When Surly Brewing was getting started in the mid-2000s, owner Omar Ansari brought his fledging brewery to the Minnesota State Fair -- 'cause if you can make it at the fair, you can make it anywhere.
It didn't go so well.
"We were back in a booth by the horse barn," Ansari said.
Oh, how times have changed. It's boom time for the Twin Cities craft beer scene, and the State Fair is a great place to witness the results. The home-brew competition is still going strong, and the Ball Park Cafe is stocked again with a full lineup of Minnesota-made drafts.
The biggest brewing news, however, is the unveiling of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild's "Land of 10,000 Beers" beer hall. Located in a wing of the Agriculture/Horticulture Building, the exhibit will give fairgoers a 360-degree look inside Minnesota's craft brewing industry -- including tasting flights.
Ansari is now president of the guild, which includes 35 breweries and brewpubs. While craft beer is as popular as ever, he said it's still "a tiny piece of the beer-drinking puzzle."
"One of the things we've always talked about is 'How do we get ourselves in front of people who aren't craft beer fans?' -- and there's no better place than the fair," Ansari said.
The hall has been designed to run curious fairgoers through a veritable beer gantlet. The exhibit explores the brewing process from "farm to pint glass" with brewer talks and ingredients you can touch (barley stocks, hop vines). The history of Minnesota beer culture is on display, including old Schell's artifacts and an unbelievable can collection.
The kids' area has a coloring activity with Sven the Brewer. Children can also "dress like a brewer," complete with fake beard. On tap for the young ones: craft root beer from Town Hall Brewery and Fitgers.
For adults, the beer lineup includes about 21 Minnesota brewers, from big dogs (Summit, Schell's) to the new guys like Indeed and Boom Island. Beer is served in flights of four 5-ounce pours for $8. Flights are broken down by dark, light, hoppy and Belgian style.
Brewer talks are scheduled on a large stage twice a day (3 and 6 p.m.), and three times on the weekends. Ansari will give one of the first talks Friday night.
Make no mistake, this isn't just another place to drink, said Clint Roberts, the guild's marketing head and the exhibit's executive producer.
"It's set up to be a learn-while-you-drink environment," he added.