Thirsty beer enthusiasts packed themselves into the flatiron confines of the Tipsy Cow last Friday evening to sample a handful of brews from Minnesota. It was the opening night of Madison Craft Beer Week, and a tap takeover featuring Surly Brewing attracted a crowd excited for a taste.
Founded in 2006 and based in Brooklyn Center, just across the Minneapolis city line, Surly enjoys enthusiastic acclaim and an ubiquity in the Minnesota craft beer scene. The brewery has attained a cult status in places where its brews aren't generally available, which includes just about everywhere else around the country. Surly's distribution is centered on its home state, and it recently returned to Chicago last November after several years' hiatus.
But Surly is not available in Wisconsin, excepting chance appearances in border towns along the Mississippi, St. Croix and St. Louis rivers. Its brews are a coveted item of trade in Wisconsin, acquired and delivered via the personal commerce of those whose lives usher them back-and-forth between the neighboring states.
"It's not a secret that I'm a fond lover of Surly," says Michael Banas, co-owner of the Tipsy Cow. He became a fan over the years while visiting family in the Twin Cities, discovering its four-packs of 16-ounce cans and touring the brewery. "Furious was the first one I had," he says, "and I thought, 'Wow this is awesome!'"
Furious is the premier beer from Surly, an energetically bitter IPA that's balanced by a correspondingly assertive malt foundation. "It's kind of crazy how that became a flagship," says Omar Ansari, founder and owner of Surly. "When we started brewing it eight years ago, it seemed too far big a beer to become a flagship for anyone."
Corey Shovein, sales manager for Surly, calls Furious a red IPA, and emphasizes the role of its malts in getting embraced by craft beer drinkers. "It's the beer that put us on the map," he says. However one describes Furious, it accounts for a little over half of the brewery's production, and the demand for more, in Minnesota and beyond, isn't flagging.
"We don't have enough beer for Chicago. I don't know if we'll ever have enough," says Ansari, but he's intent on at least trying to bridge the gap.
Surly is responding to the growth of its business by building an entirely new brewery. It will be located just east of the University of Minnesota main campus, near the football stadium where the Gophers (and Vikings, temporarily) play; construction commenced last October, and is targeted for completion by this fall. (This followed the 2011 enactment of the Minnesota Pint Law -- a.k.a. the "Surly bill" -- which allowed for taprooms on brewery premises in the state, and served as a necessary spur to growing its craft beer industry.)
The current Surly brewery is maxed out at around 30,000 barrels-per-year production, but the new facility will allow for upwards of 70,000, and can expand to over 100,000 barrels with the addition of new equipment, explains Shovein. "We'll definitely double in size right out of the gates," he says. With that capacity, Surly intends to fulfill demand in Minnesota and the Chicago area, and then look at expanding elsewhere.
Surly's target date for arrival in Wisconsin is next year. Anything earlier will not be possible, says Shovein, despite recent chatter both on bar stools and online that its beers would be distributed in the state as soon as this summer. "We have an expansion plan of getting into Wisconsin and Iowa in 2015, fingers crossed," he says. "When we reach capacity in our current markets, then we can heavily consider Wisconsin."
Ansari is more circumspect. "It's crazy the amount of time it's taken us to make enough beer," he says. "The beer scene has completely changed in the eight years I've been it, but when there is enough beer, it will be the right time to get on over there."
Ansari cites Wisconsin's reputation in the craft beer world and the state's close relationship with its neighbor to the west as a motivator for Surly's expansion plans. "Wisconsin is a great beer state, everyone knows that," he says. "We've got so many people in the Cities from Wisconsin, so many in Wisconsin from Minnesota, so it's a natural fit."
Shovein is likewise optimistic about a Surly expansion into Wisconsin. "You guys have been a part of the craft beer scene for a long time. Breweries like New Glarus, Sprecher, and Capital helped build it," he says. "Families in both states come to Minneapolis and have our beers, so I'd like to think we’d do well in Wisconsin."
Along with Furious, the Surly tasting at the Tipsy Cow featured Overrated (West Coast IPA), Coffee Bender (oatmeal brown ale) and Blakkr (imperial black ale), a limited release and "imposing" brew that was made in collaboration with Three Floyds of Munster, Indiana and Real Ale Brewing of Blanco, Texas and released in February. The event was the second of the day for Surly, as earlier in the evening, Next Door Brewing
Surly also put on several tastings last Thursday on the tail end of Milwaukee Beer Week, at Stubby's Gastropub, the Rumpus Room and Palm Tavern. (For those in Madison hoping for a taste of Darkness, a diabolically popular imperial stout that attracts hordes of Surly fans outside the brewery on its release day, it was served at a couple of the Milwaukee events, but none of it made the trip back west on I-94.) This two-stop tour of Wisconsin was part of the brewery's ongoing marketing strategy.
"As everything becomes so hyper-local, it becomes important to keep Surly on the tip of everybody's tongue," says Shovein, noting that the brewery seeks to keep anticipation high in markets it is hoping to enter. (This strategy included distributing an extremely limited supply of Surly cans to craft beer retailers in both Madison and Milwaukee following the tasting events; for example, Trixie's offered both Furious and Blakkr last Saturday morning, supplies of which ran out later in the day.)
Wisconsin fans of Surly looking for another taste of its beers sans trip or trade can look forward to the Great Taste of the Midwest, if they acquired tickets. The brewery is a popular participant in the festival on the shores of Lake Monona, which will be held this year on Saturday, August 9. For those without tickets, though, Surly plans to host a Great Taste pre-party on the Friday night before the fest, something it hasn't done for several years.
"I don't know what the pre-party will be yet, but I can almost guarantee we will be a part of something," says Shovein. It's another tease, but one that's another step closer to Surly's launch of a bigger brewery and its hopes for 2015.
"The response has been absolutely humbling," says Shovein about the tastings in Madison and Milwaukee. "I think it really shows the family bond we share, that crossover between Wisconsin and Minnesota with people transferring beer back-and-forth. It makes for a lot of intrigue."