Four years ago, Surly Brewing owner Omar Ansari struggled to persuade even a few local establishments to sell a single keg of his beer. Yet by most accounts today, Surly is not just a brewery. It's a craft-beer force of nature.
"We're making beer for people that didn't know they wanted it before they had it," said Ansari.
Since its start in 2006, kicking out beer 30 barrels at a time in the corner of Ansari's parents' former abrasives factory, Surly's exponential growth has outpaced even the wildest dreams of the Macalester College economics grad, who was bit by the home-brewing bug in the mid-1990s. The Brooklyn Center brewery is on track to produce about 15,000 barrels this year, still not enough for an insatiable beer-drinking public and a nearly two-year waiting list of eager bar owners and retailers hoping to sell it. But what Surly lacks in capacity, it more than makes up for in attitude.
To enjoy a Surly is to gain admission into what has become a not-so-secret club. Beer geeks and passive bargoers alike are drawn by tractor beam to its swagger, its moxie, its middle finger to the light-lager establishment. Fans treat Surly's weekly brewery tour, led by Ansari himself, like a backstage pass to a rock concert, reserving spots months in advance for a chance to get a glimpse behind the curtain. And strong word-of-mouth has helped grow the loyal Surly Nation, both at bars and online with a connected audience of followers.
The dedication to his brewing vision runs deep with Ansari. The addition last year of a large tattoo on his forearm, proudly showcasing the unmistakable Surly logo, proves it. But the new ink is actually the least committed example of his drive to change local drinkers' perceptions of what a beer can be.
"Listen, if we were making furniture, nobody would care," said Ansari. "At the end of the day, people ask, 'Do you want another beer, or not?' That's the real test for us."
The industry has also taken notice. In its short history, Surly has tallied two medals at the Great American Beer Festival -- beer-industry bragging rights that separate the great from the good. And in its first full year of operation, Surly was named Best Brewery in America by Beer Advocate magazine, outshining nearly 1,600 craft brewers.
The growing buzz goes hand in hand with Surly's edgy branding. An early strategic decision to package in colorful 16-ounce, skunk-proof cans has set Surly apart from the ubiquitous six-packs of bland bottles. Assigning hard-hitting and memorable names to its stable of beers -- Furious, Bender, Cynic and the inimitable Darkness -- has helped keep the product front of mind for many. Even Surly's ruggedly designed tap handles could seemingly double as medieval bludgeons. Taken together, the vibe has struck a well-tuned chord with local beer drinkers.
But Surly's talent in capturing the hearts and minds of craft-beer lovers is nowhere more evident than at its festivals. Upwards of 1,000 people came out to mark the changing of the seasons at September's SurlyFest, commemorated with a tradition-bending Oktoberfest-inspired beer brewed with rye. And Darkness Day, slated for Oct. 23 at the brewery, has turned into a cult-like convocation with nomadic beer lovers from across the country queuing half a day in advance for a chance to buy bottles of Darkness, a black hole of a Russian imperial stout that would make even the czars weep with joy.
Yet amid a sea of vortex bottles, cold-activated cans and ambiguous terms like "triple-hops brewed," Surly perhaps has perfected the ultimate marketing coup of all: delivering incredible beer.