I’ve been on countless brewery tours, and for the most part, they’re all relatively similar. The tour guide walks a small group through the brewery, giving everyone a rough idea of how the beer is made. The group is brought through an industrial space filled with chrome and smelling of cooked cereal, and usually concludes with tasting a few beers.
Sometimes there are stand-out additions to the tour: a barrel room or a brewery cat. But I have never seen a gravel-bed nursery. However, this is something a guest would see when they visit Surly Brewing Co. in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The first question I blurted out during my interview with Mary Sulky, Executive Director of Surly Gives a Damn (more on that later), was “wait, what’s a gravel-bed nursery?”
A gravel bed nursery is a “bed” or pile of gravel that can be used as a nursery for saplings. Surly has a larger one (pictured below), right behind their brewery, where they plant approximately 750 tiny trees. These young trees can’t go directly into the forest as they need time to develop. The baby trees are planted in this nursery and watered regularly. Within a couple of months, the “root ball” quadruples. When these developed trees are planted in the forest, they have a much higher survival rate.
Surly does this in collaboration with the Mississippi Park Connection. They are trying to improve the urban canopy as a lot of trees in the area were wiped out by Emerald ash borer (a small beetle that has wiped out millions of ash trees in the Midwest). Surly contributes to this work through their gravel bed nursery and financial contributions.
Surly’s gravel bed nursery is only a small part of the “Surly Gives a Damn” program which began 11 years ago. Sulky shared that when Surly would host events, people from the community would come and volunteer. “This allowed people to get to be part of the brewery,” she explained. There was a consistent group of community volunteers that suggested, “let’s go do good in the world.” And Surly Gives a Damn (SGAD), got started organizing community service projects and events.
In the first year of SGAD, they completed seven community service projects. Before the pandemic hit in 2020, that number had increased to 50-60 community projects annually with about 30-50 volunteers at each event. While the number of volunteers had to be limited during the pandemic, they were still able to complete 83 projects.
When SGAD is evaluating organizations to support, they refer to their four pillars: Arts, Education, Health & Human Service, and the Environment. Some examples of organizations they support include: Second Harvest, The Food Group, and Bridging. Bridging has two locations in Minnesota and it focuses on people pursuing housing stability. “Think of it as a food shelf, but with home furnishings,” Sulky explains.
The people behind Surly Gives a Damn are constantly looking for ways to reach out to their community and do as much good as possible. Sulky shared, “(the) craft brewing community is a community.” Craft breweries consistently inspire one another to support, grow, and sustain their communities. Surly is no exception, that’s for sure.