs student Will Ratcliff said he went on the tour because it was âÄúthe best beer in the Twin Cities.âÄù Ratcliff also brews beer at home and was interested in seeing how the larger operation works. Chris Stern, a third-year neuroscience graduate student, said he drinks Surly weekly. Although the beer is more expensive than most, Stern said, âÄúIâÄôm not a heavy drinker, so I go for quality over quantity.âÄù