Mark Stutrud’s among the most successful beer brewers in Minnesota history. He has a little advice for anyone who wants to get into his industry: Don’t.
Stutrud, a lot of the brains (and some of the brawn) behind Summit Brewing, says he wouldn’t try starting a brewery now. The market’s too saturated, too many clueless punks are spoiling beer’s reputation, and people’s palates aren’t developed.
Mark blames his competitors, who cave in to consumer demand for beer that tastes like cupcakes and juice. He thinks beer should taste like beer. And if you want to become a brewer, first learn the basics, then go crazy. Others disagree.
He fingers “special release” and “experimental” brews, which stray so far from beer’s mores that Stutrud’s not even sure they should be called beer anymore. These new beers are more like candy—or a junkie’s hook, with everyone raising the stakes in sugar, alcohol, and weirdness just to keep their addicts hyped.
He knows that this take is not well-received, but he stands by his principles. Stutrud learned his craft at the knee of brewers who followed recipes and techniques passed down through millennia. Monks who’ve been dead 1,000 years would recognize the beer he makes. The big and beautiful copper tanks at his St. Paul facility were custom-made. His 80-some employees put a lot of thought into their work.
That’s why he’s ready to pick a fight. Stutrud’s told some young brewers they don’t know what they’re doing, and that the risks they take with new flavors and techniques aren’t cool or exciting. They’re stupid, and only subtract from the generations-long work he and many others have put in.
By the time a beer hits a Summit tap, or is hauled into your liquor store, Stutrud and his master tasters have sampled it many times over, confident of its perfection. He’s much less sure of a 25-year-old rookie combining “exotic” ingredients, producing a limited edition, and then waiting for customers to stand in a line as if they’re hoping to buy a high-priced purse or the newest Jordan sneaker.
Being able to be among the rare few who try it may seem exciting and cool, but Stutrud doesn’t get it.
“That kinda shit pissed me off,” Stutrud says, shaking his silvery locks. And here’s the weird thing: The brewers he’s dissing... don’t necessarily disagree with him.
Brewers who put out the kind of one-off “stunt” beers Stutrud abhors say they’re not sure why consumers are willing to wait in line for the chance to spend money on a beer they’ve never had before. But they’re meeting the consumer where they are, and exclusivity, the chance to geek out and brag about having a beer no one else can get, is a small but significant part of driving demand.
Dan Wellendorf of Modist Brewing says brewers are into invention, learning through experimentation. (The brand name is literally a take on the term “modification.”)
Messing with tradition is what they’re all about, and if you want one of the three mainstay beers they always have running, you’re welcome to try them. If you want one of their special releases, there might be competition.
“The releases are an important part of what we do,” Wellendorf says. “Any time you see people lined up outside the door... I mean, it’s pretty badass to be sought-after.”
Wellendorf doesn’t often line up for rare beer himself. Neither does Fair State’s Niko Tonks, though he says messing around with new styles has done them well: The “roselle” beer, a sweet, fruity offering, got its start as a limited-run experiment. Now it’s 25 percent of Fair State’s sales.
Shakopee Brew Hall’s Ben Sallyard and Utepils’ Eric Harper won’t stand in line either, but know some customers want to. It’s called the “fear of missing out” (“FOMO” for short), and it drives people to stand in line for the unique privilege of... buying a growler of beer. You’ll spend more time waiting in line than you will drinking the beer in question, but at least you’ll have a story to tell.
“There’s more to it than just saying you got the beer,” Harper says. “Think about Black Friday. You could buy that TV tomorrow too. Human beings are just like that.”
Sallyard considers Summit’s Mark Stutrud a “grandfather of the current craft brewing scene,” and respects his opinion. But he also knows some of his customers want to feel like they’re on the cutting edge. And he’s going to keep inventing new and heretofore-unseen beers, if that’s what people want.
“From a brewing perspective, it’s the stuff that moves quickly that puts you in the black.”
There’s nothing wrong with that. But Mark Stutrud points out that Todd Haug, who created all the Surly beers that set the local beer scene alight, learned his craft at Summit before breaking off and reinventing Twin Cities beer. Haug learned the rules before he broke them.
Stutrud says when hot-shit brewers from around the country come to his hall, they typically want Summit’s Keller Pils, a simple beer made masterfully, with an obsession to detail. It’s a traditional brew and goes down smoothly. You could drink it all night and not get into trouble, and with few regrets.
Says Stutrud, “That’s the point.”