Interview: Omar Ansari on Surly Brewing Co.’s Furious Success

Plus, lots on hazy IPAs, and mixing brews with a summer concert series
Surly CEO and master brewer Omar Ansari

The Restaurant Project

When Surly Brewing Co. opened in 2006, founder Omar Ansari says, there were six breweries in Minnesota. Today, there are more than 100. “The scene, it’s gotten so big—it’s everywhere,” the Golden Valley resident says. “In northeast Minneapolis, you can literally just keep walking and probably hit 10 or 12 breweries.”

Ansari’s original micro-brewing facility in Brooklyn Center led the craft beer boom with hop-forward flavors, heavy-metal imagery and prickly monikers for its beers, such as the Furious IPA, the Alternative Facts altbier and the Abrasive ale. The last-mentioned actually pays tribute to Ansari’s parents’ abrasives factory, which they let him convert into Surly. In 2014, he expanded, opening the Destination Brewery in St. Paul. That bumped production from 10,000 to 100,000 barrels per year, making Surly the third-largest beer producer in the state.

A couple years later, in 2016, Ansari launched a summer concert series in the backyard. Festival Field hosts eight shows this year, including such acts as Tame Impala, Of Monsters and Men, Gary Clark Jr., Ben Folds and the Violent Femmes, and Shakey Graves and Dr. Dog. (“We’re still trying to figure out how to get Lizzo out here,” Ansari says.)

Named after that grumpy feeling when you can’t find a good beer, Surly has helped transform the Twin Cities into a place where that’s never a problem—and nabbing a ticket to one of its summer shows is.

What’ve you been up to at Surly, Omar?

Every day’s a little different. One of the things we built out this year is a really robust sensory panel as part of our regular Friday tasting sessions. We deal with organic products; hops and barley are different batch to batch, even year to year or field to field. So, we need a team of people saying, “Does this taste on brand? Is this off? Does this pass muster?” We built out a room at the brewery, and that’s where we have one and a half guys full time just tasting beers.

Any summer beers you’re especially excited about?

There are so many now, it’s hard to keep track. Probably our Hop Pack, which is our third variety pack. It’s got Furious in there, which is always a staple of Minnesota. IPAs are generally my favorite style of beer, and two new IPAs will be in there, including Rocket Surgery, a hazy IPA.

You’re known for having pushed hoppy beers. What do you like about IPAs?

I’m a spicy-food kind of guy, and I like beers and foods that have a lot of flavor. And [an IPA] is certainly one that has those great floral notes and a lot of aspects that make it interesting. It’s just what I’m looking for, with that hop profile.

Do you still ask yourself, “What makes this a Surly?” And, more than 10 years later, is the answer the same?

As we’ve gotten bigger, I feel like we’ve done a better job of putting the whole package together. In the past, making it “Surly”—there was always some component that was different or unique. We’ve brewed some beers that are traditional, and I don’t think anyone’s got a problem with that. Now, sitting around and talking about beers, it’s “How do they fit into what we have?” And with 350 [employees], too, you find that there’s no one thing that defines who we are anymore. It’s not just metal music when we’ve got that many people working here who listen to a variety of different things, you know?

Has your relationship with fans changed since your microbrewery beginnings?

When we opened, we were sort of the first successful brewery in the Twin Cities in 20 years. Most people who were craft beer fans were openly champions and easily on our side. So, that may have changed; it’s in the nature of getting bigger, now that there are 100 breweries in town. But I still do tours at the old Brooklyn Center brewery once a month. The big difference is that when we started, it was so personal for a lot of people. Those were the people that helped us succeed. They are literally the ones that got us into bars and helped us get the law change [which allowed breweries to serve beer on-site in Minnesota, spearheaded by Ansari and passed as the Surly Bill in 2011].

The Restaurant Project

What do new-generation beer drinkers like?

The hazy IPA is a phenomenon. Those are newer beer drinkers. That’s a new style that’s certainly not traditional, and there are things about it that some brewers don’t like.

What’s controversial about hazy IPAs?

There are plenty of brewers that love them, but some brewers say, “Listen, this beer is not clean; it looks hazy.” You can keep saying no, but if that’s what your consumer wants, at some point you’re just being stubborn not to do it. For the longest time, we didn’t do them, and it was kind of an innovation on my part. When [Surly] got started, it was to do brewery beers that weren’t available locally. We had gotten to the point where we weren’t going to brew new beer. But we’ve thrown all that out the window and said, well, that’s dumb—that’s what we built the brewery on: brewing unique and different beer styles. Now, [the Surly hazy IPA] One Man Mosh Pit’s out on the market, and it’s my go-to beer.

This is going to be your biggest Festival Field summer concert series yet, with eight shows. Any standouts since starting in 2016?

Gary Clark Jr. is coming back [on August 9]. He is a guitar hero. He definitely had the crowd in his hand [in 2018]. It was just one of those perfect nights, too; weather was great, and it’s always fun to be like, oh, man, there’s 6,000 people here, drinking Surly and having a great time. Really, that’s always been the point of the brewery—making something where people get together and are social with it.

Ideal TC Day

Morning: If it’s the weekend, usually my wife and I will try to tackle a crossword puzzle and, if we’re lucky, get through most of it before we’ve had too much coffee. (We have a home espresso machine, so we usually crank out an Americano.) Hopefully, if it’s warm enough, we can go sit out on the patio.

Afternoon: I’ve got some friends that ride, so we might get out and go for a bike ride. We’ll take two to three hours and try to do the Chain of Lakes, down to the Mississippi and along that, down to Lake Nokomis and Sea Salt Eatery and Lake Calhoun, and, at one of those spots, we’ll stop off to get a beer along the way.

Night: Last night, I put some steaks on the grill, and my four boys, my wife and I ate outside. Summer’s great when the kids don’t have to worry much about school. That’s as good as it gets: cooking outside, hanging out there, and trying to keep our two dogs—a golden retriever and a Bernese Mountain Dog—from stealing our food.

Upcoming 2019 Surly Events

July 27: Lord Huron, Bully (Info/Tickets)

July 30-31: Tame Impala, Velvet Negroni (Sold Out)

August 9: Gary Clark Jr., Jessy Wilson (Info/Tickets)

August 14: Ben Folds and Violent Femmes (Info/Tickets)

August 17: Shakey Graves and Dr. Dog, Caroline Rose (Info/Tickets)

August 30: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Hiss Golden Messenger (Sold Out)

September 14: Of Monsters and Men (Info/Tickets)

September 27-28: Surly Darkness Day at Somerset Amphitheater (Info/Tickets)

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