February 9, 2022

Surly Brewing (Season 4 Episode 6)

Surly Brewing founder Omar Ansari wanted to make great beer. The first beer was Bender, an oatmeal brown ale. That opened the door. Furious, an aggressively hopped IPA, kicked it in, transforming the way Minnesota thought about craft beer. Word spread, especially among the Twin Cities craft beer community.  Best-of lists and Brewery of the Year honors followed. 

As this idea started to gain momentum, Omar was perplexed by a Prohibition-era Minnesota law that prevented production breweries from selling their beer onsite. He worked with Minnesota legislators, and the vocal, passionate Surly Nation, to change that law. The so-called “Surly Bill” passed on May 24, 2011, and scores of new breweries and taprooms bloomed. Minnesota’s proud brewing history, unchanged for so long, finally got another chapter, one that’s still being written.

In December 2014, the Brooklyn Center taproom poured its last pint and Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood officially became home to the Surly Destination Brewery. The 50,000 square-foot facility hosts a brewhouse, beer hall, beer garden, company store, event center, pizza restaurant, and Festival Field concert venue.

We talk with Omar about how Covid has impacted the brewery and what’s next on the horizon.

Support the show (https://paypal.me/StephanieKHansen?locale.x=en_US)

Surly Brewing Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Hansen 0:00
Hello makers in Minnesota friends and fans. We have a whiskey dinner coming up featuring keepers are whiskey made right here in Minneapolis at the O’Shaughnessy distilling company started by cousins and lifelong friends Patrick and Michael O’Shaughnessy. They both had a vision to make whiskies worthy of their rich Irish American heritage helmed by world renowned master distiller Brian nation, they set about building a state of the art distillery in Minneapolis to produce world class whiskies and serve as a source of pride for the Irish community. At their distillery. The magic of whiskey making begins with three triple copper pots, where they make American whiskey and the traditional Irish triple distillation style. Their flagship offering Keeper’s heart Irish American whiskey is the first whiskey that blend the very best of Irish and American distilling traditions to deliver a truly unique and remarkable taste experience. At this dinner, you’ll taste each of the components that make up Keeper’s heart Irish whiskey, paired with food courses prepared by Nicole Leary, the Lexington Herald and chef like makers in Minnesota’s dinners in the past, I’ll be hosting but we’ll be joined by O’Shaughnessy distilleries master distiller Brian nation who will walk us through each course and help us appreciate this American Irish whiskey made right here in Minnesota. So join us February 15. At the Lexington for a post Valentine’s Day celebration. With keepers Heart, American whiskey will be the exclusive diners in the restaurant for the evening. And you’ll mingle with me and toast your fellow whiskey lovers. We’ll have a limited number of tickets for this special night. And when they’re gone, they’re gone. So go to the lex mn.com and sign up via Eventbrite for their makers in Minnesota. Keepers heart whiskey dinner and tasting on February 15. Again, get your tickets now at the lex mn.com.

Hello, everybody, and welcome to the makers of Minnesota podcast where we talk to cool people doing cool things. And my next guest did a really cool thing his him and his family and his team. Were able to change some of the liquor laws in the state of Minnesota so that we can experience a craft brewing Renaissance, really like very few other states have, I think Welcome to the program Omar and sorry, the owner and founder of surly brewing.

Omar Ansari 2:42
Yeah, thanks for having me today.

Stephanie Hansen 2:43
It’s great to have you. I, I was talking to a friend of mine, and I don’t know how it came up that we were going to have you on I was going to have you on the show. But she was telling me how she was at some event somewhere a couple years ago before COVID. And she was having a drink. And she met this guy. And he was talking about his crazy son, and how he, you know, came to her one day or came to him one day and said, Dad, I want to start a brewery. And they were laughing and it turned out it was you my friend and your dad was telling the whole story about how you started the brewery and how proud he was a veal

Omar Ansari 3:20
funny? Yeah, that’s you know, it’s a family business. That’s I grew up working with my mom and dad at our little shop in Brooklyn center where the original surly brewery is. So it’s kind of a crazy path to get from, you know, from from me growing up working with them in the in the summer and tagging along with the weekends to kind of come up with this idea and turn in anything way bigger than any of us see myself on whatever guest

Stephanie Hansen 3:45
Yeah, and really that. I mean, it’s a testament to you guys, were able to help change some of the laws of the legislature so that people could produce and own breweries that were more than just craft beer halls as it were.

Omar Ansari 4:03
Well, really the big the big change on that was, you know, you know, when we open there were really no breweries, it was just Summit here in the Twin Cities. And then the big change that got made was that we were able to sell someone a pint of beer. So, you know, we used to give away beer for free during tours, which is great, but hard to get a bank to give you a loan on that model. So you know, kind of getting that certainly bill or tap room Bill change is really what was kind of we’ve seen this explosion of tap rooms and breweries across Minnesota law that’s just good. Breweries can sell a glass of beer, which really, you’ve kind of important to the model.

Stephanie Hansen 4:34
Well, in your location was one of the first things over in sort of, we’ll call it the Malcolm yards sort of area. I work at KSTP and you were kind of behind us along the bus line there. And now we have O’Shaughnessy distilling and I’ll come yards and you guys, and fresh time is built and there’s a bunch of apartments. So you’ve really started the movement of a whole neighborhood to when you say,

Omar Ansari 4:58
Yeah, you know, we were, I worked with Some some folks company by the name Integra that helped me find find a spot to put the brewery and we looked over at spots. And, you know, that was that part of the city that Malcolm yards, Prospect Park area was pretty derelict and a lot of rundown buildings and not a great spot. And, you know, I remember that. We talked to a banker, and we told him, you know, there’s a lot of challenges with the area because it was a Brownfields was contaminated with her stuff down and poor soils, and he just looked at us and he goes, that’s the best you got. After looking at properties, but I think those those guys, that tiger really just kind of helped to see that it was really a diamond in the rough. And if we could deal with some of the environmental issues, knowing that the green line was five minute walk away, it was gonna come around like it was just, you know, kind of knowing the way we what the future was going to take, it was going to become an area that was going to become up and coming. And I think one of the last open parcels of land is getting to apartment buildings. Going up, just starting now right next to the food, the food hall.

Stephanie Hansen 6:12
Certainly festival field has been a fun place to see shows to you guys, we’re kind of just getting going. And then the pandemic, the the pandemic has impacted people in so many ways. And you guys, I think there’s this perception that all the liquor folks are just rolling in the dough, because the retail locations have been up some of them 12 to 20%. But what they miss when they think about that is how much restaurant sales and bar sales have mitigated some of that, but there’s no way it can catch up. So can you just give, like the listener a perspective of what it is like to be one of the top three brewers in in Minnesota and what that feels like in a pandemic?

Omar Ansari 7:06
Well, it’s been horrible, I guess, is probably the best way to put it. You know, you’re right. Liquor Store, sales have been up, you know, 10% Maybe, but when you get rid of almost 100% of your, you know, your beer hall, your brewery sales, you know, almost 100% of your, of your bar sales, you know, walk around Minneapolis, St. Paul downtown’s. Like, it’s it’s not a lot of, there’s not a lot of action. You know, that’s kind of where we’ve traditionally sold most of our draft beer, keg beer is to bars and restaurants. And, you know, many of them are struggling, many of them have closed. You know, we had to close the Beer Hall last No, October, because we just weren’t gonna be able to make it over the winter with only, I think at that point was a 200 person cap, and there was just no way to make it work. So it has been really hard. It’s been hard on our team, you know, we’ve laid a lot of not just the beer hall staff and what they’ve come back. But you know, we’re still way down in our offices, we probably have half the number of people because you know, there’s no one for doing tours, there’s no one doing events. We’re just down a lot of people still and you know, we’re still optimistic Lee planning for what’s going to happen. That that’s, you know, we’re not in a good spot now. But our I think like a lot of people, you’re optimistic that it’s going to turn around once again, with everything COVID Right, the goalposts keep moving. So seems like we’re hoping things are gonna go bananas this last summer, and they were good, but not great. And then omachron has kind of taken another whack at things and bars and restaurants have really slowed down again. So now it’s like, Well, let’s hope that we get going in the spring. So it’s really a testament to a lot of the the people that work here, people have really kept great attitudes going in the midst of some pretty pretty hard times.

Stephanie Hansen 8:54
I will say to, you know, you make some really incredible beer. And the innovation that has still continued to happen with the breweries is pretty amazing. You know, you guys have really written the sour wave, the juicy hazy wave the seltzer wave. It’s, I think, brought so much more people into the culture and into the product lines. And yet, it’s like every time you take a step forward, you’re pushed back to I feel for all of you and I feel for the hospitality industry. I really am hoping that we’re kind of burning this virus out by infecting as many people as we can right now and that we get to the summer and I don’t know that we can get to back to going to concerts and having a beer outside and

Omar Ansari 9:47
Oh, absolutely. And I you know, Steffi, part of it is people going back to work. We’ve got a lot of accounts that you know, they depend on people being downtown and going out and grabbing a beer or food after dinner and like That’s part of what we all do, too. So, you know, things aren’t going to be the same. Probably until some of that returns. And you know, the world. I think we all know the working world has changed a bit, right? So it’s just gonna, we’ll adjust to what whatever we got. So it’s, but Yeah, it sure would be great to have COVID behind us, but or at least bind us in a manner that it’s slowing things down or shutting things down. But that has been you know, since last March, was it last March or the March before

Stephanie Hansen 10:31
last two marches ago? We’re coming up on two years.

Omar Ansari 10:34
COVID Hayes, right. It’s just literally like every week, every day. Try and figure out what to do the best do the best you can for your employees in the

Stephanie Hansen 10:43
business. Have you had COVID yet?

Omar Ansari 10:47
Yeah, I had it. I got it two weeks ago.

Stephanie Hansen 10:50
Okay. When I got it till I

Omar Ansari 10:52
lost my sense of taste and smell last Sun Saturday, and it’s coming back a bit. So yeah, fine. Not everyone in my house. Got it. I mean, it’s definitely Omicron is just tearing through things.

Stephanie Hansen 11:04
Yeah, we did too. And it was so I, I mean, I don’t mean to sound insensitive, because I know a lot of people have died. And then this has just been a horrible illness for many. But it was also sort of weird to have been so scared of something for two years, you know, double boosted Vaxxed and not going places, and really altering my lifestyle in so many ways. And then at Christmas, got it gave it to everyone that came to my I had six of the seven of us got it that came to dinner, we had all tested negative that day, you know, we were trying to be prudent and smart. And then we all got it. And it wasn’t, you know, horrible. It wasn’t great than a couple days and not feeling great and a lot of tired and fatigue. And I said to a friend, I was like, in some ways I’ve been the most rested I’ve ever been. Because for 10 days, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t go anywhere. All I did was just sleep and watch Netflix. But it feels so like terrible when it’s all said and done. Because it’s like, Wow, is this the thing that we’re running from? And I don’t know anymore. I’m so confused. Because I know the virus has changed. I know that people being vaccinated and boosted has helped, you know, whether it but it’s all just so weird when you look at the just total cost of business, the cost of the entrepreneurs, the cost to families and employees. You know, my sister’s in hospitality and it’s just it’s brutal out there. And also people are just losing their damn minds. They, in terms of they’re frustrated, they lack civility, they are having great mental illness problems. It’s just gonna be I wonder how long it’s going to take us to come out of it. Like will it be 10 years?

Omar Ansari 12:46
Yeah, I mean, it’s things are different. Right, man, we got some friends in the hospital world. And I mean, boy, that’s. Yeah, I mean, right. They’re calling in the army to help out. I mean, yes.

Stephanie Hansen 13:00
You have kids in school? Or me? Do you have kids in school?

Omar Ansari 13:04
Yeah, yeah. They went back. They have not? Well, they, you know, all my kids got sick. So they were home for a while. But they’re all back now. So did you. On they’ve not. The school is really doing its best to try and hold the line. But yeah, y’all can see what’s coming. But I don’t know. Maybe we’ve gotten through it. You know, we had it in the brewery a little bit in the hospitality. And, you know, we kind of got through the last couple of weekends. And I’m hoping you’ll knock on wood, that sort of maybe the worst of it. And some of the people that got it. We were coming back now and kind of probably in the clear for three months. So yeah, hopefully we’ll get through it and get beer. Get back to beer.

Stephanie Hansen 13:41
That’s right. So you reopened your pizza shop, too?

Omar Ansari 13:44
Yeah, yeah. So the food of the beer halls open pizzas open the event centers not open yet. Obviously. This events kind of tough right now. But oh, yeah, pizzas open. So we’re excited to have people coming back in. And, you know, we’ve certainly got plenty of space, which has always been one of our claims to fame. Right was a big beer hall. So a lot of people to spread out. And pizza has been been doing great. So yeah, we’re, we’re back at it.

Stephanie Hansen 14:13
How do you think the event business will change? Other than, you know, it’s right now. It’s like, you can’t have events and if you have events, they’re small. Do you think that we’ll get back to large events again, as soon as people feel like it safe?

Omar Ansari 14:28
Yeah, I think for sure. I think there’s a kind of a human desire to do that right to gather to, to get together with employees. I mean, you know, we ourselves one of our biggest challenges the last two years is we haven’t had company meetings, you know, like, it’s not good for culture, not to be able to meet it’s not good not to be able to sit down and have a beer with your beer with your employees or workers. You know, like just doing things on Zoom. I mean, we’ve all done what we’ve had to it’s not the same. So I think so I think the probably always be some people that probably aren’t going to become trouble with it, right? Like, that’s their only people. They’re like, Nope, I’m out. I don’t need to do this. I’m in, you know, for all kinds of reasons. So it’ll probably be years before it’s back to what it was. But the people, you know, with our event center, you know, we’ve got weddings, we’ve got graduations parties, we’ve got retirement parties, like those are all going to happen. I mean, we also have Yeah, those parts, it was important milestones in life. So yep, hopefully kind of same thing this probably spring will probably get events going again, and be ready for when people hopefully, come on back.

Stephanie Hansen 15:35
I had the pleasure of sampling the surly darkness, darkness line. Yeah. And it was wonderful. And also just, the packaging was so cool. It was like a black, foiled printing, with bright colors. Like, how did you conceive of all that during COVID? When the time where maybe, or, like, did you need to stand out at retail. And so that’s why you really pushed it that way.

Omar Ansari 16:03
You know, it’s trying to always try to come up with something interesting, right? We’ve always, I think, on our packaging side, tried to do some unique things and with darkness itself. And we choose a different artist every year, which is a weird thing to do in the beer business. But it’s part of that creative process, which is so fun. So Bill Manley, who runs our marketing department does all of the kind of the ideation on the packaging, it’s was an idea he’d had for a while. So he worked with folks on studio and fire, which is the yellow prep shop real close to us, and they printed all those boxes. So it’s great, because it’s working, you know, Bill’s working with artists working with studio and fire trying to find things that work, you know, because when they’re in that involved, like with that foil, like you’re talking about everyone, you know, the artist and the producer, meaning studio on fire, they’ve really got to be on the same page of what’s gonna work in that particular application. So, yeah, really a fun way to do something different, you know, we’ve never really done the variance like that in the past. So really kind of a fun new way to get something out

Stephanie Hansen 17:06
there. What do you you have started this business, and I hope this doesn’t come across as weird. But you seem to have taken a lot of shots, both personally and professionally, I think because you’re big. And people, you know, want to always have this idea of the need to take down the bigger person to make room for the little guy, I kind of have the opposite take on it. I think if you make room for the bigger guy that makes more room for the little guy. But you’ve taken a lot of hits personally with the union vote? And do you take that personally? Like, do you go home and you’re just like, man, you know, I’m just trying to brew be her beer here? Or do you just use it as a way to build your character and just keep going forward?

Omar Ansari 17:56
Well, um, yeah, it’s pretty impossible not to take it personally. Yes. All the all the pieces. Um, and, you know, so I guess some of the things, you know, when we got the when the certainly bill got done, you know, we had the option got offered a deal, which would just be for us. And kind of the point, for me at that time was like, Listen, this isn’t just for me, this is for the industry, like, it needs to get better. And that’s kind of how I’ve looked at it, you know, how we do things, you know, living through what we did with COVID? Yeah, I mean, a lot of people weren’t happy the way things turned out, but it was everyone at the staff doing what they could make the best decisions and business has been pretty. I guess, one of my regrets is not, you know, as a business owner, you’re supposed to be optimistic, and always being a good leader and letting everyone know, things are gonna be alright. But, you know, there’s a timing there, things weren’t all right. And it was pretty bad. And maybe not explained that well enough to people didn’t, didn’t make didn’t wasn’t was a mistake. So yeah, I mean, it’s hard. It’s all you know, personal, too small. It’s a family business. So what have we been so but, you know, time goes on, you kind of realize where you made mistakes and try and do better. And that’s why EMS can do is keep trying to do better and, and knowing why we’re making those decisions, hopefully making them for the right reasons. At the end of the day. That’s kind of how you got to get through it of like, Thank

Stephanie Hansen 19:27
you forget, were

Omar Ansari 19:28
you making the right decisions at the time with what you knew.

Stephanie Hansen 19:31
I think you forget to let people forget, like, you know, it’s not like your Target Corporation, right? You don’t have like 2000 people in HR and consultants and people that are writing these policy manuals, like you guys have grown up in a very short period of time to be impacting lots of people, lots of livelihood. You know, your own your own family. You’re trying to take care of the people that are your investors, but also at the same time be true to your employees and the people that have brought you here. It’s sometimes an untenable job, and you just have to do the best you can. And you talk about leadership, leadership comes through learning leadership comes through sometimes being taken the hard knocks, you know, and and you don’t always find yourself in this position of always being the loved one, but you have to be the one that keeps moving it forward. I admire that you’re learning something, because I think that’s how we get better.

Omar Ansari 20:25
You know, we went from 30 employees to 300 in the course of, you know, a month or so when we opened the new place up and yeah, I mean, it goes back to that always trying to do the best you can with the information you have, you know, looking back, it’s like, oh, boy, I should have done that differently. But, you know, there are lots of pieces that like, Yeah, but you know, at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do, of course, the best thing to do. And I think that’s also definitely one of the pieces of trying to surround yourselves with other people that are really good at their job. And our team has gotten really strong over the years. And that’s definitely a point of pride, I think, for a lot of people on the team is keep trying to get better. And that’s really made that’s really helped the company move forward. Yeah. In through all of it. So, yeah, it’s it’s not always, it’s not always easy. And it’s been strange, because even when things started off, we were definitely the darlings of the industry and could do no wrong. And, you know, not that much change in my mind of how we went about things. But that’s, you know, things didn’t change. So yep. So here we are getting ready for

Stephanie Hansen 21:24
spring. Yeah. And we’re excited for it. I mean, my family, we’re big fans of the beer. We think you are have we love the brewery. We love the area, we love supporting you guys. And I you know, I spread it out a little bit because I want to support the other guys too. But you consistently just make really, really good beer. So if that’s your jam

Omar Ansari 21:47
for that, that’s never that never gets old to hear. But, you know, there’s a lot of breweries in the Twin City, a lot of restaurants and I would definitely tell all your less listeners, I think that they know that but they all need help, you know, keep going out. Yeah, take out or do you know, do something because there are a lot of people just trying to, to get through this to the other side. And hopefully we’ll be there. We can get there this spring this summer. Right.

Stephanie Hansen 22:07
I hope so too. You’ve got some concerts that have been announced. So I’m hoping to sit on your patios and

Omar Ansari 22:13
we do we’re gonna have a bunch of this summer, which are going to be super fun. Because I think that last year for a lot of us was sort of like the moment, it felt like things were different. You know, when there’s 5000 people out there for the weekend show is just pretty spectacular. Yeah. I mean, that’s kind of what the breweries been built for as people gathering and community and friends and people getting together. And that’s kind of when certainly is in its best. So yeah, we got a bunch of shows lined up this summer. So it’s gonna be great.

Stephanie Hansen 22:41
Alright, so we can find all that information on your website, I’m assuming.

Omar Ansari 22:45
Yep. Yep. Some of the shows, we’ve announced probably three or four shows, but not all of them. So there’s some more coming so so our website will have it First Avenue. Is is we partner with them to really take care of the ticket piece of it. And they do so certainly. Firstly, I was a spot to to check out. Okay. Going on. Not just our shows, but all of them. Another Minnesota. Another minute. Great Minnesota company, right. Yeah.

Stephanie Hansen 23:09
I love working with them. They do such a great job too. So thanks for your time today, Omar. And I’m just I’m glad to spend time with you. And hopefully we’ll get to the other side here before too long.

Omar Ansari 23:19
We will look forward to getting some pizza together again. Yeah, absolutely. Thanks. All right. Thanks. Bye bye.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai