Super Bowl crowd to test Minneapolis' booming craft beer scene

MINNEAPOLIS — Omar Ansari is still surprised that the Super Bowl is being held in Minnesota, where the temperature Thursday was a mind-numbing 4 degrees.

“Hey, man, if my team was in the Super Bowl,” the die-hard Vikings fan said, putting his head down as his voice trailed off. “Forget it.” His colleague Ben Smith saved the conversation: “Let’s talk about beer.”

>>READ MORE: No Super Bowl tailgating allowed? We got your budget backup plan

Ansari, the owner of southeast Minneapolis’ Surly Brewing Co., still has reasons to smile this weekend. His popular brewery near the University of Minnesota will be brimming with football fans desperate to get a taste of one of the brews that critically altered Minneapolis’ booming craft beer scene.

Camera icon Surly Brewing Co.
Outside Surly Brewing Co. in southeast Minneapolis.

Described by a friend as “a Persian American version of actor Chris Pratt,” Ansari is one of Minneapolis’ most visible businessmen. Surly, which has two production facilities in Minneapolis, one of which is equipped with a massive beer hall and restaurant, is one of the anchors of Minnesota’s craft beer explosion. With 16 fermentation tanks, the flagship Surly facility brews 24 hours a day, five days a week to put out 2,000 barrels a week, while its second location produces about 600 a week — that’s similar to Victory’s output.

Not only does Surly brew Furious, a popular India pale ale that can be found in bars across the Midwest, its existence also is one of the reasons the Twin Cities have dozens of other breweries between them.

Pennsylvania, which has more than twice the population of Minnesota, boasts more than 300 craft breweries, the most famous of which, technically, is Pottsville’s Yuengling. Among the licensed breweries in the state is Victory, based in Downingtown, which Ansari has visited. The man who’s been making beer for the last 20 years also drew inspiration from Troegs, the uber popular Hershey-based brewery, which was just getting into serving food when Ansari dropped by.

Surly, founded in 2006 in an abrasives factory, isn’t the largest brewery in Minneapolis (it’s the third largest). It also wasn’t the first (it was the second). But it’s probably the best known, and can take credit for dozens of other breweries popping up in Minnesota not long after it did.

Smith, Surly’s head brewer, explained Minnesota’s craft beer evolution — and even indulged in some Philadelphia comparisons — over a beer-paired lunch Thursday afternoon at the Surly beer hall, which routinely offers about two dozen beers on tap. The menu is a mixed bag that ranges from steamed mussels cooked with a Belgian-style pale ale to house-smoked brisket with brussels sprouts to a fried chicken sandwich best paired with a 9 percent ABV double IPA.

Camera icon Surly Brewing Co.
Surly Brewing Co.’s fried chicken sandwich with iceberg lettuce, red onion, aioli and sweet pickles, served with fries.

Not unlike Pennsylvania, Minnesota has long been criticized for outdated liquor laws that restaurateurs and brewers have claimed stymie growth in the food and drink industry. Surly played a role in at least starting to change that.

Before 2011, Minnesota law dictated that alcohol manufacturers, distributors, and retailers were to operate as separate entities, meaning breweries, by law, couldn’t sell pints of beer on-site. So while Surly was planning its $20 million facility located in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood, Ansari, lobbyists, and supporters dubbed “Surly Nation” went to work convincing the state legislature that the law should be changed.

At the time, there were about 30 breweries in the state of Minnesota.

By May 2011, Gov. Mark Dayton signed what became known as the Surly Bill, a piece of legislation that would allow breweries to apply for a license to serve their own beer on-location. Two-a-half years later, Surly opened its 50,000-square-foot “destination brewery.” The law applies only to breweries producing fewer than 250,000 barrels a year, so large corporations can’t come in and set up a production facility and a beer hall the same way a smaller craft brewery might.

And now, there are well more than 100 breweries across Minnesota generating more than $1 billion in sales a year. You could throw a stone anywhere in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and probably hit a brewery. And also not unlike Philadelphia, so many breweries have cropped up that some are concerned there’s a craft beer bubble that’s just bound to burst.

Though Ansari concedes “there’s breweries all over the damn place now,” to him that’s not a bad thing.

“We all compete, but it’s still really regional,” he said. “You could be a Troegs fan or a Victory fan, but when you’re coming here to watch the game, it’s like, ‘Well, I want to go to the breweries here.’ That’s the cool part.”

Smith said that dynamic is obvious when you look at the demographics of people who visit Surly. It’s no longer just the beer-obsessed. Now, he said, it’s families and grandparents and tourists and even a group of a dozen breast-feeding mothers who come in once a week.

“When I started getting into craft beer, it was mostly dudes with beards sitting around drinking,” said Smith (who, full disclosure, is a dude with a beard). “But it’s changed a lot, and now is much more approachable and universal.”