The Tumultuous History of Surly’s Beer Hall


Surly Brewing’s taproom was not the first in Minneapolis, but it came to be the most significant. It’s the one that put Minnesota on the map, delivered as a promise by Surly in return for legalizing taprooms in the state. The Beer Hall has been a destination for craft beer tourists since it opened in 2014.

But in the past seven years, the Beer Hall has also become the center of several controversies, culminating in its indefinite closure last November. Now that the brewery has surprisingly announced that they will reopen in June, we’re revisiting the seesaw of events that have led us to this moment.

Dec. 17, 2014: Surly opens their destination Beer Hall

In 2011, Surly sponsored a bill to make it (finally) legal for breweries to operate taprooms in Minnesota. The law, known now as the Surly Bill, spurred a windfall of growth in statewide breweries. Three years later, Surly opens the doors on the destination Beer Hall they’d envisioned when lobbying for the Surly Bill.

The Beer Hall includes full-service tables on the main level, serving a menu developed partially by Linda Haug, wife of Surly head brewer Todd Haug. There’s also a fine dining establishment called the Brewer’s Table located on the top level helmed by renowned local chef Jorge Guzman.

Nov. 16, 2016: Todd Haug leaves Surly

In February 2016, Linda Haug was let go from Surly, ending an 11-year relationship. Nine months later, Todd Haug makes his exit. Both announce their plans to move to 3 Floyds Brewing, where Todd will help with brewing and distilling, and Linda will consult on the Indiana brewery’s restaurant.

Todd’s chief gripe with Surly is that he never received an ownership stake, despite serving as Surly’s de facto mascot and namesake of their most lauded beer. He also cites the treatment of Linda as a contributing factor.

“When I saw what they did to Linda, after she never had a bad performance review or one word of warning, I had to ask, could they do the same thing to me?” Todd told Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine.

March 30, 2018: Surly Pizza Upstairs opens

Guzman and the Brewer’s Table last only two years at Surly. In 2018, the brewery relaunches the space as a New Haven-style pizza joint. Surly Pizza Upstairs is incredibly popular on its debut, but its opening comes two days after Surly settles a $2.5 million class-action lawsuit for illegally pooling employee tips. The lawsuit had been initiated by former Surly bartender James Conlon in February 2016, growing to include 140 current and former Surly servers and bartenders. Following the settlement, the brewery stops accepting tips for staff.

Aug. 31, 2020: Staff announces intent to unionize

10 days after distillery Tattersall voted to become America’s first unionized craft distillery and five days after Spyhouse announced their intent to do the same, Surly’s front-of-house staff notifies management of their intent to join Unite Here Local 17

A group called Unite Surly Workers is formed to lead the effort. Unite Surly Workers’ concerns are mainly related to staff safety during COVID.

“Once we heard what service was going to be like, we sent a letter expressing concerns about safety and pay,” Unite Surly Workers’ Natalie Newcomer told October. “This jump-started the idea of being like, ‘Hey, we actually don’t agree with this, can you please listen to us?’, asking in the most respectful way if we could be part of the process. And they basically said, ‘No, we’re not changing anything about our plan to reopen, whether it’s in terms of safety or financially.’”

When contacted at the time of the unionization movement, Surly’s press team responds with a statement they’d posted to social media earlier that day:

“Yesterday, some of Surly’s hospitality employees notified management of their intent to unionize. We’re working on determining next steps.”

Sept. 2, 2020: Surly announces closure of Beer Hall

Days after the union news went out, Surly front-of-house staff are notified that they would be laid off effective Nov. 2, in compliance with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act of 1988, which requires 60-day notice for plant closings and mass layoffs of employees. 

Surly’s public announcement comes soon after. The statement cites an 82% decline in revenue stemming from COVID-19 closures and the cancellation of big events, such as the July Tame Impala concert. ProPublica reports that Surly had been granted a $2.8 million PPP loan the prior April to cover payroll, corroborating founder Omar Ansari’s statement that 2020 was a “lost year” for Surly. The brewery insists the closure is not in reaction to its staff organizing.

“The timing of this announcement is not ideal,” Surly wrote. “On Monday, some hospitality employees notified us of their intent to unionize. We respect their decision to turn to an outside organization for representation and will continue the dialogue. That does not change the fact that our plans to close the Beer Hall were put in place weeks ago with the announcement planned for this week.”

Local 17 are quick to call their actions retaliation, which would represent a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. Local 17’s Sheigh Freeberg estimated that 110 employees who signed union cards were included in the firing.

“Surly sent out a WARN notice letting employees know they will be laid off Nov. 2,” he told City Pages. “This is a clearly illegal and disgusting action from the employer retaliating against them for exercising their rights to form a union.”

An employee walkout and consumer boycott are discussed by Unite Surly Workers but are never enacted. Local 17 withdraws their unfair labor practice charge after Surly agrees to let the workers hold an election.

“We, the union and Surly, agree to support a free and fair election so that everyone can make the right decision for themselves,” they told the Star Tribune.

Oct. 7, 2020: Surly’s union vote fails

While Surly was bargaining with their staff, Fair State Brewing Cooperative voluntarily recognized their employees’ bid to join Local 17. The day prior, Stilheart Distillery and Cocktail Lounge and Lawless Distilling Company also signed cards.

The momentum would not carry over. Surly’s union vote was stipulated on the fact that 50% of the brewery’s hospitality employees must vote in favor to ratify the union. Of the 112 eligible voters, only 76 voted. 56 voted in favor, 20 against, meaning the bid failed by a single vote. Ansari and head of hospitality Dan Dinovis are seen out celebrating shortly after, according to Unite Surly Workers.

“The results do not affect the Beer Hall’s stark financial reality that led to the plan and the need to close indefinitely,” Surly said in a statement. “We’ll continue to provide guests with exceptional service and the highest safety measures until our final night of service.”

Nov. 2, 2020: The Beer Hall closes indefinitely

As planned, the Beer Hall closes the first week of November. No announcement is made by the brewery or Unite Surly Workers.

March 31, 2021: The Beer Hall announces plans to reopen

As vaccinations are distributed and COVID restrictions relaxed, Surly announces they have plans to reopen the Beer Hall on June 1. The announcement comes after months of the brewery’s vocal support of the Free the Growler bill, which would allow Surly to sell to-go beer from their taproom again.

Surly’s marketing team confirms they’re hiring an executive chef, general manager, hospitality-focused HR generalist, and digital marketing manager who will “help define what the Surly beer hall looks, feels, sounds and tastes like when guests are welcomed back.” A coinciding statement elaborates that “qualified candidates and former employees are encouraged to apply to any open positions.”

Heavy Table reached out to Unite Surly Workers for comment, but the request was not returned before press time. Instagram stories published on March 31 indicate that they’re not going to stay silent, though they’ve made no public statement yet.