Todd Haug of Surly Brewing Company

Going Pro by | May 2007 | Issue #5

Photo by Bill Kelley

In less than a year and a half of brewing, Surly Brewing Company, a tiny Brooklyn Center, Minn., brewery, has already put the industry’s big boys on notice. Head brewer Todd Haug and founder Omar Ansari have brought huge, world-class craft beers to greater Minneapolis—and, in the process, sent far-flung beer geeks scrambling to find beer bootleggers to hook them up with a taste of Surly’s canned gold.

1. Bluntness can’t hurt
Surly Brewing Company’s name tells drinkers everything they need to know about Haug and Ansari’s beers: They’re big, arrogant, self-indulgent, and more than a little pissed off. “That was the mindset behind the name and the style—being aggressive and just laying everything out there,” Haug says. “We’re not going to pander to anybody.”

2. Know your market
One of the main reasons Surly brews such big, intense beers is that, in Minneapolis, nobody else does. “We can’t even get Three Floyds up here, and that’s only eight hours away,” Haug complains. “So there’s a huge hole in the market for American-style beers, more aggressively hopped styles.” He and Ansari figured that, “unless you really screwed it up,” it’d be tough for a small, hop-happy brewery to fail in the area. “People here are so ready for something new and local,” he says. They haven’t screwed it up yet.

3. More importantly, know your tongue
While acknowledging that, “If we were in Chicago, we probably wouldn’t be making these kinds of beers because Three Floyds does an awesome job with American beers,” Haug isn’t admitting that his beers are focus-grouped. Far from it—it’s more for the sake of having these kinds of beers around to enjoy in the first place. “We’re brewing the types of beers Omar and I like to drink. It’s not just to sell it. We need some more hoppy beer in this market. That’s where it all started.”

4. Go beyond the pale
“We decided not to make Pale Ales, because there are already enough of those out there,” Haug says. “We wanted to do something that took a little more time to create, and hopefully that would show through in the flavor of the beer. Our beers are 3–4 week beers, not 10–14 day beers. We’ve been trying to do the opposite of everything that’s out there.”

5. Make nonsense, and great taste
Haug believes that the average beer drinker doesn’t know, and probably couldn’t care less,about the minutiae of beer styles. On the other hand, “They do know whether they like a beer, or they don’t. The recipes reflect that considerably.” Surly’s Furious brew is way too dark and hoppy to be an American IPA, though its 6% ABV knocks it out of Imperial IPA-land. “We just elected to not try and call it anything.” It doesn’t make sense until it’s in the glass.

6. The can makes the man
Surly puts beer in kegs, growlers and cans—but not bottles. Don’t even bother asking. “People still don’t get it. Every time we give a tour, people ask, ‘When are you gonna put your beer in bottles?’ Well, we’re not.” Haug likes cans because they keep the hops hoppier, they save money on packaging, they allow art to envelop the product and they’re easy to haul into the woods or onto the lake. Additionally, they’re badass.

7. Brainpower tops manpower
The brewery is greatly expanding its capacity, and it just hired an additional brewer to help Haug out; but for its first fifteen months in business, Surly was a three-person operation, with Haug brewing the plant’s 1,500-barrel output without much outside help. (He also welded much of the brewery’s industrial equipment into place.) The brewery is able to churn out top-notch beer with a bare-bones staff because their operations were all mapped out before a single piece of equipment went into the ground. The brewery was laid out to maximize efficiency, and Surly’s canning line requires only two people to run.

8. Don’t fall in love with your press clips
For a small regional brewery, Surly has received a staggering amount of national attention. Surly’s beers have been compared favorably to Stone IPA and Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Imperial Stout. “It’s been a surprise. A good surprise,” he shrugs. “We were never thinking all these beers would do so well, that they’d be media darlings or whatever people seem to think. Omar and I both agree on what we think is good beer. If that’s well received by the critics, great. If not, we’re still gonna make beer.”

9. Attitude is everything
Asked what he listens to while he’s brewing, Haug replies, “Oh dear. That sounds like a setup.” (It wasn’t.) Haug and Surly brewgal Sarah Lawson are both guitar players in Minneapolis metal bands, so “we lean a little heavy back there.” Read: lots of Celtic Frost, Slipknot, GWAR, Carcass, and Hatebreed. “It keeps people out of our hair. It scares them. A lot of people just hear it as noise, but the energy in the music is huge to me. When I’m working a lot, heavy stuff keeps me moving. It’s certainly part of the Surly attitude.”