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How One CEO Took on the Law

Omar Ansari of Surly Brewing had to fight the law to launch his craft brewery.
Omar Ansari (right) of Surly Brewing

A child of entrepreneurial parents, Omar Ansari knew what it was like to run a small business—in this case, an industrial abrasives manufacturer based outside Minneapolis. But it was his passion for home-brewed beer that led him to launch his company, Surly Brewing. Despite some obstacles, including a state law that Ansari's customers recently helped change, Surly Brewing has flourished. Sales reached $4.7 million in 2010, landing Surly on the 2011 Inc. 5000 at No. 732.

I got into craft beers in 1994, when my girlfriend at the time bought me a home-brewing kit. Over the years, I really got into home brewing. As a birth announcement for my son, Max, I sent out a batch of beer.

I started thinking about how great it would be to get into the beer business. I had been working at my parents' company since I was a kid and running it full time since 2002. It wasn't exactly a growth business.

I thought if I could con my folks into giving me space in their building, I could run the business by day and the brewery at night.

I soon discovered there was a city ordinance prohibiting breweries in that area. I couldn't afford to move. It took four months to get it repealed.

We produced our first keg in 2006. After my parents retired, they sold the abrasives business. I eventually took over the whole building. One of our beers is called Abrasive Ale, in homage to the old factory.

We recently got a state law changed. The law made it illegal for us to sell beer to customers on site. We owe a lot of credit to our fans on Facebook and Twitter for pestering their legislators with phone calls and e-mails. We're now planning to build a restaurant and a brewing facility that will increase our production capacity tenfold.

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From the November 2011 issue of Inc. magazine


Darren Dahl is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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