Intersections in Entrepreneurship

With Omar Ansari and Alec Johnson

Wednesday, August 14, 5 p.m.

The Opus College of Business kicks off the academic year with a conversation between Omar Ansari, founder of Surly Brewing Company, and Alec Johnson, Ph.D., professor of entrepreneurship at the Opus College of Business.

Omar Ansari

Omar AnsariOmar Ansari founded Surly Brewing Co. on December 31, 2005, building a new business in the same building where his parents built their industrial abrasives business 40 years before. From the sale of the first keg of Surly in February 2006 to changing a Prohibition-era Minnesota state law and planning a $20 million destination brewery to open in 2014, Ansari has nurtured and developed more than a business; he’s helping to lead a craft beer movement in Minnesota.

Ansari’s passion for brewing was sparked in 1994, when at age 24 he was given a homebrewing kit. He spent years brewing out of his garage. In 2002, he and his wife welcomed their first child, Max, and instead of traditional birth announcements, Ansari created a beer to announce the occasion. Response from family and friends was favorable – of course for the baby, but also for his homebrew. This awoke Ansari’s entrepreneurial spirit and motivated the new father to take his hobby to the next level.

Ansari’s entrepreneurial streak came from his Pakistani father and German mother, both first-generation immigrants who started their abrasives factory in 1965. Ansari took over the business in 2002, but soon found that he didn’t have the passion for abrasives that he had for making beer. So, with the support of his family, he decided to retrain as a brewer.

He educated himself in the art of brewing, and rounded out his training with an apprenticeship at New Holland Brewing in Michigan. He returned home and ran Ansari Abrasives by day while working as a brewing assistant at Rock Bottom Brewery on the side. Rock Bottom’s head brewer, Todd Haug, was a former classmate of Ansari’s. Eventually, Ansari would convince Haug to join him in building the Twin Cities’ first new brewery in more than two decades.

Surly Brewing Co. was named for “the anger fueled by the inability to find good beer,” and that quest drove Surly’s early beer styles and continues today. In 2004, Ansari began to transform a portion of Ansari Abrasives into a microbrewery. By the end of 2005, the entire factory had been converted to a brewery.

Seven years later, Surly Brewing Co. has grown into one of the nation’s fastest growing craft breweries. In 2006, Ansari and his team produced around 850 barrels of beer, but by 2012 they had reached capacity and were brewing more than 20,000 barrels. Also in that time, Ansari was named Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year. His brewery was named the best in the U.S. in 2007 by Beer Advocate magazine and the 11th best brewery in the world in 2012 by Inc. magazine also rated Surly Brewing Co. the 732nd fastest-growing small business in the U.S. in 2011. Ansari has been a face for the craft beer revolution in Minnesota and is currently enjoying his third term on the board of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, an association representing more than 50 thriving Minnesota businesses.

The secret to Ansari and Surly Brewing Co.’s success has always been the beer and their mission remains the driving force behind Surly: brew the best beer theycan brew and stay true to the craft, above all else. That will be the case in 2014, as Surly Brewing Co. develops its $20 million "destination brewery" in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Midway that will produce as much as 100,000 barrels of Surly beer each year, giving the brand a broader reach and firmly placing it as one of the most successful craft breweries in the nation.

Alec Johnson, Ph.D.

Alec Johnson Alec Johnson is a professor in the Entrepreneurship Department, specializing in financial performance, small businesses strategy and start-up financing. He is active in developing cases studies focused on opportunity identification, business models, entrepreneurial management and entrepreneurial finance.

In January 2013, Johnson (along with his colleague James Ebben, Ph.D.) developed the innovative “Lemonade Stand Class,” which earned the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship® USASBE 2013 award for Special Recognition in Entrepreneurship Education Innovation. He publishes in entrepreneurship and strategy journals, and is a regular contributor to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Saint Paul Pioneer Press.  Johnson received his Ph.D. from The University of Wisconsin - Madison.