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Still on top: Summit Brewing celebrates 30 years of deviancy

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In 2016, opening a brewery in the Midwest and leading with a pale ale is about the least rebellious thing you can do. In 1986, when Summit Brewing opened its doors, it was outright heresy.

Summit was the first microbrewery launched in Minnesota since Prohibition. The upstart brought its flagship Extra Pale Ale to a market that was flush with factory-brewed light beers and absolutely devoid of small craft operations. They were thrust immediately into an impossible situation — sell complex, atypical beer and do it while competing with Miller, Coors, and Bud.

Founder Mark Stutrud couldn't get an endorsement from the Brewers' Association of America to start his brewery. When he asked for an application, they responded with a letter discouraging the young North Dakotan. Stutrud's own father told him he was crazy. Thirty years later, Stutrud's St. Paul brewery is the second largest in the state, and EPA has become the most ubiquitous brew in the Twin Cities.

"Our first year, we were totally self-distributed, because there wasn't a beer distributor that would touch us with a 10-foot pole," Stutrud remembers. "We were deviants."

With 110-plus brewhouses and dozens more breaking ground every year, the Gopher State is now one of the hottest beer locales in America. But the industry is just as quick to forget as it is to grow. Summit is so far removed from its initial rebellion that people assume it has plateaued.

"Today, when you open up a craft brewery in the Twin Cities, the infrastructure is already in place," says head brewer Damian McConn, whose 13 years at Summit have given him a perspective the average EPA drinker seems to have lost. "You go into a bar, and there's probably 40 or 50 different tap handles with craft beer. Thirty years ago, that was a completely alien idea. 'Deviant' is one term, but 'complete fuckin' lunatic' is another I'd use."

Summit head brewer Damian McConn, quality manager Rebecca Newman, and founder Mark Stutrud

Summit head brewer Damian McConn, quality manager Rebecca Newman, and founder Mark Stutrud

In three decades, Summit's role in the Minneapolis/St. Paul brewing scene has changed dramatically. In today's bustling beer frontier, EPA hardly seems as heretical as an oaked barleywine or a 200-IBU imperial ale. But Stutrud and his team have long since learned what it takes to endure in the Wild West — consistent, dependable quality.

"I love it when people criticize us for being consistent and balanced," Stutrud says. "I'm glad that they notice. We were the ones that really had to put our shoulders to the plow. We work damn hard to make sure we have that consistency."

This consistency is more remarkable when put in the context of scale. In 30 years of operation, Summit has grown from a 4,000-barrel upstart into a 240,000-barrel leviathan complete with a training complex and one of the most sophisticated packaging lines in the industry. They continue to innovate and deviate, but now that energy is focused on sustaining the revolution.

Stutrud is a graduate of the Siebel Institute of Technology, where he earned a diploma in Brewing Technology in 1991. McConn, a former brewer at Guinness, holds an honors degree in Brewing and Distilling from renowned Scottish brew school Heriot-Watt University.

Book smarts might not be as sexy as iconoclasm, but Stutrud and his seven rigorously vetted brewers have used their expertise in the marketplace to perpetuate quality as the cardinal virtue of brewing. It has been the backbone of their 600 percent growth. It's what keeps each bottle of EPA as good as the last and the first.

"I was a home brewer, but I don't use that as any kind of a set of credentials," says Stutrud. "Look, it's a lot of fun. I don't want to be a downer if somebody wants to get into the groovy lifestyle of brewing, but there's also a huge, heavy responsibility to the consumer to deliver consistency, to be reliable, to be trustworthy."

"It starts with respect," McConn adds. "Respect for the consumer, respect for the industry, for the history and tradition. Not all people in the industry have that, but it's the key."

Stutrud sees Summit as a role model in an industry overrun with arrogance. Their commitment to quality testing is in direct opposition to brewers who rush from basement to Kickstarter to commercial brewery without making sure they're upscaling in a way that's tenable.

"Sometimes it's not all that comfortable being surrounded by amateurs," he says. "We've got people that have been in business for less than five years making substandard beers, but yet they have an attitude as if they invented beer."

Summit's biggest asset in the transformation from standard-breaker to standard-setter has been Quality Manager Rebecca Newman. Newman is an exacting, no-bullshit tactician. She has a pedigree that reads like a craft-beer Mount Rushmore — Samuel Adams, Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada.

"What keeps me up at night is bad beer," Newman says. "It's like buying bad milk. That sheds a bad light on me."

Newman got her degree in Food and Science Technology from the University of California-Davis the year before Summit opened. While Stutrud was building Summit from the ground up, she was helping maintain Anheuser-Busch's grip on the mainstream. She knows what it took to get Summit to where it is, and now she's using all 30-plus years of her experience to ensure that Stutrud's business continues to set an example for newcomers barging into their territory.

And then there is the territory yet to be conquered. Craft beer drinkers represent only 11 percent of the total market share, which, to Stutrud, represents an 89 percent opportunity for growth.

"There's going to be some more religious transformations in the future," he says. "There are a lot of people you're going to change, but you gotta do it out of respect for them."

He, McConn, and Newman predict that a market correction in the next decade will thin the field. Drinkers will become more knowledgeable and have a lower tolerance for poorly maintained beer. The scientists will outlast the raconteurs. And there will be EPA — consistent as it is today, though people will probably still take its deviance for granted.

"Somehow, I'm treated like I'm a part of the establishment just because we've been around for 30 years," Stutrud says with a laugh. "I have to admit, I'm really struggling with how old I'm getting, but I'll always be a nonconformist."

Summit's 30th anniversary kicked off in early March with the release of its Anniversary Double IPA and will culminate with the annual Backyard Bash this September

Summit Brewing Co.
Montreal Circle, St. Paul
651-265-7800, summitbrewing.com