Getting Surly

By Teresa Scalzo | Photographs by John Noltner

SurlyRebecca Ansari ’94 and her husband, Omar Ansari, know how to combine business with pleasure

Not too many years ago, if you lived in the United States and wanted a really good beer (something other than a Miller or a Bud), you had to either travel to Europe or brew something yourself.

Omar Ansari was such a home brewer. After receiving a small home-brew kit as a gift, he began sharing his homemade beer with friends, who were thrilled, he says, either because it was great beer or because it was free. Whatever the case, Ansari was bitten by the brewing bug. One day while he was flipping through a home-brewing catalog, he spotted a larger kit that would permit him to brew six beers at one time. And that was the genesis for Surly Brewing Company, the small brewery started in 2005 by Omar and his wife, Rebecca Sheldon Ansari ’94. In fewer than four years, Minnesota-based Surly has become one of the nation’s fastest growing and most acclaimed breweries.

Becca, Omar, and their head brewer, Todd Haug, plus seven other employees constitute the entire Surly staff, and on any given day, any one of them can be found doing whatever needs to be done.

The one thing they don’t have to do is sell the beer, because the people who drink Surly and the people who sell it are rabid promoters of the stuff. In fact, there is a long waiting list for stores that would like to offer Surly to their customers.

Owning a brewery might not seem like the most obvious path for Becca, a Carleton biology major and currently a physician specializing in emergency medicine, and Omar, a Macalester economics major, to have chosen—until you meet them.

Rebecca Sheldon Ansari and Omar Ansari

Rebecca Sheldon Ansari '94 and Omar Ansari are the brains (if not the brewers) behind Surly—one of the nation’s fastest growing and most acclaimed breweries.

Becca arrives at the Voice interview and photo shoot modeling a Surly Girl T-shirt, but Omar is wearing a Macalester T-shirt, which Becca tries to cover up during the shoot. Omar clearly thinks this joke on Carleton is hilarious, and soon Becca is laughing along with him.

Becca met Omar in 1999 when she signed up to play with the Twin Cities Ultimate League. “My buddy Andy Golla [’93] and I wanted to be on the same team,” Becca says, “so we put our names down as a package deal. Omar and his teammates said, ‘Who is this Golla guy? That’s a cool name. We’ll take those guys.’ ”

“I tell my mom that college wasn’t a complete waste of their money,” Omar says. “I met my wife playing Frisbee and we own a brewery, which proves that extracurricular activities can be an integral part of your life later on.”

Becca and Omar talked with the Voice recently at the brewery to explain how getting surly over bad beer turned out to be so much fun.

Voice: Do you have a job title?

Omar: It says president on my business card.

Becca: The dude. We’ve called you owner, CEO, president, founder.

O: Driver, bookkeeper, order taker, kegger. Depends on the day. A lot of brewery owners call themselves brewmeisters, but I don’t come up with the recipes. Todd comes up with the recipes and keeps the machinery going.

B: You’re a businessman. Omar went to brewing school with the idea of starting a brewery, but it didn’t take off until he met Todd.

V: Why did you decide to turn your hobby into a business?

B: At the time, he was running the family business [selling industrial abrasives] in this building.

O: And I was doing a poor job of it. We sold less every year and, being an econ major, I knew that that’s not the way you’re supposed to run a business and that I’d have to do something else.

B:  We’d spent years pondering what it was going to be.

SurlyO: I have friends who can sit down for a half hour and develop a page full of ideas for new businesses to run. Well, I’m not an idea guy.

B: You had one really good idea.

O (laughs): And we’re running with it. We’re going to run that one idea into the ground. Every home brewer thinks about starting a brewery. It’s beer. Beer is fun.

V: But you made it happen. How?

O: If you’re going to start a business, you’ve got to have some aces in the hole because it’s too hard otherwise. We had this building. Becca’s being a physician was a huge safety net for us, because there is no money to be made for years after opening a brewery. Gary Nicholas [’94], who was in Becca’s class at Carleton, works at Bell’s Brewery [in Michigan], and he gave us a lot of good advice.

V: Let’s talk about the whole vibe behind the Surly brand. Was that marketing genius on your part or just an accident?

B: We didn’t want to be the “Timber Wolf Brewery” or the “North Woods Brewery.” We wanted something with an edge to it. So we went on a brewery tour in Portland, Oregon, to try different beers and brainstorm. That’s where—well, I think Omar said it first and he’s pretty sure I said it first—we talked about how we get surly when we can’t find a good beer. And he was like, “That’s it!”

O: When you walk into a bar and they’ve got Miller, Miller Lite, and Leinie, you get a little surly. You say to your friends, “Look, you guys don’t care about beer, but I do. Let’s go to another bar.” Our names—Furious, Cynic, Bender, Darkness, Bitter—our look, all our marketing stuff has come from Becca and me. Todd also has affected it.

B: We try to keep it local—we hire a local artist each year to design the artwork for our special Darkness brew—and to involve people who are passionate about what they do (and who like our beer).

V: Obviously, none of this would work if the beer didn’t taste good, but a lot of beers taste good. What launched Surly into the stratosphere?

SurlyO: The beer is good. The branding hit a sweet spot with people. But we’ve been at this for three and a half years now and a lot of folks still don’t know about us. The turning point probably was in June 2007, when Beer Advocate magazine named Surly the number-one brewery in the United States. It’s a subjective list, but suddenly, people all over the country wanted our beer. We’re currently in four states—western Wisconsin, eastern South Dakota, Minnesota, and the Chicago area in Illinois.

V: How big can you get and still maintain the quality?

O: That’s the big question: Who do we want to be? Expanding to the size of Summit or Bell’s involves a lot of issues, including building an entirely new facility, and isn’t what we envisioned when we started.

V: But the potential is there.

O: Yes. We could sell our beer in every decent market in the country. And people have asked for it in Japan, Canada, Europe.

B: People used to ask me, “So, where are you for sale?” And I’d say, “Here, here, and here.” Now it’s, “Ahh, I don’t know.”

O: We are one of the fastest growing breweries in the country. The fact that we’ve been able to get to 8,000 barrels a year in just under four years is pretty, uh, stupid. [He laughs.] Our first year we sold 1,600 kegs of beer, and this year we’ll probably sell 16,000.

V: Why continue to hold events at the brewery like Darkness Day and a Frisbee golf tournament?

O: Breweries are more than just manufacturing facilities. What you drink is part of who you are: “I’m a wine person.” “I’m a Bud guy.”

B: People come here and they feel like they are a part of this.

V: Let’s talk about the beer. What’s so great about it?

O: There’s always a way to make beer faster, cheaper, more stable, give it a longer shelf life. But from day one, the goal of this brewery has been to focus on making the best beer we can make.

B: So we buy our barley from Europe . . .

O: “Choice hops and barley” is such a tired phrase, but the easiest way for us to make more money right now would be to use cheaper American base malt instead of bringing in malt from Europe. Our ingredients cost more, but that’s reflected in the taste of the beer. 

B: We don’t filter our beer. A lot of breweries filter the beer at the end of the process in order to remove anything that could affect shelf life. We let it sit a few more days, and that makes a big difference in the taste. It completes the chemical reactions.

SurlyO: Beer needs a certain amount of time, just like wine. If you sell it too early, it’s green. But it takes more money and storage space to wait until it’s ready.

B: We also don’t pasteurize it. This limits us geographically, because beer that’s not pasteurized and not filtered should stay cold. If you send it to Florida, where it sits six months in someone’s distribution warehouse before it hits the shelves, it won’t taste the same.

O: What you put in is what you get out. Our beer is the most expensive beer out there, but people keep buying it because it has a complexity and depth that other beers don’t have. And again, that has a lot to do with Todd.

V: How did you meet Todd?

O: We went to junior high together. We did not hang out. He was so much cooler than I was. He still is.

B: They met again at a brewer’s conference in San Diego.

O: I was prancing around at this conference, talking to as many brewers as I could. As a home brewer, I didn’t know anything about the business of beer. Todd was head brewer at Rock Bottom Brewery [in Minneapolis] at the time, and he invited me to come over and taste his beers—still the best beer I’ve had in Minnesota. [After the conference] I’d go to Rock Bottom once or twice a week to watch him work and talk to him. I told him about my idea to open a brewery, and I asked him if he wanted to work with me. He said, “Nope. Start-ups are risky.” So one day I was lamenting the fact that I couldn’t find a brewer and he said, “I could be your brewer.” “What? You already told me no.” He said, “Well, you need to read between the lines.” Thank God he’s here. He has been a huge part of who we are: the beer, the attitude.

B: We have fun with the illustrations of the little surly man on our cans. On the Bitter Brew can, the surly man has long hair and a beard. That’s Todd.

V: How many recipes has Todd developed?

O: We’ve got Furious, Bender, Bitter, Cynic, Coffee Bender, Darkness, Hell, Surlyfest, Smoke, 16 Grit, Mild, and three anniversary beers.

V: Do you ever taste one and go “Oh my God, that sucks!”?

B: No. Todd’s so good, it’s shocking.

O: We dumped one batch—the first batch we brewed—but that’s pretty typical.

B: Too murky. But that’s the last one we’ve dumped.

O: That’s the advantage of having someone who’s been doing this for 20 years. I can follow a recipe, but if you give me a bunch of ingredients, I’ll be like, “Uh, is that going to taste good?” Todd can bang out the recipe because he knows how flavors combine.

V: Other than Darkness, all of your brews are sold in cans. Why cans rather than bottles?

SurlyO: Todd is a huge fan of beer in cans. He said to me early on, “I’m going to convince you to put our beer in cans.”

B: I said, no one will buy it. Everyone knows that canned beer sucks.

O: From the beginning, we’ve said, “Let’s not do what breweries have always done.” Todd’s wife, Linda, suggested that we use 16-ounce cans—like Guinness and Old Speckled Hen. That’s when it occurred to me that it was just my perception of how the beer in cans was going to taste. So we got together with Christopher Sheldon and Pam Holloway, both Carleton Class of ’92 . . .

B: My brother and his wife.

O: . . . and we tasted Heineken and Newcastle, in a bottle and in a can. For one of them, we thought the beer in the can actually tasted better.

R: Two things will turn a beer nasty: too much oxygen and too much light. The can is better at keeping out both.

V: Suddenly, I’m very thirsty.

O: So let’s go drink some beer.


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