A Drinking Problem

A Drinking Problem

How can Surly Brewing keep up with demand for its beers?

You’ve been there: You have people over, you open the cooler and realize, “Uh oh, we’re out of beer.”

At home, it’s an inconvenience. But if you’re the brewer of some of the most in-demand beers in the Midwest, it’s a major problem.

Omar Ansari, founder of Surly Brewing Company, made the agonizing decision this past spring to suspend beer deliveries—and the growth of his Brooklyn Center–based business—in markets outside the Twin Cities and focus instead on his growing local accounts.

Which raises the question Ansari clearly gets asked quite a bit: Why not just brew more beer? The answer: He is, and it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“It’s never an issue of whether we’re going to expand or not,” Ansari says. “We’re always expanding, so it’s really, simply, can we expand fast enough to keep up with demand?”

Ansari set up his brewery four years ago in a 5,000-square-foot corner of his parents’ industrial abrasives plant. Surly brewed 800 barrels of beer in 2006. It now takes up the entire 24,000-square-foot building, and last year it brewed 9,000 barrels of beer.

At first, increasing production was as relatively simple as adding more fermentation tanks, the elephant-sized stainless steel vessels where each batch of beer sits for two to four weeks before being kegged or canned. More recently, however, Surly was running out of time in the day to brew enough beer to keep all those shiny tanks full. The brewery had been able to brew two batches per day. With new equipment put in place this summer, Ansari aimed to increase that to three or four.

For instance, a new automated pump system removes spent grain left at the end of the brewing process. In the past, the brewery shut down twice a day for nearly an hour while workers shoveled the heavy, wet grain into 55-gallon drums. Now, they push a button and it’s pulled through overhead piping and into a truck parked outside. It takes about 15 minutes after each batch, shaving 60 to 90 minutes a day from the process.

Ansari wants to automate bringing in fresh grain at the start of brewing as well. The brewery has added a third and soon a fourth brewing vessel, which will allow it to start consecutive batches more quickly.

Another newly automated process: snapping on the plastic rings that hold together Surly’s four packs of cans. Until this year, one person was doing it manually.

None of the changes involves brew times or recipes. Ansari doesn’t want to mess with the quality of his Furious, Bender, Cynic, and other brews.

He hopes his current upgrades will be enough to keep up with growing demand locally and resume the flow of Surly to its currently dry accounts in Chicago, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. He isn’t making any guarantees though, admitting he has a less-than-perfect track record when it comes to forecasting demand.

And when it comes to production challenges, “It’s always something,” he says. “In a brewery, you’ve always got a bottleneck.”