Remember back in May, when Budweiser announced it was rebranding its beer “America” for the remainder of the U.S. election season? (You’ve probably noticed how much national harmony has broken out as a consequence.) Well, not to be outdone, a much smaller brewery in Minnesota has brought out its own patriotically themed brewski. It’s called #Merica! – hashtag, spelling, and exclamation mark sic.
All very charming, but my theme here today isn’t the beer name. It’s the brewery name: Surly.
Surly Brewing began operations in 2005 in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. Its owner, Omar Ansari, is the son of Pakistani and German immigrants who owned an industrial-abrasives factory in Brooklyn Center. A homebrewing fan since early adulthood, Ansari persuaded his parents to let him turn half the factory into a brewery. In 2012 he told the Macalester College alumni magazine that he chose “Surly” for the company name “because that’s how my wife and I feel when we walk into a bar and can’t find any good beer to drink.”
Surly today means “rude” or “gruff,” but that wasn’t its original meaning. Its Middle English spelling, sirly, betrays its origins: literally “like a sir” – lordly or imperious. It took about three centuries for the word to settle into its contemporary meaning. Later on, it was used in some interesting compounds, including surly-browed, surly-borne, and – my favorite – surly-boots (“an appellation for a surly person,” according to the OED, which compares it to sly-boots and lazy-boots).
Surly actually introduced #Merica! a year ago “for the Annual D4th of July party put on by the Minneapolis-based punk band Dillinger Four.” Surly claims that it’s one of the few beer styles “truly born in the U.S.A”: a pre-Prohibition lager that uses corn “as an integral part of the flavor profile, rather than as a simple substitute for barley malt.” And you can’t get more American – OK, Mesoamerican – than corn.
“Declare independence from ordinary beer.”
#Merica! is a cheeky name, but much of the Surly lineup sounds more defiant: Cynicale. Furious. Hell. Schadenfreude. Overrated! (exclamation point sic). Abrasive (named in honor of the original abrasives factory and containing twice as much hops and malt as an average IPA.)
Surly’s pronouncements are a little caustic, too: “Surly Gives a Damn” (“the public-spirited side of Surly”). “Don’t be a dick” (a key component of the company’s philosophy – and several degrees more forthright than Google’s “Don’t be evil.”).
In short, Surly sounds exactly like a company I’d like to support, making beers I’d like to drink. But, dammit, Surly beer isn’t distributed in California. And that makes me cranky, if not downright surly.
Elsewhere in beer naming: “Hopportunity Cost: Craft Brewers Brawl Over Catchy Names as Puns Run Dry.” (Hat tip: Ben Zimmer.)
Elsewhere in successful negative branding: “Negative Names with a Positive Twist.”
Previously in the annals of surliness: Miserabilism.