Design 5-19-2014

Surly Puts Architecture to Work Building Its Brand

Surly recently revealed design plans for its destination brewery, designed by HGA Architects, and quickly faced critical blowback. But detractors have it all wrong: this bunker-like, Brutalist design is the perfect fulfillment of Surly’s image and brand.


Surly’s used to raising hell. The craft brewing company, located in Brooklyn Center and owned by Omar Ansari, is famous for its kick-ass attitude and tattooed employees — including heavy-metal guitarist and head brewer Todd Haug — amazing beer (of course), and graphic-novel label art for brews with appropriately irascible names: Hell, Furious, CynicAle and Abrasive. Surly Brewing is also known for its annual event, Darkness Day (named for Surly’s Russian Imperial Stout, Darkness). Surly’s even has legislation named after it: The “Surly Bill” changed state liquor laws to allow breweries to serve pints of their own beer on their premises.

But late last month, when Surly revealed sepia-toned black-and-white renderings of its new destination brewery, designed by HGA Architects and Engineers in Minneapolis, the company was still surprised when hell broke loose over the design. On Facebook, and following online articles about Surly’s new beer hall and gardens, were trails of negative comments.

The blowback is confounding, indeed. Because, as Surly drinkers are well aware, the brewery is all about richness, darkness, mystery. It’s a little bit outlaw, a lot edgy, and super brand-savvy. Brilliantly, what HGA delivered, with its bunker-like, International Style—aka, Brutalist—design, is the perfect fulfillment of Surly’s image and brand.

The building’s proposed corrugated metal siding, for example, corresponds perfectly with the industrial site (an 8.3-acre brownfield in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis), which is surrounded by train yards and grain silos. The metal siding also fits Surly’s image. “We don’t want the exterior to look too high-end, even with a modern aesthetic,” explains HGA architect Steven Dwyer. “The building can’t be too polished or refined.”

“We took a very honest and direct approach to maintaining the industrial quality of the building and warming it up with materials at just the right moments,” he adds. Dwyer and his team also took “the Surly gray work jacket approach to the building’s exterior,” he says, using the brewery’s ubiquitous work shirts and jackets for inspiration and identity.

What Ansari and his team asked HGA to create was a “destination brewery”. In architectural terms, “destination” means creating a design that people will travel to simply to experience the architecture. Think Frank Gehry and the Bilbao effect. In this regard, HGA’s plan succeeds massively. Yet, despite the remarkable industrial architecture, the signature of which may be the “viewfinder” balcony or deck (derisively likened to a “VCR” by the haters), Dwyer says he and his team “weren’t trying to create an architectural statement.” Rather, he says, they were after “destination” in brewery terms, which means visitors arrive wanting to get a beer in their hands and to see the vessels in which it was brewed. After doing market research with Michael Berglund, Surly’s artist-in-residence, and other die-hard brewery tourists (some of whom have visited more than 70 breweries around the world), Dwyer says he realized “the best breweries are the ones that put people in direct connection with the brewing process.”

“So to us ‘destination’ meant linking both the public and the production aspects of the brewery. In other words, we really focused on transparency, linking patrons with the people brewing the product,” he continues. “Our design is also based on how the brewery works and how we could sequentially choreograph the experience of people moving through the building.”


We weren’t trying to do great gymnastics with the form, but instead focused on how the architecture becomes the best possible partner in supporting and celebrating the brewery, and people’s relationship to it.


SO LET’S TAKE A TOUR. The project includes a parking lot. But Surly would like most visitors to arrive (and depart) on foot, bicycle, or mass transit. The brewery is a block from the new Green Line and a short walk from the University of Minnesota transit/bike way connecting Prospect Park and the U of M in Minneapolis and St. Anthony Park in St. Paul. “They were visionary not only with their goals about design, but also regarding site selection,” Dwyer says. “With alcohol involved, Surly was really conscious about access to mass- and alternate forms of transit.”

On arrival, visitors will walk between tall hedge walls that bound and mask the entrance. “Right away we’re setting up the mystique by carefully orchestrating a sequence of experiences,” Dwyer says, “just as Surly might hold back a special release to build the suspense.” A modest doorway at the end of the hedge opens into an entrance “chamber” with dramatic floor-to-ceiling glass walls for views of the fermentation cellar.

“A lot of cool wineries do this, so why can’t a brewery truly celebrate the way all the tanks are displayed?” Dwyer asks. Upstairs is a mezzanine that doubles as restaurant and banquet pre-function space, and which provides expansive views of the brewhouse tanks.

Next up is the beer hall, a large cavernous room—again with window walls that look into the brewhouse at one end, and out to a beer deck and gardens beyond at the other—with long tables for drinking and eating. The room resembles beer halls you find in Milwaukee, except with views into the inner workings of the brew process.

Haug (head brewer) and his wife Linda owned Café 28 in Linden Hills for 10 years. “So, Linda will be spearheading the hospitality portion of the brewery,” Dwyer says. “Surly’s vision was not only for adults. The project goes way beyond being a bar. Omar, his wife Becca, and Todd and Linda want the place to be inviting for families, as well.”

On the west side of the beer hall is an operable glass wall that lifts and slides. When open, the entire wall allows for a free flow of space from interior to exterior. From here, visitors can wander out to the deck and overlook the gardens and amphitheater.

The design team used its experience in the performing arts to create improved sight lines for events like musical performances; the stage area is at the lowest point while the amphitheater gradually steps up to the beer deck. Balcony views from the upper deck create premier seating for views to the stage and gardens beyond. The landscape design also includes areas within the amphitheater for small and large group gatherings around fire pits.

The design’s sloping roof creates volume inside the building’s west end, where the brewhouse, beer hall and restaurant are located. The slope also decreases the need for costly tapered insulation, lets the brewery economize on plumbing, and allows rainwater to run off into a rain garden. Overall, Dwyer explains, “We weren’t trying to do great gymnastics with the form, but instead focused on how the architecture becomes the best possible partner in supporting and celebrating the brewery, and people’s relationship to it and the gardens.”

“In our design,” Dwyer adds, “you can really see where HGA’s experience in the arts is evident. We used our experience in theater and design for the arts to frame not only what is in the space, but also how visitors will experience one space from the next. As designers, we’re not providing the process of brewing beer, or the event, or the social interaction, but hopefully we’ve created an ideal background and staging for it.”

And, in true Surly fashion, they raised a little hell in the process.

Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre has been practicing arts journalism for more than 30 years, and has written on the arts for almost every publication (print and on-line) in the Twin Cities, as well as for numerous national publications. She is currently the editor of The Line (, an online publication about the creative economy of the Twin Cities. She also positions and crafts communications material (press releases, brochures, website content, proposals) for educational institutions, dance …   read more